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How to Grill the Perfect Brats
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Wisconsin Brats

Some years ago, a book tour took me from Chicago to Milwaukee. The moment we crossed the Wisconsin border, my tour escort brought us to a screeching halt at the Brat Stop. It wasn't a question of my being hungry (I had dined at Charlie Trotter's earlier that evening), and it certainly wasn't a question of sightseeing-the Brat Stop stands amid a hideous cluster of fast food outlets on one of the ugliest thoroughfares in the Midwest. No, the stop was prompted by pure civic pride in Wisconsin's most beloved dish. Then and there, that very minute, my escort explained, I had to taste a brat. Brat (pronounced braht) is short for bratwurst, of course, and no other sausage in the United States inspires such fervor. There are brat appreciation societies and brat festivals (the largest, Bratwurst Days, now in its fiftieth year, takes place the first weekend in August in America's self-declared brat capital, Sheboygan); and there are heated debates on the Internet (not to mention in football stadium parking lots) as to the proper way to prepare a brat. The sausage even shapes linguistics, for in local parlance, barbecue takes on a German name: brat-fry. German and Austrian immigrants brought bratwurst to Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Brats are enjoyed from one end of the Badger State to the other, but the real brat capital is Johnsonville, a rural village named for President Andrew Johnson that's little more than a country crossroads. It was here that a first-generation Austrian American butcher named Ralph F. Stayer, armed with a century-old family recipe, founded Johnsonville Sausage in 1945.

In backyards across North America, grillers are facing a dilemma of epic proportions: How to perfectly and consistently grill bratwurst - that bold and juicy sausage with unique flavor, loyal enthusiasts and rich grilling tradition. A few simple tricks and some masterful techniques will help grillers create brats that impress family and friends with each and every savory bite.

One thing to keep in mind: a burnt brat is an unfortunate sign of impatience. The key to grilling a highly flammable food like sausage is to use moderate heat and grill slowly. High heat is good for searing steak, when the outside needs to be more well done than the inside. Searing sausage may cause the brat to burst and the casing to split, releasing all its good juices. And you certainly don't want your brat to be charred on the outside but undercooked on the inside.

To achieve expert brat status I recommend a "low and slow" approach. That means grilling brats on a moderate flame until the internal temperature reaches 170 degrees, about 25 minutes, or the time it takes to relax with a cold beer. The easiest way to determine the appropriate grill temperature is to hold your hand about four inches above the grate and start counting one Mississippi, two Mississippi, and so on. Soon the intensity of the heat will force you to remove your hand. A moderate fire - perfect for brat grilling - is a five to six Mississippi fire. Grillers who prefer gas grilling should start the flame at a medium setting. Then, as brat juices start to flow, be ready to lower the heat as needed.

Brats can either be cooked directly over the fire, or indirectly, meaning the fire is on one side or opposite sides of the grill and the food is cooked over the unlit portion. Indirect grilling allows grillers to cook sausage with zero risk of burning the exterior.

And finally, another fail proof method: partially poach the sausages in beer or wine before grilling. This has the added advantage of adding flavor and melting out some of the excess fat. After par-poaching the brats, grill them until brown (about 4-6 minutes on each side) turning with only tongs. Piercing the casing with a fork is a big no-no! Poking a brat will release the juices and result in a dried-out brat. Brats can also be lightly brushed with oil before putting them on the grill.

Flare-ups are the curse of great grillers. When dripping fat causes flare-ups, you'll need to move the sausage to another section of the grill. For this reason, it's important not to crowd the grill when cooking sausages.

Rotisserie "Brat Fry"

A brat fry is a Wisconsin barbecue. More specifically, it's a feast of bratwurst served with onions and Sheboygan hard rolls, which are similar to kaiser rolls. It's customary for German Americans all across Wisconsin to grill the bratwursts and onions, but the rotisserie produces crisp-skinned, succulent sausages and sweet roasted vegetables-without the risk of flare-ups. Ok, so the bell peppers are more of an Italian than a Wisconsin touch, but they make a nice combo. The bratwursts are particularly good served with Wisconsin brewery Leinenkugel's wheat beer.

Method: Rotisserie/spit roasting

Serves: 4

  • 4 uncooked Johnsonville bratwursts, about 1 pound
  • 1 large red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and quartered
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, quartered
  • Coarse salt (kosher or sea) and freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 hard rolls or kaiser rolls, cut almost in half through one side
  • 1 cup sauerkraut, drained
  • German-style mustard or horseradish mustard

1. Lightly brush the bratwursts and bell pepper with olive oil, then brush the onion quarters more generously with olive oil. Season the bell pepper and onion with salt and pepper.

2. Arrange the bratwursts, bell pepper, and onion in the rotisserie basket (if possible, use a flat basket). Ideally, the bratwursts should be positioned so that they will be perpendicular to the rotisserie spit and the bell pepper and onion quarters should be placed in rows between the sausages. Close the basket lid tightly.

3. When ready to cook, place the drip pan in the bottom of the rotisserie. Attach the basket to the rotisserie spit, then attach the spit to the rotisserie and turn the motor on. If your rotisserie has a temperature control, set it to 400 degrees F. Cook the bratwursts, bell pepper, and onion until the bratwursts are dark brown and cooked through, 30 to 40 minutes.

4. To serve, thinly slice the bell pepper and onion. Cut each bratwurst in half lengthwise and place it in a roll. Top each sausage with a quarter of the spit-roasted bell pepper and onion and 1/4 cup of sauerkraut. Slather the remaining halves of the rolls with mustard, put them on top of the sandwiches, and serve at once.

Excerpted from Raichlen's Indoor Grilling by Steven Raichlen (Workman, 2004)

Here are some more of my favorite brat recipes:

Bratwurst Hot Tub
Smoked Bratwurst
Wisconsin Double Brats

Find out more about brats from the experts at Johnsonville Brats

© 2005 Steven Raichlen | site design Benjamin Wilchfort