Bologna might be the most uniform and suspicious cold cut in America. Unsurprisingly, its inexplicable texture and ignominious ingredients have made its name synonymous with nonsense. But the story of the sausage that you might associate with Oscar Mayer is actually traceable to a forcemeat that dates back to the late Roman Empire. What we’re familiar with today as “baloney” has an iteration almost everywhere in the world.
The Muddling of Mortadella
Culinary history attributes the origins of bologna to mortadella, a finely ground sausage from Italy which incorporates small cubes of pork fat, peppercorns, and pistachios. Dating back to Roman writings, mortadella was first known as farcimen mirtatum, or “myrtle sausage,” because of its characteristic flavoring with myrtle. Americans are less familiar with the delicious panoply of mortadella available because imported mortadella from Italy was banned in 1967 due to an outbreak of swine flu, and it wasn’t until 2000 that the product was available for purchase again. Even though immigrants from Germany and elsewhere brought the essential flavor profile of bologna to America in the 1800s, it had been adapted from its original form as the result of colder climactic requirements and specific cultural preferences.
Today, the flavors of mortadella can be found in frankfurters or hot dogs, olive loaf, and sandwich bologna. Familiar smooth, pink bologna cold cuts never contain whole spices, and regulation requires that bologna in America be finely ground without any visible pieces of fat. But these products are only a small sampling of the world of bologna and mortadella, which spans from pepper loaves in Spain to cha lua in Vietnam.
What’s Old Is New
In the effort to bring honor back to this delicious and versatile meat product, we’ll delve into the story of an unlikely distant relative of mortadella: Lebanon bologna. While its composition is closer to a salami than what most Americans equate with bologna, Lebanon bologna is a fermented derivative of mortadella.
Lebanon bologna originated in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, where it was developed and mastered by German immigrants known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. Where Lebanon bologna gets its bologna designation is in the spices used to flavor the sausage, namely pepper, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and bay leaves. Lebanon bologna is also finely ground, though not nearly as much as a typical American pork bologna. That’s where the similarities end, for Lebanon bologna is made with beef instead of pork, and is fermented and also smoked, making it one of the most unique bologna derivatives.
For clues to its preparation, I turned to Phoebe Young, a descendant of Pennsylvania Dutch immigrants and native of Madison, Wisconsin, where the Oscar Mayer company made some of the first commercially available Lebanon bologna in America. “So I had the real deal when we went back to visit Pennsylvania, and I had the knockoff when I was home,” Young jokes. She’s loved Lebanon bologna for as long as she can remember. She decided to develop her own Lebanon bologna product after taking a sausage-making class on a whim and then becoming a sausage-maker’s apprentice.
“I started with Grandma’s recipe and figured it out from there,” she says. And while she didn’t share the exact recipe of her “New Lebanon Baloney,” as she calls it, we talked through the fascinating minutiae of processing and smoking for almost an hour on an early summer day. Young calls her recipe “New Lebanon Baloney” because of the slight alterations she’s made to the traditional process. She’s religious about her use of only grass-fed beef, which she believes makes all the difference.
How the (Semidry) Sausage is Made
I found no recipe calling for a specific ratio of lean meat to fat for Lebanon bologna, surprising in that most forcemeat relies on a rather precise balance of fat dispersed into the lean meat and bound by the protein myosin. This balance and proper dispersion is what gives all bolognas their characteristic fine texture. But Lebanon bologna is designated as a “semidry sausage,” placing it partly in the class of salami. There are a host of meat to fat ratios that can be used to make various salamis and semidry sausages. In the case of Lebanon bologna, the product is traditionally 90 percent lean beef. In her recipe, Young adds salt, sugars, curing salt, and a commercial starter culture — a combination of ingredients that ensure safe and adequate fermentation. Traditional recipes for Lebanon bologna call for grinding the meat, mixing in these key fermentation-stage ingredients, and then allowing the mixture to sit in a 40-to-42-degree-Fahrenheit environment (a refrigerator works for this) for 10 days. During this time, the meat and fat particles form tighter bonds, and the first phase of fermentation starts, albeit slowly, due to the low temperatures. After the mixture rests and ferments, the spices are added and the mix is finely ground. Young stuffs the bologna into beef middles, giving her a product around 2-1/2 inches in diameter. With the bologna in the middles, it’s ready for smoking.
Photo by Meredith Leigh
The most famous maker of Lebanon bologna is Seltzer’s Lebanon Bologna, located in Palmyra, Pennsylvania. Seltzer’s is also the only company that still uses traditional wooden smokehouses to impart signature flavor to the bologna, while allowing hardwood smoke to aid in its preservation. Young’s “New Lebanon Baloney” isn’t smoked in a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch smokehouse, but she’s designed her own smoker where she can hang her sausages high up to mimic tradition. This is important because the distance between the fire and the product allows for the most delicate of the smoke’s volatile compounds to reach the meat, giving it its characteristic flavor and preventing bitterness. This is known as cold smoking, and usually doesn’t exceed temperatures of 75 to 80 degrees. Made this way, Lebanon bologna isn’t a cooked product, hence the need for a curing salt to prevent pathogens, and the encouragement of fermentation to lower the pH of the product.
Young started with hickory and cherry to smoke her “New Lebanon Baloney,” but now uses hickory and mesquite. She says her product has a smokier flavor than Seltzer’s, and is tangier due to a faster drop in pH. She lets it hang in the smoker for five days. Seltzer’s uses only hardwood in its smokehouses, but keeps the bologna in the smokers a mere 36 to 48 hours. After smoking, the sausages can be considered finished, though some people will hang them in a drying room to intensify the flavor and provide for more curing, and some expose the bologna to a heat treatment for product safety. To serve, Lebanon bologna is sliced thickly and eaten cold.
My experience with Lebanon bologna came when I was handed an Appalachian bologna recipe, which is also made with beef and smoke, but not fermented. After growing up with homogeneous American baloney, it was thrilling to learn that bologna could be so complex and full of character. This Appalachian bologna, an amalgamation of Italian and Pennsylvania Dutch traditions, created a space in my mind for the rich variation within bologna-type sausages. Through my experimentation with mortadella, I’ve realized that we’re not beholden to the pink, slippery deli cuts of unidentifiable origins that we have in abundance in the U.S.
As cured meats make a comeback in America as an expression of heritage and sublime culinary experimentation, I submit that Lebanon bologna has deliciously kept our relationship with mortadella mostly intact, despite the dubious distortions we’ve created over the course of several centuries. As for Young, she’s changing gears. While she isn’t in commercial production, she continues to make “New Lebanon Baloney” for family and friends, and is certain she won’t let it drop. “I’m not sure what shape it will take,” she says. “But I won’t let it fall away.” Indeed, that’s the only way good food has survived thus far.
Like Phoebe, I’ve created a composite of many different recipes for you to try, but I was careful to stay true to the “myrtle sausage” of yore. Our Lebanon Bologna Recipe will take about two weeks, but the deep, smoky, tangy result will be well worth it.
Over the past 17 years, Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, nonprofit executive director, and writer, all in pursuit of good food. Meredith works part time for Living Web Farms, where she travels extensively teaching charcuterie and food production and processing. For more information, visit her website.