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Flash in the Pan

The soul food of Wisconsin



“Ahh, the smell of summer,” sighed the Bratmeister, as he sniffed his bratwursts slowly simmering in beer.

Where he’s from, bratwurst is considered soul food. Wisconsinites presume the right to hold forth on brats the way Kansas Citians or Texans claim the right to lecture on barbequed ribs and Californians corner the market on goat cheese salad. Bratwurst and beer are two things you don’t want to argue about with a Wisconsinite, especially as they relate to each other.

As the bratwursts absorbed the beer in which it lightly simmered, I was tailing the Bratmeister, hoping to absorb his knowledge in the ways of beer brats.

Don’t shy away, vegetarians, because what follows applies to you at least as much as to the meat-eaters. The advice that follows will actually make tofu sausages worth eating.

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.

But if this were simply a matter of pre-cooking, you could simmer the brats in water and save your beer for more practical uses. But the beer adds flavor.

To simmer is 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 and not that appealing, yet.

“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.

Some people speak of “parboiling the brats,” but I wouldn’t recommend uttering those words in Wisconsin. Such business can cause the brats to split, which is the ultimate no-no in bratology. A bratwurst is ready to serve when it’s cooked to the bursting point, swollen with juices but with the casing still intact. Boiling a brat can cause premature bursting. Likewise, never poke a brat with a fork to test for doneness. A gentle squeeze with the fingertips to check the swelling is all it takes.

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.” He adds sliced onions to the beer, to be fished out later and served atop the finished product.

The brats we ate that day were rich and juicy and altogether magnificent. And the vegetarians, feasting on separately prepared tofu sausages, raved. “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, could not comprehend the use of lesser beer in such an elegant preparation. When cooking with wine, for example, the rule of thumb is to never cook with a wine you wouldn’t want to drink. The same should hold true with beer. I don’t drink “high-end Budweiser,” so why would I cook with it?

So I brought an empty growler to my local brewpub and handed it to Bill Allen, 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 pilsener.

After lightly simmering my brats in separate pans of Old Milwaukee and microbrew pilsener—with the holy trinity in both pans—I put my dueling bratwursts on the grill.

Unencumbered by buns or condiments, the difference was clear. The Old Milwaukee had a distinct and thoroughly appealing flavor that I could understand getting attached to. The microbrew pilsener was richer, more complex and a completely viable option as well.

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 don’t tell any Wisconsinites what you’re doing and it won’t be a problem.

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