Nobody stops grilling at the first cool breeze of autumn. There's something in that crisp fall air that makes the aroma of grilled food even more enticing than usual. Especially when it's the fragrance of grilled bratwurst.
The Mighty, Mighty Bratwurst
Bratwurst is a singular sausage, and, if cooked correctly, it's bursting with flavor. Always a favorite in the Midwest, the fully-slathered-with-toppings version has achieved star status with Chicago street corner vendors. Wisconsin, however, has the distinction of having as its namesake the famous Wisconsin Beer Brat.
Serious grill masters demand fresh, raw bratwurst, not those precooked, pale pretenders encased in plastic that you see in your supermarket. The selfsame supermarket might, however, have a butcher in the meat department who offers the real stuff.
If you are very fortunate, you may even have a sausage-making operation in your area. Check to see, and if you can get bratwursts fresh and locally sourced, by all means do so.
Boiling Brats Before Grilling
Most cooks agree that to ensure your brats are cooked all the way through, it's best to boil them before they hit the grill. You can do this right before grilling or the day before (and carry them in a cooler with you to your picnic site or tailgating party). Simply bring a pot of water to a boil on your stovetop and slide in a half-dozen brats at a time. Bring the water to a slow boil; then turn down the heat and cook gently, keeping your eyes on them all the while.
You don't want the brats to burst out of their skins in boiling water, so go easy. Getting the simmer just right is slightly tricky, so you might want to practice a bit before inviting your friends over to share the feast. Some cooks would have you puncture the skin first in order to keep the brats intact – which is fine and up to you. However, keep in mind that punctured brats will lose a lot of their juiciness in the water.
In any case, the bratwurst should reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit before you remove them from their hot bath. The whole process should take about 10–12 minutes, but use a meat thermometer to make sure.
So Where Does the Beer Come In?
Beer and brats were made for each other. To make a batch of Wisconsin Beer Brats, swap out half the water in your boiling pot for beer. Any beer will do, though dark and malty brews are best, and some prefer the deep richness of stout.
The true enthusiast leaves out the water altogether and just boils the brats in beer, period. Teetotalers who want a little zip can use ginger ale instead. And the true fanatic adds a stick of butter to the pot and lets the whole thing mellow down easy at a slow simmer for an hour or so.
If you're planning one of those informal parties where the guests come and go, chat, move around and eat in no particular order, you can cook the brats in a crockpot and keep them warm until it's grilling time. For this method, place the brats, beer and/or water in the slow cooker for four hours on high or 7–8 hours on low. Then turn it to the lowest setting to simmer away as your party goes on.
Brats need a very short time on the grill – just enough to become beautifully browned with distinct charred grill marks. Use tongs and don't turn them over more often than necessary. Some like their brats on the very verge of burned, so get everyone's preferences straight. Pop them into a hoagie roll or, even better, a baguette that has been cut to fit.
Have plenty of toppings on hand, including sauerkraut, fried or grilled onions, relish, pickles, hot peppers, and a few different savory and sweet mustards. Ketchup may be offered, but it's not recommended by purists. One thing is for certain: You must feel (and hear) a beautiful crackling snap when you take that first bite of your brat.
Judith Tingley is a writer, editor and multi-media artist based in Louisville, Kentucky. The many articles she has written for online publications reflect a broad range of interests, including international travel, cultural history and cookery. She loves finding adventures along the back roads of America. Judith was educated at the University of Chicago. Visit her website at heyjudetheobscure.com.