Great Venison Sausage Contest: Taste testers finds lots of flavorWhen Ken Cinker finishes a batch of his home-smoked pepper sticks, he heads for the local bar to give away samples. “Everyone seems to like them,” said the retired Superior man. So did the judges at the News Tribune’s annual Great Venison Sausage Contest.
By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune
When Ken Cinker finishes a batch of his home-smoked pepper sticks, he heads for the local bar to give away samples.
“Everyone seems to like them,” said the retired Superior man.
So did the judges at the News Tribune’s annual Great Venison Sausage Contest. They ranked Cinker’s pepper sticks in first place among all entries in the contest’s amateur division.
Like most winners in the contest’s various categories, Cinker’s pepper sticks were the result of ongoing experimentation.
“I probably went through six or more batches before I settled on this one,” he said. “I had one batch I made that was a little too hot. It’s just trial and error until I get them to the hotness I want.”
One guy at the bar offered Cinker $10 for a batch of his pepper sticks, but Cinker had to turn him down.
“I’m retired,” he said. “I don’t want to work at it.”
Other winners in the contest included Bill Ralidak of Meadowlands with his jalapeno summer sausage with cheddar, and Neil Vatne of Duluth with his maple-smoked venison jerky.
In the professional division, perennial contender (and past winner) Superior Meats swept two categories with its summer sausage with cheese snack sticks and its roasted garlic and cheddar summer sausage. Those entries were submitted by Superior Meats customer Billy Pike of Gary. The sticks and sausage aren’t available for retail sale; Superior Meats produces them for customers who bring in venison.
The winners were chosen from among 36 total entries by judges Ron Gittings of Cloquet, a two-time previous winner; Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Andy Schmidt, who works the Brookston area; and bow hunter Katrina Wood of Duluth.
The judges were discriminating as they spent an hour tasting the various offerings. They all liked Vatne’s maple-smoked jerky.
“I liked the maple for the sweetness, and the smokiness,” Gittings said. “And it’s not too thin.”
Vatne has made jerky in the past using a dehydrator, but this time he used a wood-pellet grill, with pellets of maple.
“I’ve been working and working on it, tweaking it for 30 years,” he said.
He uses molasses and honey to sweeten the jerky, he said. He brines it overnight, then smokes it on the grill for three to four hours.
“My daughter goes crazy for the jerky,” he said. “I made 12 pounds of it. I’ve been giving it to friends, and I have a waiting list.”
“I really liked the flavor, especially around the holidays,” said judge Katrina Wood. “It must have smelled really good … when they made it.”
Ralidak’s summer sausage
Ralidak, of Meadowlands, has special techniques he uses to make his jalapeno summer sausage with cheddar.
“I grind everything twice through a medium plate,” he said. “I use fresh jalapenos and grind them with the meat so it kind of blends in.”
He mixes his venison 50-50 with pork. His summer sausage spices came from a commercial supplier that is now out of business, so he’ll have to research a new one, he said. The cheddar he uses is high-temperature cheddar so it doesn’t get too runny in the meat.
Judges found Ralidak’s sausage just right.
“It has a good balance between the jalapeno and the cheese,” Gittings said.
“It’s not over-spicy,” Schmidt added.
Superior Meats — again
Superior Meats makes 200 to 300 pounds of summer sausage a week for its clients, and another 200 to 300 pounds of snack sticks, said Kevin Horrocks of the shop. The roasted garlic and cheddar summer sausage was a new flavor this year.
“We used the summer seasoning with the cheddar cheese, and we added the roasted garlic,” Horrocks said. “It was kind of a ‘let’s try it,’ and it was a huge hit.”
The venison-to-pork ratio is important, Horrocks said. The shop uses a 50-50 mix of pork to venison.
“The more pork you have, the better it will taste,” he said. “Less gamy.”
The judges liked it.
“That one had everything — the flavor and the texture,” Schmidt said.
“The garlic and the smoked flavor seemed very balanced,” Wood said. “The flavors worked together.”
Superior Meats also won in the snack-stick category with its summer sausage with cheese sticks.
Judge Gittings appreciated the snack sticks for “the taste, the texture, the moisture.”
Many other entries finished close behind the winners in each category, as judges found the consistency among the entries was high. Some entries were just a bit too smoky for the judges, they said.
“They perceive that deer meat is gamy, and they err on the side of more smoke,” Wood said.
“It doesn’t take that much smoke,” Gittings added.