Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes. Today’s dish takes us to the depths of a cold, Nordic land, where dark forests border isolated towns, where the polka music pulses in bustling public houses midst beer, cured meat, and cheese. I refer, of course, to Wisconsin.
Yes, today we’re going to the chilly Midwest, and bringing back a dish that while nominally German, is an American staple: the Bratwurst. And, as the title implies, we’re cooking it the American way: in beer! Let’s serve up some suds and slice up some sausage as we say güten tag to German meat.
Don’t Be A Brat, You Little Rugrat
Rhyming, Title Jon? Have we truly sunk so low? You're not even using the right pronunciation of "brat" to make the rhyme work! Casting that aside, what exactly are bratwurst? They’re sausages from Germany. Specifically, “wurst” is just the German word for “sausage” (though it can also refer to like, deli cold cuts and salamis, as a group thing. Like how if you asked for bread and I handed you a pita, you’d be irritated, but you’d ALSO be irritated if it wasn't in the bread section at a grocery store, kind of deal). This is why, if you’re actually in Germany, or even mildly authentic replicas, you can find TONS of wursts. (Technically, würste, as German doesn’t use the S for pluralization.) Off the top of my head there’s bockwurst, weisswurst, currywurst, bratwurst….Alright, I only had 4 varieties memorized. I know there’s at least one more…blood, I’m missing blood sausage. Um…I guess blütwurst? I’m pretty sure blüt is German for blood. I read an entire novel about Dracula leading the German war machine in World War 1, you'd think I'd remember this.
The Anno Dracula series, at least the first couple entries, are pretty good, by the way.
“Brat” is a little harder to pin down: in modern German, the verb braten means “to fry or grill”, which is the standard preparation for bratwurst, so most people assume that’s the reason. However, bratwurst was actually coined as a term in Old or Middle High German, both real languages, because this sort of thing gets really fun, really fast. What exactly distinguishes Old High German from Middle High German, or Middle Low German, or modern German, I don’t have time to discuss. But, as a quick example for English speakers, this is what MIDDLE English looks like: Lauerd me steres, noght wante sal me: which is one of the most widely known lines of the Christian faith, as it’s the opening of Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd (steres), I shall not want.” So trust me when I say things can get confusing. If you think Shakespeare is hard to understand, go look at some un-translated Chaucer.
Anyway, the original meaning of brat is therefore of some debate, because spelling wasn’t a super-set thing, back in the day, and, you know, if you change a word’s spelling, you’ve often changed the WORD, that whole shebang. The general consensus is that it means something like “scrap meat” or “diced/minced meat” or “meat without waste”. However, it could also mean like, “a spit” as in “the tool used to rotate meat over a fire.” So there’s some academic suggestion that maybe the thing has always been muddled: maybe this was always “mincemeat sausages, cooked over flame”.
If THAT sounds confusing, let me make things even…wurse, haha. See, there are FORTY accepted and understood variations of bratwurst in Germany. Basically every city had its own recipe, back in the day, and so now they’re all official. In Coburg, for instance, Bratwurst must be made mostly with pork, but a minimum of around 1/6th beef. It’s seasoned with salt, pepper, NUTMEG, and LEMON ZEST, neither of which are spices I know of in bratwurst By comparison, a city a day’s walk away (if you want to be authentically Old High German) uses mostly VEAL, with only a little pork, and while it includes all the Coburg spices, it adds marjoram, caraway, and garlic. For modern context: You drive an HOUR, and suddenly this "universal" food changes radically.
These are all valid forms of Bratwurst. And, again, they're less than 10% of all the varieties.
So if there are over 40 varieties of Bratwurst available to choose from, which recipe am I using? None of them, duh. Those are all GERMAN recipes. And these are AMERICAN Brats. American BEER Brats. And to explain that, we gotta get Sheboy-go-an. Ugh. That pun was terrible. I’m sorry.
Hey, Sometimes We Knock Them Out of the Park, and Sometimes We Wis
You're only making it worse, Title Jon. Side fact, since we were just muddling through 1000 year old languages and terrible puns: Puns were actually quite well-regarded in human conversation and writing until the 1600’s. When Rationalist philosophers and thinkers became prominent, one of the things they incorporated was a distaste for the pun as an art-form, because puns rely on the inherent sloppiness of language and pronunciation for their humor, and rationalist linguists wanted to remove that sloppiness as much as possible. This flew in the face of CENTURIES of tradition of puns being a sign of wit, insight, and intellect. There’s a reason when Jesus picks PETER to lead his followers, he says “on this rock shall I build my church.”
If you're not up on your Greek name meanings, imagine Jesus was talking about this guy.
All of which, while interesting, is not about brats, or Sheboygan. Sheboygan, if you’re unaware is a city and county in Wisconsin. Wisconsin, in case you’re unaware, is rather impressively Germanic. Germans, on the off chance you were unaware...I'm in a loop now, aren't I?
Specifically, 42% of the population of Wisconsin have Germanic ancestors. The reasons are…complicated. Basically, Germans kept moving to Wisconsin because German farms kept being screwed over. First because of political reasons or bad growing seasons, THEN because the European wheat markets crashed…due to the availability of American wheat. Then because growing automation meant fewer jobs, and also, the ongoing revolutions. Intermixed into the many farmers were actually many skilled craftsmen and aristocrats, those fleeing Germany for political reasons or a desire for stability. As you probably don’t remember, Germany wasn’t actually a COUNTRY (in the modern idea of a nation-state) until 1871; it was a bunch of neighboring states that banded together under a generally shared culture. The German Confederation, which was founded in 1815, had THIRTY NINE state, and IMMEDIATELY pissed off one of its largest constituents while being founded.
I THINK it's that they put Austria in charge, pissing off Prussia, but it could have been the other way.
This lead to a lot of political strife, revolutions, etc, over time more groups joined, some left, The Confederation was taken over by the guys who were pissed off when it was founded, renaming the group the German Empire, it was all a mess. If you remember my discussion of the Mad King Ludwig from the Oktoberfest post, his whole mess was right at the end of this period.
So a LOT of Germans were quietly slipping over to America during all of this, and for some reason ending up in Wisconsin. (Presumably at least partly because the big players in Germany had banned slavery like, 20-50 years before the Civil War, so we weren’t going to send them to the South, and the east coast was already “full”.) In Wisconsin, however, the brat would become changed. It would intermingle with American excess and produce a dish the likes of which would make Otto von Bismarck weep with joy: The Beer Brat.
The beer brat, in case you’re unaware, is a very simple dish: you take brats, and briefly grill them, just long enough to get some smokiness and markings on the sausage. Then, you move them to a heated bath of beer, mixed with butter and onions, and simmer the sausages until cooked through, infusing them with some of the beer flavoring.
The exact methodology is contested, as all things are in such matters: should the brat be grilled first, or simmered first? What kind of beer is best for the “braising” bath? To claim to have the definitive answer is folly. Luckily, I’m a man not afraid to be called a fool.
A Brat for All Seasons
The issue is that we’re dealing with is what can be called the “natural vs cultural definition” debate. It comes up in a lot of things. A good example of this is the word “rock” when referring to “a chunk of solid mineral material”. If I pick up a rock, and call it a rock, everyone gets it. But, at a certain size, a rock is no longer a rock. If it’s too big, calling it a “rock” is inaccurate, because the word “boulder” exists. If it’s too small, then it might be a stone, or gravel, or even dust. It’s the same THING: a singular piece of solid mineral material, but there are distinctions in scale.
Didn't think there was going to be so much about such a variety of rocks in this post, but here we are.
By the same logic, there’s technically no “correct” way to make a brat, because the ‘correct’ way to make food is, by definition: “the way to make food that provides the greatest taste, texture, or experience of the food so made.” And all of those qualities are subjective. When people say they know the ‘correct way to make a brat’, what they are actually saying is “this is the way that has created the best experience for myself (and potentially others around me)” So the method I use may not be the way others do, and that doesn’t matter. And you want to know how we know it doesn’t matter? Because Germany’s national guidelines for brats are subservient to regional ones. There are 40 different kinds of bratwurst in Germany, so America can afford to make some new ones as well. And what is the spirit of 4th of July, if not America claiming other nation’s things for themselves, to do new and weird things on? HAHA, I knew I could make this post topical to the Holiday!
WOOO, TEMPORAL RELEVANCY!!
And while we could discuss whether re-defining the bratwurst, a German dish, in Washington, constitutes a form of cultural appropriation, we’re not going to. Firstly because I’m the author of this piece, and I say we’re not, secondly because that topic is sufficiently complex and fraught that I sure as hell am not going to start it when we’re ALREADY over a thousand words in, and because I literally just pointed out that we’re not copying a tradition without understanding, we’re altering an altered tradition. So we’re cool.
So let’s finally talk about this fucking food, yeah?
Burn the Brat and Bathe It
If you’re irritated that we’ve spent so long talking about German history and cultural definitions in a post about German sausages, first off, welcome to the blog! This is what I do. Secondly, You gotta understand, this process is REALLY easy. There’s basically only 3 steps, and two of them are “Put meat in heating thing.” Unless I physically MADE my bratwurst, there was no way I was going to fill 1,600 to 2,000 words discussing the process. And I definitely did NOT make my brats.
I barely made this PICTURE of them. Jesus, was I in the middle of an Earthquake or something?
So, step 1 is the creation of the brat bath, referring to the liquid mixture that will serve as the finishing point for the brats. I choose to bathe my brats after grilling them because I feel it creates a juicier final product: If you bathe THEN grill, you’re going to lose some liquid. Secondly, I’m not BOILING the beer mixture. That would leach more flavors from the brats, and reduce the beer over time. We’re going with a gentle simmer.
Now, the traditional mixture for the brat bath is pilsner beer, butter, and onions. But the kind of beer you use is completely up to you. The only general rule is “don’t use an IPA”. This is because, obviously, the beer is going to flavor the brats, and IPAs tend to mostly share their bitterness with the meat. If you want sweeter brats, you could do a hard cider, as pork and apple meld well. You can use a stout if you want more potent flavors. I personally whipped out my obscure, culinary drinks and poured a draft that isn’t very well known: Rauchbier.
I know this looks like a witch's brew, because why else would I buy it?
Rauchbier, as the name implies (Literally “smoke-beer”) is a German variety of beer that has a smoked flavor, because the malts used were dried over an open flame. It’s not a hugely common style of beer, especially not in America, but it can be a secret weapon for some recipes that call for beer mixtures. Cheese dips or soups that use beers can get a cool smoky flavor, for instance. Now, as I hadn’t used it before, I did play things somewhat safe, mixing it with both a regional stout, and a little Vitamin R, to balance the flavors.
"Vitamin R" being the nickname of my favorite cheap beer to drink.
I also added a couple tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce, to add a little more flavor complexity. One of the big ‘problems’ with cooking brats in beer is the transfer of flavors: salt and liquid both flow from high concentrations to low, seeking equilibrium. Meaning if your beer mixture isn’t highly seasoned/flavorful, it’s going to pull seasoning from the brats, while adding only liquid.
The brats themselves are just grilled for around 3 minutes on either side, just enough to get some grill marks on the outer casing.
I know this picture is chronologically before the Vitamin R one, but time shenanigans is a pretty common thing for me.
Then, they’re moved into the beer-bath, and left to simmer for about 30 minutes. This method will keep the brats from overcooking, as long as the bath isn’t too hot, and, in a pinch, can have the heat reduced even further and used solely to keep the brats warm if desired.
In any case, our brats came out looking and smelling pretty good.
I made mine using a specific condiment that I’ve grown to like on brats and other rich meats, Curry Ketchup. A popular topping in Germany on Currywurst, Curry Ketchup is literally just ketchup with curry powder mixed into it. It makes the ketchup a little more complex, a little spicier, which works well with rich sausages in general. I also used some form of mustard, because I could. Sure, it serves basically the same purpose as the curry ketchup, but at a certain point personal inertia takes over: I don’t feel a hot dog (or any similar “sausage on a bun” dish) is really complete unless I put at least 2 condiments on it.
I also added Sauerkraut, in order to claim there was a vegetable involved.
And you know what? They were great. Not like, mind-blowingly awesome, but pretty good. I think my brother and I both had two of them that day, and I know I had two more for lunch like, a week later. If you’re wondering “how is this a catastrophe, then?” I assure you, SOMEONE I know is gonna give me shit about it later. Despite me openly pointing out that I don’t think my method is perfect, and that variations are entirely up to the creator’s choice, someone is going to say “You made your brats wrong”. Because you can’t win with these kind of things. Only a fool would try. So let me find my hat with the little bells on the ends, and I’ll bathe in my folly for a while.
It turns out Jon hasn’t owned a hat like that for several years, so his head is far too fat to fit in them anymore. If you’d like to support the “Get Jon a Jester’s Cap” fund, head over to Patreon, where with you support, Jon can be childishly capped in no time at all. If you wish for him simply to be laughed at and abused, without personally investing in the hat, then you should share his posts, and invite people to ironically “like” his Facebook page, that they can more readily see his foolish ways every week. Thanks, everyone, and happy 4th of July!
THURSDAY: JON ROOTS THROUGH THE CELLARS OF GERMAN HOMES TO FIND JE…UST WHAT MAKES THEIR KITCHENS TICK. WE’RE BACK IN THE “LAP” OF LUXURY, LOOKING IN ABROAD’S PANTRIES.
MONDAY: JON TAKES AN AMERICAN CLASSIC, AND MAKES IT ASIATIC… IS “ASIATIC” A SLUR? IT FEELS SLUR-LIKE. I JUST WANTED TO RHYME WITH “CLASSIC”. ANYWAY, HE DID TWO THINGS THAT COULD BE DESCRIBED THAT WAY, SO HE’LL PICK ONE OF THEM. IT’S EITHER RAMEN BURRITOS, OR GOCHUJANG RIBS.
Serves however many brats you buy.
1 Package bratwurst
4 tbsp butter
1 white onion, thinly sliced
2 tbsp Worcestershire sauce
20-30 oz of Your beer of choice. (As noted, we used about half of a 22 of Rauchbier, half a 22 of stout, and some Rainer)
1. IN a large pan, melt the butter over medium-low heat. Add the onions, and soften for 5-7 minutes. Add the Beer and Worcestershire, and raise the heat to medium. (Note: if you wish to keep this entirely contained to the grill, you can use a large aluminum roasting pan on one side of the grill, turned to low or off.)
2. While beer mixture heats, heat one side of a grill to high heat, and ‘par-grill’ the brats, for roughly 3 minutes per side (will vary based on brat size, aim for a total cooking time of ½ package recommendation), to get grill marks.
3. Move brats into the beer-bath, and let simmer for 20-30 minutes. Serve hot.