The soul food of Wisconsin


by Chef Boy Ari

The man was watching bratwurst slowly simmer in a pot of beer. “Ahh,” he sighed, sniffing nostalgically, “the smell of summer.”

He identified himself as the “Bratmeister,” and his self-proclaimed expertise is why I was there. The way a bratwurst absorbs the beer in which it simmers, I was hoping to absorb the Bratmeister’s knowledge in the ways of beer brats.

This can be risky territory, especially around members of that Midwestern tribe whose holy land is Sheboygan, Wisc., home of the Bratwurst Hall of Fame. Bratwurst and beer are two things you don’t want to argue about with a Wisconsinite, especially as they relate to each other.

Unlike hot dogs and many other cylindrical presentations of ground meat, bratwurst is a fresh sausage, which means it must be thoroughly cooked before serving. The time they spend in beer means less time for the brats on the grill.

“Simmer” means to cook slowly in liquid just below the boiling point, and even “simmer” is a strong word for the amount of heat the Bratmeister used. Little bubbles formed on the bottom of the pot, occasionally letting go and rising. Meanwhile, the volume of beer in the pan dropped noticeably as it was absorbed by the swelling sausage, which languished, gray and bloated.

“Since it’s already cooked when you take the brats from the beer,” explained the Bratmeister, “you could just serve it as-is and skip the grill altogether. But that would be gross.”

The grill’s job is to add flavor and browning to the already cooked bratwurst. On the grill, the brats lose their gray pall and come back to life with a juicy vengeance.

A bratwurst is ready to serve when it’s cooked to the bursting point, swollen with juices but with the casing still intact. Never poke a brat, they say, to test for doneness. A gentle squeeze with the fingertips is all it takes. After grilling to the bursting point, most beer-brat chefs will place the brat in a fresh pot of hot beer and onions, often with butter, and hold it there until serving time.

Serving the brat on a hot dog bun can get you exiled from Wisconsin. A “hard roll,” crusty on the outside, soft and moist on the inside, is required. For dressing, don’t even think about yellow mustard. Only Dijon-style, please. As for the type of beer … well, these people are set in their curious ways.

 

“I like to use a high-end Budweiser,” said the Bratmeister. “You know, like an Old Milwaukee or a Miller Genuine Draft.”

The brats he cooked were magnificent. The vegetarians, feasting on separately prepared tofu sausages, raved as well. “They don’t even taste like cardboard,” said one reviewer, her face flushed in the afterglow of her first real faux sausage.

My inner gourmet, however, rebelled against the use of lesser beer in such an elegant preparation. Despite his claims to the contrary, I wondered if this self-proclaimed master of brats still had miles to travel along the path.

I brought an empty growler to my local brewpub and handed it to the bartender. When I told him what it was for, he handed my growler back, still empty.

“You need Old Milwaukee,” he said.

“Now Bill,” I said, “I just figured that … ”

“Simmer them in Old Milwaukee and the holy trinity of bratwurst: black pepper, garlic and onions. That’s what will turn your regular garden variety bratwurst into a brat that any chunky Midwesterner would approve of. Trust me, I’m one of them.”

Only when I promised Bill that I’d run a side-by-side comparison with Old Milwaukee did he agree to fill my growler with the closest thing to a local equivalent, a light pilsner. After lightly simmering my brats in separate pans of Old Milwaukee and microbrew pilsner – with the holy trinity in both pots – I put my dueling bratwursts on the grill. After grilling, I placed the brats in separate pots with their respective hot buttered beers, and served.

The Old Milwaukee brats had an appealing flavor that I could understand getting attached to. I might need to join the Bratwurst Witness Protection Program for saying this, but the microbrew pilsner brats were richer, more complex and a completely viable option as well.

I did not stop there. For many days, I simmered different brands of bratwurst in different brands of beer, always with the holy trinity. After this research, I feel confident in saying that different kinds of bratwurst will behave differently in different types of beer, and it’s definitely worth experimenting. Simmering in a dark, sweet porter, for example, might seem like sacrilege to members of the Midwestern tribe. But those of us not bound by tradition are free to play around with the options. Just be careful who you tell. •

 

 

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