Ode to the Russian Sausage – a Technical Evaluation

Eben van Tonder

Easter Weekend, 2021


The history of the South African sausage called a Russian has been dealt with in great detail by myself in Origins of the South African Sausage, Called a Russian. This is a more technical evaluation.

I interpose after every technical consideration with photos from the last 18 months of work and some comments on the progression of our story. It serves as a repository of my private recollections of the project.

Between April 2018 and August 2019, I worked for the Johannesburg meat processor, Van Wyngaardt. I adjusted their pure meat block of Russians by adding soy. So started a quest to produce a high quality, low-cost Russian which consumed me for the past 18 months. I started thinking about Russians from scratch.” (VWG subsequently returned to a pure meat Russian)

The photo on the left is of my daughter Lauren and me at our Solheim home in Johannesburg. She joined me to provide impetus to VWG’s in-store work which she did with passion and excellence. The photos below are of Minette and Brussouw during the lockdown, the Johannesburg skyline seen on the last day I spend at VWG and a trolley of VWG Russians.

Fine Meat Mixes vs Course Mixes

The Russian sausage, similar to polony, developed as a way to work away unused scraps of leftover meat in the butchery. By “leftover meats” we do not mean inferior meat. It is inevitable that bits of meat are left after the meat was trimmed neatly and these scraps are of the highest quality. It was the practice in butcheries across the country in the 1800s and early 1900s to mince any leftover offal and discarded sausage meat very finely to be cooked in casings from animal intestines and to sell it as polony (The Origins of Polony). The reason for reducing various meat scraps to the same physical state was to create something that looks uniform. Larger and small bits of high-quality meat from all the species were combined into Russians.

The difference between polony and Russians was that polony would contain only finely ground meat but Russians would contain the same finely ground meat as a base but larger bits of meat would be added called “showpieces.” Russians would be viewed as of a higher quality than polony.

Over the years technology improved to chop the meat into smaller particles. Meat grinders have been generally available for many years and different plate sizes were made available to adjust the coarseness. The smallest plate size would be used for the fine meat base. Later bowl cutters were introduced being a rotating bowl with a set of knives chopping the meat into even smaller particles. This meant that some butchers had very smooth and finely chopped meat as the base for the Russians and those who could not afford the new equipment continued doing it all by hand or through a meat grinder. Some of these butchers could afford the new high-speed equipment but preferred to continue doing the mincing of the meat by hand as some still prefer to this day. Doing it by hand or only with a meat grinder yields understandably a less smooth meat base than if it’s done with more sophisticated equipment.

Two distinct styles of Russians developed. One with a very smooth texture for the meat base into which the large showpieces are embedded and another with an altogether courser meat base. Which one to prefer became completely a matter of taste and any perception that the Russian with a smoother base is inferior to a more course base is unfounded.

My personal quest to understand Russians better intensified during the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. My good friend, Dr Francois Mellett helped me to understand the basics. An equally good friend from Canada, Robert Goodrick, arguably the best butcher on planet earth, schooled me in old-school butchers techniques and how to make Russians without bowl cutters. In between the help from Francois and Robert, the team from Deli Spices was a great inspiration opening my eyes to the power of proper mixing!”

Photo on the right is an iconic photo when Francois and I sneaked some seawater away for desperate fish. More I can not say. 😉 Bottom left is Robert Goodrick, the middle photo is me, Arno Pienaar and Tshepo Setshogoe, a legendary Russian maker! As I recall, the trials with Deli was done a week before lockdown in April. We tested the overall water-holding of fist-size trip pork trim pieces and a simple Russian recipe without a fine meat paste, using only the meat grinder. If we go out and over many beers, I will tell you the story of Francois and me when that photo was taken! 🙂

Firmness, Texture and Tradition

A Russian is not a pure fine meat past sausage and is, therefore, firmer than for example polony or a Vienna (which are pure fine meat past products). Here in Cape Town, a Russian which is made from fine meat past only is called a smoky or a penny polony (if it’s coloured pink). The finer a meat paste is made, the softer it is.

It has become convention to make Russians from mechanically deboned chicken meat in South Africa and many other parts of the continent. MDM is not inferior meat as many people think. It is simply chicken meat that has been removed and processed through mechanical means. (Poultry MDM: Notes on Composition and Functionality) Most large processors use micro-cutters in processing Russians and put the MDM through the process of micro-cutting also. A consequence of the production of MDM is unfortunately damage to the meat structure which results in a “softer” meat bind. Generally, how well the meat binds together after chopping depends very much on the character and quality of the starting material and if the structure of the meat is slightly damaged, micro-cutting does not help. If one puts MDM through a micro-cutter it leaves the resultant meat paste even softer. Due to this, various techniques are used to firm MDM up when producing Russians. The two most important ones are adding serials or legumes and adding meat trim or only fat. For a technical evaluation of this, I refer you to, Review of comminuted and cooked meat product properties from a sol, gel and polymer viewpoint.

There is a misconception among many that adding serials and legumes to Russians is not traditional. In my article, Origins of the South African Sausage, Called a Russian, I point out that it is the most traditional thing that can be added to the sausage and the origins of the practice come from Russia where emulsifiers and meat extenders evolved from meat stew technology which goes back millennia. In my article, Protein Functionality, the Bind Index and the Early History of Meat Extenders in America, I trace the introduction of this Russian technology into the Western world in some detail.

The legume of choice in the meat industry is soy and it is widely used as an ingredient of Russians to increase the firmness of the product. It is also convention to add either pork or beef trim with a good bit of fat to the mix which firms the product up substantially. Russians today are basically produced in the same way that it has been done for hundreds of years and it required a firmer texture than is not achieved from finely chopped meat pasts only.

During the lockdown, I got to know the work of Petr Pakhomov from St Petersburg who is not just a Master Butcher, but an artist and one of the best exponents of the art of fine meat pasts. He opened my eyes to what is possible with Russians. I continued to study every aspect of possible ingredients in meat pasts. A concept started forming from the need to use all the natural resources at our disposal in the creation of these products. I summarised this in Nose-to-Tail and Root-to-Tip: Re-Thinking Emulsions. This made me look long and hard at all the various bits available from the carcass.

The photo on the left is of Petr Pakhomov and below is a selection of his creations. Petr famously says that he “paints with meat.”

Best Quality at Lowest Price – Invitation to Creativity

From the earliest times in South Africa, Russians were intended to be quality nutrition at the lowest possible price. Its fame was secured when it became a favourite on the Johannesburg goldfields. Inspired by concepts I saw used by Urban Foods in Nepal (Kathmandu’s Urban Food) I set out with the support of Etlin International, to develop these and create various finely comminuted meat pasts and pasts from other protein sources to be used in conjunction with MDM, meat trim, soy and starch in Russian formulations. In reality, we are building on a long tradition of making quality food affordable. I anchored most of my work in taking the concept of finely comminuting meat particles to the next level through the application of revolutionary microparticle technology, pioneered by a Cape Town company.

If a finer and smoother meat past is created with smaller meat particles, microparticles will be the next frontier. It is simply the continuation along an age-old trajectory. At first, reducing meat to small bits was done by hand. Ancient humans started to stuff small meat scraps into intestines at the kill site along with blood in order to transport it back to the tribe. For our primitive forefathers, the cost of a kill would be too great for one morsel of meat to be wasted. Cutting the meat into smaller pieces continued at the village. The earliest humans realised that reducing the meat to small meat fractions made it easier to chew. This was also in all likelihood the reason why early people started frying, roasting and cooking their meat. Ease of consumption was a huge issue to overcome!

So, at first, we finely chopped meat by hand. When the meat grinder was invented humans used a fine mincer plate to create smaller meat particles. Smaller meat particles meant a softer bite and a more versatile batter. This was followed by the invention of the bowl chopper which could reduce the meat size even further and finally micro cutters (emulsifiers) were invented to achieve an even finer particle size. A South African company pioneered technology able to create sub 50 microparticle which results in an even smoother and softer bite than was ever before possible.

A hallmark of the production of a Russian has always been creativity and making the best of raw material available at any given time and place! Turning scraps of meat into a work of art and a culinary masterpiece!

Over the 18 months, numerous friends in meat processing with factories welcomed me to run trails. Thank you to every one of you! Many I can’t mention for a variety of reasons but you know who you are! Below are photos from some of the many trails we did, each getting us a bit closer to our goal. I finally started getting traction with a few regular testing sites and when our Food Science Team started taking shape with the appointment of Dr Jess, we achieved very positive momentum. It took many frustrating months before we started working out the best way to use this technology. We ended up learning to use new technology, creating old school mixes with new technology while we were re-discovering the basics of Russian making. Our final set of trails for this round we did at PB Juicy in Maitland. Sincere thanks to Graham, Lesley, Stanford and Shelton to mention just a few along with the amazing staff who helped me on Saturday; who packed our samples and helped us prepare and participated in the tasting.


The Easter Contest and Evaluation

Over 18 months we not only re-looked every aspect of making Russians but we also developed new ways of processing several sets of ingredients. The team was ready to put their new processes and ingredients to the test. Jess, Jan and Eben, the three parties working closest with the formulations of the new ingredients all came up with their own Russian recipes and the day before Easter 2021 we decided to put the ingredients we were working on and our own Russian formulations to the test. It was a fun way to showcase the power of our new sets of ingredients.

We each created our own Russian mix but we all included the new sets of raw materials which we developed. We used a mincer and a Kar Schnell Micro Cutter for the final cutting.

I smoked it for 40 minutes and then cooked it to an core temperature of 68 deg C.

The following day I returned for three sets of evaluation.

  • Pan-Fried
  • Braaied on an open fire
  • Deep-Fried in oil.

– Deep Fry Evaluation

For the Deep Fry Evaluation, we visited Marina’s Deli in Monte Vista where we were delighted to meet the Deli Owner who personally did the tasting for us. He immediately picked up that there was soy in the product and even though his clients will not buy a Russian if it is not pure meat, he personally gave us a thumbs up for both Jess and my formulations!

– Braai and Pan-Fried Evaluation

For the braai and pan-fried evaluation, we visited PB Juicy (Pty) Ltd. in Maitland, Cape Town where their amazing staff not only fried our Russians up but also assisted us in the evaluation.

– Loads of Fun and Valuable Insights

It was a huge success. Even though Jan’s recipe did not firm up as well as Eben and Jess’s recipes, we again learned bucket loads from the evaluation of all 3 Russians. Jan showed how well his formulation would work with luncheon meats and polony! Despite small differences, both the Jess and Eben formulation worked very well and I extend a hearty congratulations to Jess, my partner-in-crime for an excellent creation and to Jan for boldly going where we have not gone before! In the end, we proved the use of our new set of ingredients to reduce the production cost of Russians while maintaining a high-quality product!

Ode to the Russian Sausage

We finally come to the purpose of this post namely to celebrate the Russian! Having spent so much time with this sausage over so many months, it is only fitting to write a poem for it! 🙂 I believe all worthy endeavours in life should bring us to this point!

The Russian! What a universal delight!
Melting the refined with boldness; the smooth with firmness
Scraps of meat from its place of birth.;
Hunger-buster in deep-Johannesburg earth!

Chopping and grinding and micro-cutting!
Meat chunks and eastern legumes combining! 
Morsels of power from the butcher’s block
Satisfying nutrition in this hard land, it unlocks!

Filling in clean casings and to the oven, it goes!
Drying and smoking and drying and smoking! To cooking! 
Not sweating! Look, it’s firming out!
In the artisan’s hand is predetermined luck!

Invented by Russians of Jewish descent!
In its new African home, it is profitable appeasement! 
Salt and vinegar from the enemies table,
Russian and chips! Feuds and animosity it disable!

Well, maybe I should continue to focus on making the product and not trying to write poetry! 🙂 🙂 🙂

I am not the only one who gets lyrical when it comes to Russians. Kobus Botes, a South African friend, living in Australia sent me this recollection after reading this post.

“I remember in the mid-to-late ’60s in Vryburg, when I was walking past the local Greek café, I bought a russian and chips to treat myself occasionally. The russian was given slits to prevent it from bursting and was deep fried with the chips and it was also given salt and vinegar together with the chips. The texture and flavour is something that is still burned into my memory. The bite started off with the oily, vinagary and salty taste, then suddenly the skin burst under the pressure of the bite. Next is a flavour and texture sensation of garlic, meat, salt, fat with a vinegar undertone. The texture was firm, with large pieces of pork fat and other large pieces of meat with a darker colour. I suspect both beef (larger pieces) and pork (finer texture) was used. Over the years I have stopped buying processed sausages at all because they all became to have a similar texture and taste. Everything is becoming like polony with modern chemicals and emulsifiers being added. Nowadays, I mostly buy imported processed meat from Italy or I make it myself. All I need is to find the authentic recipe of the russians from my childhood.”

Another South African friend from Australia, Justin (Dave) Dwyer, writes, “this certainly brings back memories of being an apprentice in the late eighties early nineties at Zululand Baconry if I had a half-cent for every Russian made I would be a very rich man. Texture is key emulsion with showpieces was the trend, then upgrading to MDM from pork skin emulsion Wow never thought I would even use those words again living in Australia, thanks for the interesting article and memories!”

A fully functional Food Science Team was created comprising of Dr Jess Goble, Marco, Helena and me to give greater impetus to these developments. Helena, Jess and myself are featured in the photo to the left at a hotel in Johannesburg where we did a product evaluation.

The team is, in reality, much wider! It also included meat professionals around the country who continue to give us advice and direction to our efforts. The feat of finally producing a sausage with a combination of old school technology and new innovations was achieved through the collective participation of every person who worked with us from around the country and includes the staff of Van Wyngaardt, Etlin’s processing facility in Durban, PB Jucy, Roy Oliver and input we received from as far afield as Nigeria. A small number of these people are in the photos below. I even include my cousin, Marius Kok who introduced me to Hungarians from Zambia.

The Next Frontier

What we achieved over the last 18 months is only the beginning. There is still tonnes to learn! I feel like a child who has only been playing and the real discoveries and creations all lay in the future!

Some of the points on our agenda for the immediate future are:

  • Raw materials must be refined;
  • The taste profile must be further developed;
  • The latest innovations in ingredient technology such as modified starches, fibres, soy technology, preservation technology, etc. must be investigated and the best new sets of ingredients must be incorporated into our products and processes.
  • The experience we gained must be packaged and made available to the meat processing industry at large.
  • The role and importance of frozen meat ingredients and temperature control during processing must be elucidated and incorporated.

We are only beginning but on this Easter weekend, it is right to pause a bit and celebrate how far we have come with this project. Sincere thanks to Etienne Lotter who allows us to do this work, to my teammates both near and far, to customers who are always willing to try new ideas – a heartfelt “Thank You!”

2 thoughts on “Ode to the Russian Sausage – a Technical Evaluation

  1. Thank you so much for all your input into the history of the Russian sausage, did you actual put a recipe down that we can try? Kind regards

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