Labor Day and football mean peak brat-fry season
Bratwurst tastes great anytime. But in the US, peak brat-fry season starts on Labor Day.
That’s partly because brats make such a great entrée for holiday cookouts. But Labor Day also marks the beginning of football season in the US. Which means tailgating season, where bratwurst is often the star attraction.
What about that “fry” thing in the subtitle, though? Well, no worries. There’s actually no frying involved here, just grilling. (And maybe some pre-simmering).
The term “brat fry” originated in Wisconsin, BTW—where bratwurst is one of the major food groups.
Recipe: Grilled Bratwurst
Bratwurst is a sausage that’s usually made fom veal, pork, or beef. It originated in Germany—where Brät means finely chopped meat and Wurst means sausage. Wikipedia says that in modern German, the “brat” part tends to be associated with braten, a verb that means “to pan fry or roast” (and of course you can pan fry brats, though in the US they’re more often grilled).
The best-quality brats will be raw when you purchase them (you’ll see precooked ones, but don’t bother). When you grill raw brats, they take a good 15 or 20 minutes to cook. And grilling from the raw state can be a bit tricky—you don’t want the casing (skin) to burst, so you have to be careful with the heat.
In places like Wisconsin—where eating bratwurst is practically a way of life—cooks generally simmer brats in a fragrant mixture of beer and onion before grilling them. So by the time the brats hit the flames, they’re basically done. At that point, you just need to grill them for several minutes to brown them (and char them lightly, if that’s your inclination—as it is mine). If you’re grilling bratwurst for a crowd, you may want to cook your brats ahead of time. In that case, you’ll hold them on a low simmer in a “batter” (that’s what they call it in Wisconsin) of beer, onion, and often butter. (See Notes for recipes.)
Brats tend to be larger than hot dogs, so many people say you should serve them on brat rolls—which are like hot-dog buns, only bigger. In Sheboygan (home of high-church bratwurst consumption), people often serve brats on “hard rolls.” Despite the name, these rolls actually are soft—and large enough to hold two brats side by side (they have a convenient split down the center of the crown that makes it easier to cut the bun in half if you want to serve brats one at a time rather than in pairs).
If you can find actual bratwurst rolls, they’re worth buying. Otherwise, your market may offer deli rolls that look like oversized hot-dog buns (I used some in the pictures for this post). Don’t sweat it if you can find only standard hot-dog buns. I lived in Wisconsin for a few years, and most of the brats I was served there were on hot-dog buns. Authenticity can be good, but I never let it interfere with eating.
My recipe calls for simmering brats in beer, then grilling. (You can skip the simmering if you want, and just grill, though you’ll miss out on a bit of flavor). This recipe makes enough to serve 6 (or 3 hungry Sheboyganites), but buy as many brats as you want — it’s easy enough to adjust the quantity of simmering liquid.
It takes about 20 minutes to simmer the brats, another 5 minutes or so to grill them. So figure on maybe 30 minutes altogether. See the Notes for instructions on how to cook ahead and hold.
- 6 bratwurst (fresh only, please; not precooked)
- 2 12-ounce bottles or cans of lager or other light-bodied beer
- 1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped (yellow or white onion)
- 6 buns (hot-dog buns, or brat buns if you’re lucky enough to score some)
- condiment(s) of your choice (brown mustard is traditional, though I prefer yellow; see Notes)
- Start the fire on your grill. If using charcoal, ignite enough briquettes to cover the full area underneath the brats you’ll be grilling; allow the briquettes to burn down to white coals. If using a gas grill, just light it and turn the heat to medium.
- Place brats, beer, and chopped onion in a cooking pot large enough to hold all of them. If the brats aren’t quite covered, add a bit of water (brats tend to float, so don’t just assume there’s not enough liquid—check first).
- Bring the bratwurst to a simmer—but don’t let the liquid boil. Vigorous boiling can cause the sausage skin to burst.
- Simmer the brats until just cooked through—20 minutes. Remove them from the cooking liquid and discard the liquid.
- Plop the brats on the grill, and cook until they reach the stage of brownness you prefer. Turn fairly frequently so all sides cook equally.
- Serve on hot-dog (or brat) buns, along with condiment(s) of your choosing.
- Who knows how the term “brat fry” originated? It has nothing to do with deep frying (or pan frying). Instead, it indicates that you’re cooking brats for a crowd (in my book, a group of 2 qualifies) using the type of procedure outlined in this recipe. Think of it as a weenie roast—where you’re not actually roasting hot dogs (or brats), just grilling them.
- The Johnsonville company sells good-quality uncooked bratwurst (they also produce a cooked version, but avoid that). BTW, your grocery store may keep raw brats in the freezer case, especially in parts of the country where bratwurst is less popular.
- Your supermarket’s meat department might make its own brats—mine does, and they’re good. If you’re lucky enough to have that option, try your store’s in-house brats first.
- Brats shrink somewhat as you simmer them (they have a high fat content). Getting rid of some fat is of course a positive for most of us.
- You can use any kind of beer to simmer brats, though lager is traditional.
- Some people like to add diced green bell pepper to their simmering liquid. Or diced tomatoes. Or both.
- If you want to cook brats somewhat ahead of time, you’ll need to hold them after they’ve been grilled. For this, you’ll need simmering “batter.” Don’t use the liquid you simmered the brats in before grilling; instead, make a fresh batch, this time with butter. For post-grilling batter, I generally use 2 or 3 bottles of beer, a chopped onion, and about a stick of butter (maybe a bit less). Hold the brats at the barest simmer until you’re ready to serve.
- If you’re cooking more or fewer brats than this recipe specifies, it’s easy enough to scale up (or down) the amount of beer and other ingredients needed for simmering and holding.
- Some cooks reverse the order of the steps in this recipe. They grill brats first for 5 minutes or so—just enough to brown them—and then finish cooking them in a beer-and-onion mixture. The concept is similar to my recipe for Barbecued Pork Steaks. This “reverse” method may be easier if you need to hold brats for a while before serving. I haven’t experimented with it, but you might want to.
- Brown mustard is the traditional condiment for brats. In Wisconsin, some people frown on the yellow ballpark stuff—though that’s what I happen to like on brats (and hot dogs). I’ve also seen Wisconsinites put butter on their brats, though that doesn’t sound appealing to me (admittedly, I haven’t tried it, so I might be missing out). Other popular toppings include ketchup, chopped onion, relish, sauerkraut—whatever you like. Whether traditional or not, whatever sounds good to you probably will be.
“Wonderful,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs as she bit into her mustard-slathered brat. “And this goes great with the French Potato Salad you made.”
“Ditto,” I said, taking a big bite of bratwurst. “Though Mustard Potato Salad or traditional Mayonnaise Potato Salad would also go well.”
“I suppose German Potato Salad with Bacon might be the best choice of all,” said Mrs K R. “But Horseradish Potato Salad would be swell too.”
“I probably should have made some coleslaw,” I said, gobbling more brat. "Garlic Coleslaw would be excellent with these. Although it’s hard to turn down Creamy or Jalapeño Coleslaw.”
“There are lots of side dishes listed on our blog index,” said Mrs K R. “No need to run through everything that would be brat-fry appropriate!”
“I was going to stop at Baked Beans with Bacon,” I said, fixing myself a second brat. “But you’re right. We have more important things to discuss—like football season! For most teams it starts on September 8th this year. I can’t wait.”
“I can,” said Mrs K R. “I guess you’re going to plant yourself in front of the TV again every Sunday afternoon.”
“Well, sure,” I said. “It’s the American way. Just be glad I’m not a fan of college football—otherwise it would be every Saturday afternoon, too.”
“OK, I can live with Sunday gridiron, just as long as you don’t make me watch any games,” said Mrs K R. “And provided you cook up bratwurst for a couple of tailgate-style picnics.”
You may also enjoy reading about:
Potato Salad Basics
American (Mayonnaise) Potato Salad
Mustard Potato Salad
French Potato Salad
German Potato Salad with Bacon
Horseradish Potato Salad
Jalapeño Coleslaw with Pimentón
Creamy Cole Slaw
Or check out the index for more recipes