"I know how to make sausage, and now that I've seen how laws are made, I'll stick with sausage." Chef Tom Colicchio
Bratwurst (braht vurst), better known as brats, are great tailgate food. They are the official food of University of Wisconsin and Green Bay Packer fans. UW is based in Madison, which calls itself the "Brat Capital of the World" and is home of the giant annual "Brat Fest" over Memorial Day weekend. They serve more than 200,000 brats each year. Only slightly more modest, Sheboygan, an hour south of Green Bay, calls itself the "Bratwurst Capital of America". Nearby, in Middleton, is the Mustard Museum (a must visit, pun intended).
The Wisconsin brat tub combines three local faves: Brats, mustard, and beer (remember, Milwaukee was once the beer capital of the nation, just ask Laverne & Shirley). In the classic, traditional brat tub the meat is simmered in beer, then grilled. Or is it visa versa? Fights have broken out over the proper sequence.
The pinkish sausages often contain coarsely ground pork and/or veal, pepper, savory, bay leaves, nutmeg, celery salt, chives or parsley, all stuffed into natural casings made from pork intestines. For this recipe, buy plain brats, not those cheese-filled aberrations. Unlike hot dogs, brats are not precooked at the factory so they must be heated to at least 155°F in the center to be safe.
Does the beer penetrate?
I remember that, in my high school years, condoms were made from animal casings, so I asked the AmazingRibs.com science advisor Prof. Greg Blonder to run some tests to see if the beer actually gets into the brat, if you need to puncture the casing for it to get in, or if simmering in beer is yet another myth.
So he got some beer and mixed in some copper sulfate, a green dye that is heat stable and moves through meat in a manner similar to salt. The dyed beer went into a non-reactive pot, brought to a simmer, and in went the brats. He punctured some with a fork, and even cut the ends of a few to see if the beer entered more quickly without the condom in the way. When he removed them and sliced them open, the dye had clearly penetrated, about 1 to 2 mm, but surprisingly, the depth of penetration did not increase much whether they were simmered for 15 minutes, 30 minutes, or 45 minutes.
Also, the beer did not penetrate bare meat on the cut end or through punctures any more than through the intact casing. Said the scientist: "In later tests not involving toxic copper sulfate, I tasted slivers of brat at the surface and deep in the interior. These tests confirmed the flavor was concentrated in a thin surface band. The band of flavor is around the thickness of the pork grind. In other words, flavor molecules are not diffusing through atomically small pores, but initially flooding in around the edges. Then, as you can see by the more diffuse edge on the 45 minute brat, very slowing oozing towards the center."
So now we know "Simmering in beer actually does add flavor to a thin band of meat under the casing; puncturing with a fork does not accelerate beer penetration (but does cause the brats to shrink a bit); and a 15 minute simmer is nearly as effective as 45 minutes."
Alas, the process goes both ways. If you simmer brats in beer, a little flavor gets in, but flavor also gets out because beer is a solvent, and because juices are squeezed out as the meat heats and shrinks.
This recipe is designed for cooking on a grill, but you can do them indoors on a griddle, in a frying pan, or under the broiler. Dave Hoffman, a.k.a. Fritz Boygan, tells me that in Sheboygan, in the days before smoke detectors, the German settlers liked to cook brats on the indoor stovetop in a frypan. So when they cooked in the backyard, it became a "fry out" or an "outdoor fry".
The beauty of this recipe is that you can make the sauce at home, chill everything, and then finish it at the game. Wear your "Kiss the Chef" apron. Every time I make this dish I splatter myself with glop. Better still, buy one of my apron designs.
Touchdown Brat Tub Recipe
Makes. 6 sandwiches
Takes. 1 hour
6 nice buns (try for something better than pasty hot dog buns)
2 (12 ounce) bottles of regular cheap American lager beer, like Old Milwaukee, nothing fancy
1 (12 ounce) bottle high quality German lager
2 medium onions, sliced in half rings
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup Kansas City style barbecue sauce
1/4 cup Dijon-style mustard
1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
About the buns. In Wisconsin they sell "sausage rolls" or "sausage buns" which are thicker, firmer, and have a more substantial crust than a hot dog bun. They make a diff.
About the ketchup. You can substitute Kansas City style barbecue sauce for the ketchup.
About the hot sauce. I usually use Tabasco Chipotle flavored sauce. Add more if you wish.
Optional. Add 1/4 teaspoon of liquid smoke.
1) Set up the grill for 2-zone cooking. Open the high quality beer and drink it while you are cooking. This is the way it is done in Wisconsin. You cannot cook unless you are drinking.
2) Use a pan (you can use a disposable aluminum pan) for the brat tub. Dump in the cheap American lager and bring it to a simmer on the grill or side burner. Most brats come curved. Bend and flex them so they are close to straight. They are easier to turn on the grill and they fit the buns better when they are straight, allowing more room for the sauce. Add the brats to the beer and simmer for about 15 minutes to absorb flavor. Roll the brats around if they are not covered in beer and simmer 15 minutes per side.
3) Remove the brats and grill them over high heat just enough to get some brown onto the skin. Just a minute or three on each side. I like to lay them between the grates so they are easier to turn. Yes, I know the grill marks are going the wrong way, but this way I don't incinerate one side.
4) While the brats are grilling, dump in the butter, hot sauce, ketchup, mustard, onions, in the pan with the beer. Stir. Put the hot tub on the hot side of the grill or if you have a fancy side burner you can use that. If you wish, you can even make the sauce indoors. Cook it down to a gloppy sauce. This will take 20 to 30 minutes. If the brats finish before the sauce, and they will, just hold them aside. They should read at least 160°F in the center on a good digital thermometer.
5) Lower the heat on a gas grill or place the brat tub with sauce on the indirect side of a charcoal grill. Slip the brats into the tub and coat with sauce.
6) Open the buns and place them cut side down on the indirect side of the grill to warm and toast slightly. Go ahead, butter them first if you like. I like. When the buns are on, do not walk away. They can go from toasted to black in a minute. If a corner does burn, you can scrape it off easily.
7) Serve the brats on the buns with the onions and the sauce. Not too much sauce, you want to taste the brats. Serve World's Easiest Potato Salad or German Potato Salad on the side. Serve warm sauerkraut with caraway seeds on the side too. Or heap them on top of the brat. And don't forget the beer. Put extra brats back in the sauce on a warm, but not the hot part of the grill.
Three words: Beer Cheese dip!
George Gates of Memphis wrote me to suggest that a fourth Wisconsin food group can be incorporated in this recipe: "Yes, it's almost two in the morning, we've been drinking, and, as in all great discoveries, necessity is a mother! Take the leftovers from the Wisconsin Brat Tub, heat them up, and mix in about two cups (not exact measurments) of grated sharp cheddar cheese. Instant beer cheese dip! Ritz and Saltines worked well, as did some rosemary soda crackers."