One thing I’ve learned, living here in Wisconsin, is that this state is obsessed with Bratwursts. It’s a passion that seems on the verge of mania. If you think I exaggerate I invite any of you to drive through any number of towns on any given weekend and you will see plenty of evidence. On any weekend from May through October you would be hard pressed to find a town that doesn’t have at least one “Brat Fry” going on, and oftentimes larger towns will have 2, 3, 4 or more going on simultaneously. These are usually fundraisers for community or high school groups from the Lions, to Rotary, to Band Boosters. The obsession doesn’t stop there either. Ask most people what is on the menu for their summer celebration and I bet brats are included somewhere on that list. On nice weekends throughout the summer it almost becomes impossible to escape the sweet smell of brats sizzling over an outdoor grill. I can almost envision the entire state being blanketed by a giant cloud of smoke from all the grills frying up the thousands upon thousands of brats required to satiate this state’s collective hunger for these humble sausages.
Brat making in Wisconsin is a local affair. Sure there are a number of companies mass producing brats for nationwide distribution and you’ll find these same brands in any of the large grocery stores in any town in Wisconsin, but Wisconsin is still one area where local butchers still flourish and most of these butchers produce their own brats. These handcrafted sausages are flavorful and complex, easily rivaling any of the great fresh sausages of Europe. Brats make a great addition to a traditional Choucroute and bring a wonderful flavor to any recipe calling for sausage, but grilling is where the brat really shines. There are 3 basic philosophies to grilling brats: 1. is to gently grill the brats over medium heat. Cook them too quickly or at too high a heat and they burst open spilling their flavorful juices and fat all over the grill, 2. is to first poach the brats in a mixture of beer and onions until cooked all the way through and finishing them on the grill, and finally, 3. is to first grill the brats halfway then finish them in the beer and onion poaching liquid. I am not a fan of this method as it tends to soften the casing so you don't get a really good snap when biting into a brat. I prefer the straight grilling method though if I am not serving them directly off of the grill I do nestle them in a batch of beer braised onions to keep them warm.
Most local grocery stores, here, sell “brat buns” which are basically a larger version of a hot dog bun. That’s one of things I hated about living in Chicago and trying to make Italian Sausage Sandwiches; you either had the choice of hot dog buns which were too small or sub rolls, which were too large and, oftentimes, too hard. These brat buns perfectly fit the larger sausage. As far as toppings are concerned, brats should be topped with mustard, onions and sauerkraut, in my opinion. Forget the ketchup, it has no place on top of a brat. Use it for your burger and fries. One word about sauerkraut; sauerkraut should always be rinsed before using whether you are serving it cold or hot. Most people miss this step and end up serving a product that is so overpowering it obscures most of the other flavors in the dish.
The Beer Braised Onion recipe I offer below is a great accompaniment to a brat. This recipe was created with brats in mind. It would also make a great topping for burgers or other grilled sandwiches though if not planning on serving it over brats you might want to consider substituting other flavors for the cinnamon and nutmeg.
Beer Braised Onions
2 Tbsp. Butter
1 large Onion, peeled and cut into a julienne
8 oz. Beer, preferably something a little sweet and malty
2 tsp. Sugar
½ tsp. Salt
½ tsp. Black Pepper
1 pinch Cinnamon
½ pinch Nutmeg
Melt the butter in s sauté pan and add the onions. Season with the salt and pepper and cook until wilted and just starting to brown. Add the beer and simmer uncovered until the liquid is reduced by half. Add the sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg and continue to cook until almost all the liquid has evaporated, stirring regularly to prevent the mixture from burning. Remove from the heat, taste and adjust seasoning to your liking.