Friday, May 1, 2009


Unless you’re from the Flatlands or beyond, you know I’m talking about brats as in bratwurst and not some troublesome children. Without a doubt, brats are Wisconsin’s unofficial state sandwich. I admit I’m somewhat perplexed that our State Legislature has not bequeathed it this special status since we do have an official state grain (corn), official state beverage (milk) and even an official state soil (Antigo silt loam). Regardless, for me the official brat season has begun. That is, as soon as it’s warm enough to grill outside. I realize that brands me as a transplanted Sconnie since true Wisconsinites grill out all year long, come sub-zero temps or blizzards.

I have many friends who used to live here and when I go to visit they always want me to bring brats (no easy task). True, you can buy bratwurst in other places but is always somehow a little wrong. I remember buying Farmer John brand brats in L.A. that were made out of chicken, looked like white wienies and were tasteless. I’ve eaten “authentic” bratwurst in Germany—
Boiled!—and found it as appealing as blood sausage.

When my family moved to Madison not surprisingly someone one lunchtime asked my dad out for a brat. His reply was that he never drank before 5. However, it didn’t take long for any of us to embrace this unique bit of Wisconsin culinary heritage.

You’ll find three basic varieties of bratwurst in Wisconsin and each has its fans and detractors. The traditional German-style sausage is very white and contains veal. More common is the Sheboygan-style brat that is more reddish in color and contains a combination of beef and pork. Finally, there is smoked bratwurst, full-cooked, that tastes and looks a lot like Polish sausage.

A trend in food marketing today, whether ice cream, potato chips or bratwurst, seems to be lots of flavors— the more exotic the better. Hence brats with cheese, garlic, jalapeño peppers and Italian and Cajun spices all seemingly have found fans.

Whatever type of bratwurst you like, in Wisconsin at some point it has to be grilled. For many, pre-steaming (never boiling)—in beer or a mixture of beer, onions, peppercorns, sometime sauerkraut and maybe even butter—is a must. Often after grilling, the brats are returned to this savory marinade. Others prefer that their brats go directly from package to grill, especially if they are the smoked variety.

The proper topping of a brat is a source of contention. Those in Sheboygan, the self-proclaimed brat capital of the world, obviously think they know more about this specialty than anyone else and demand “da works:” ketchup, mustard, pickle relish and chopped onion but no sauerkraut. Elsewhere, ketchup on a brat is considered an abomination, sauerkraut desirable and horseradish a must.

Everyone agrees that you never serve a brat on a hot dog roll, but rather a brat bun—a larger, chewier roll you’ll be hard pressed to find south of Beloit. At one time the roll had to be buttered but not so much nowadays.
Brats are preferably eaten out-of-doors, whether at a backyard cookout or sporting event tailgate. They are washed down with beer (a/k/a bratwash) or soda but never white wine. In days past German or American-style potato salad was a popular side dish but today has been supplanted by potato chips or French fries (at a restaurant).

Madison is home to the World’s Largest Brat Fest held each year on Memorial Day weekend. It began in 1983 in the parking lot of Sentry Hilldale and originally was held twice a year (on Labor Day weekend as well). It grew bigger every year. In 2005 this fundraiser for local charities moved to Willow Island at the Alliant Energy Center. Last year, 191,712 brats were consumed, setting a new world record.

Sheboygan holds its annual Brat Days July 30 through August 1. A highlight since 1953 is the brat eating contest on the final day. Last year’s champion, Mike Fitzgerald of Menasha, downed 22½ sausages.

Here’s my best of the wurst, Best of Madison brats.

Best Restaurant Brat. The Old Fashioned features a double bratwurst from Sheboygan's award-winning Miesfeld Market, grilled over a wood fire and served on a buttered roll from Sheboygan’s Highway bakery with raw onions, pickles and brown mustard. This is the brat of your dreams.

Best Brat Icon. State Street Brats has been around longer than I have and was an inevitable stop as a grade schooler after a bowling outing or movie matinee. Back then it was called the Brathaus and ironically was housed in a minimalist, 1950s, cinder block building that was later given a makeover worthy of Disney. The place is an assembly line to be sure, but in 73 years they’ve learned to do a few things right. Most importantly, the brats are grilled over an open flame.

Best Bar Brat. The brat at the Stadium Sports Bar probably come closest to the one you make at home. It’s a big, plump sausage from Klemant’s—1/3rd of a pound—nicely charred on the outside and juicy on the inside.

Best Bratwurst to Grill at Home. Many local butcher shops make their own bratwurst on premises and nearly all are superior to what you’ll buy prepackaged. I’ll give the nod, though, to Ken’s Meats and Deli in Monona that makes a first class Sheboygan-style brat.

Best Supermarket Brats. Based in the brat epicenter of Sheboygan, Johnsonville is the largest manufacturer of brats in the world. They make over a dozen different varieties that are sold fresh and frozen at most area supermarkets. In spite of all that, they make a consistently good product.

Wisconsin Potato Salad

5 pounds boiled new potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch dice
Dill pickle vinegar (juice from the jar)
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
¾ cup mayonnaise
¾ cup sour cream
½ cup yellow mustard
1 cup finely chopped dill pickles
¼ cup chopped green onion tops
¼ cup sliced radishes
3 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

In a large mixing bowl, toss diced warm potatoes with a tablespoon or so dill pickle vinegar. Gently fold in the chopped egg. Add salt and pepper to taste.

In another mixing bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, sour cream and mustard. Add to the potato mixture along with the dill pickles, chopped green onions, radishes and fresh dill. Gently fold together to combine.

Cover with plastic wrap and chill thoroughly (can be made a day ahead of time). Serve chilled.

Serves 8.


Mike said...

Dan, loved your bratwurst column in the July issue of Madison Magazine! You gotta add Bavaria Sausage Kitchen to your list. This iconic institution makes homemade brats from Sheboygan Style to Cajun to other wurst delicacies! The Voll/Cotrell family has supplied area (as well as world-wide) aficionados and restaurants these tasty, beauties for decades. They hardly shrink too...what you see in the meat case is what you get in the bun (gotta love a brat that extends a bit from the end of the bun)! They also have authentic German Kraut (with caraway) to smother them in...all you need is some Secret Stadium Sauce (originally from Milwaukee County Stadium, now Miller Park and at area Woodman's and Copps...a Bob Costas, NBC Sports Anchor FAVE!)...just saute the sauce with some onions and dip the brat in the rue before it hits the bun! I like your idea about the state "meat/sausage"...where do we sign the petition???!!!

Anonymous said...

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