After beer, cheese, Door County, and the Packers, one of the things I hear most when I say I’m from Wisconsin is “brats.” And rightly so: the brat is Wisconsin’s favorite meat. Millions of brats will be grilled across the state this year prepared by fussy, stubborn, grillers, all believing they have unlocked the “true” brat recipe: the right technique and the right meat with the right toppings.
This is maddening, because I think all other grillers are wrong. We’re doing many of the same things: grilling, applying mustard, inserting sausage in bun. But despite what I believe a brat should be, it won’t change the variations that persist in kitchens and on porches across Wisconsin. I’m not wrong, but neither is anyone else. You can’t classify the Wisconsin brat like you would a Chicago-style hot dog or Buffalo-style wing, foods with a specific order of assemblage. For Wisconsinites, there’s no one true way to cook a brat.
Despite the lack of statewide consensus, some rules exist: In Wisconsin, the correct nomenclature is brat or brats, not bratwurst. It is a word treated with familiarity, like admin or copier. Sit-down German restaurants serve bratwurst with spaetzle and sauerkraut (and if you don’t want bratwurst, choose rouladen or schweinshaxe). Uncle Dave from Appleton cooks brats.
Generally—and that’s the most specific you can get—a brat is uncooked mix of ground meat, fat, and mild spices in a casing. Traditional brat spices include ginger, coriander, and nutmeg, salt, and occasionally rosemary or onion powder. The brat taste itself is less a clear definition and more a process of elimination. Brat spices won’t smack you in the face, and if you’re experiencing something more extreme, you’re probably eating a different sausage. Smoky and garlicky? You’re likely enjoying a kielbasa or thuringer. Smooth and garlicky texture with thin casing? Hot dog! Fennel? Italian sausage. Heavy sage? Probably bangers, but that’s pretty close. Think a somewhat spicier breakfast sausage with less sage.
Brat consumption spans generations in Wisconsin. It goes back minimally to the 19th century, when sausage-loving German immigrants started setting up shop along the banks of Lake Michigan. Now-storied purveyors liked Usinger’s use sausage as a way to attract saloon patrons’ lunch business. Several small-town butchers propped up across the state and still exist, while three manufacturers—Usinger’s, Klement’s, and Johnsonville—started to capture business outside of Wisconsin.
One of the few common threads on brats involves its cooking apparatus: the outdoor grill. Americans didn’t start grilling out in earnest until the 1950s. When they did, brats were a natural fit in Wisconsin for this newfound habit. A savvy ad campaign by Johnsonville galvanized the brats-to-grill association. Pretty much every Wisconsinite agrees that this is the proper way to apply heat to sausage.
I was bred to grill from an early age. Going back to my earliest memories, between March and November—grilling season—about every third meal cooked outside on our family Charmglow would involve brats. My dad grilled with same regularity other people put toward exercise or meditation. I started grilling on table-top hibachi grills in my mid-teens. My current weapon of choice is a charcoal kettle. We’ll be on brat meal number four in mid-June.
So grilling is a common element, but once you get past the grill itself, things get scattered. What happens before or after the grilling session depends on the griller. Many houses give the brats a beer bath—a brew of low-grade beer, onions, and butter at hot tub temperature. This would be used either as a pre-cook (common for parties), or post-cooking to keep the sausages warm. Cooking raw is my preferred method, but care must be ensured to keep the brats from exploding. The best technique is to sear each side briefly, then get them the hell off the direct heat. Twenty minutes later, you’ll have a perfect sausage.
Although most Wisconsinites would take umbrage if someone questions their brat prep methods, parts of the state are more orthodox in their beliefs. The late food writer R.W. Apple paid appropriate tribute to Sheboygan, a city between Milwaukee and the beginning of the state’s right thumb, a place where brats are prepared capital-T “Their” way. I can’t find another town that posts a brat oath on its public website. The oath has its bounds though, as finding a brat on a kaiser-like round semmel roll in most of Wisconsin is hard to come by.
Even the standard brat meats across the state will vary. At Madison’s State Street Brats—the Badger-themed sports bar—you can get your sausage “red” (smoked beef-pork) or “white” (more veal-pork). The “Johnsonville” model of a coarser, pork-and-spice number is probably the most widely available commercial model. Less common though not rare are veal brats—think of a big creamy white hot dog with less garlic that splits open every time you cook it. Many butchers now offer selections of meat-plus-filling brats with fillings like cherry or cheese and pepper. I start tuning out once something other than fat, spice, or meat makes its way inside a casing, but these variations must sell okay.
Look past Wisconsin, and you’ll see the history of brats supports this. Germany offers even wider variations, from the pretzel rod-like skinny pork Coburger, to the thuringer-like Nordhessische. There’s no standard for meat—beef, pork, or veal are all purely acceptable fillings.
When brats are ready to eat, most Wisconsites concur it needs to be in a bun, but what kind? Zealous brat grillers pay equal attention to its starched vehicles, knowing the best bakeries to go to procure their bun of choice—whether it’s an eggy, challah-like roll, or an oblong kaiser bun. The most important attribute of a bun is strength. It should withstand the juice of the meat, the juice of the sauerkraut, and the liquidity of the condiments. Just stay away from the supermarket stuff. Hucksters have duped many a supermarket shopper with “brat buns” or “sausage rolls,” which are nothing more than a hot dog bun with creases. If your bun splits once you insert the sausage, leave the cookout immediately.
There’s a relatively narrow pool of toppings, too. Most Wisconsin houses will put out ketchup (as a token of recognition, something that indicates you can use it, but you shouldn’t), and some form of mustard (there’s really no tradition of any single variety of mustard favored). Grilled or raw onions are common, as is sauerkraut (heated!). Two condiment pro tips: a spicy and tart Dijon mustard like Grey Poupon is a fantastic pairing with kraut, and for a ketchup alternative, choose Heinz 57 sauce—it’s a good approximation of secret stadium sauce (the beloved BBQ ketchup-like condiment favored at Milwaukee Brewers games).
The true authentic brat certainly cannot be found in a restaurant, as there is no statewide standard. Between the different meats, preparation types, buns, and combinations, you have on the conservative side a 5-percent chance of finding a place that matches your brat preferences. It’s just too much of a gamble. Furthermore, your likelihood of finding (gasp!) a precooked brat is far higher at a restaurant.
Wisconsin sports fans, prepare to be disappointed: You definitely won’t find an authentic brat experience at Miller Park. The home of the Milwaukee Brewers, the only stadium when more brats than sausages are sold, serves precooked brats on something akin to a hot dog bun.
To observe a more genuine Wisconsin brat experience, head to the stadium’s parking lot, a place where for 81 home games a year, you’ll find the most concentrated and robust grilling culture in the state. It was this lot that shaped my brat values, and where I got my start on the gas grill and flew solo on my brat maiden voyage.
Spend any amount of time in the Miller Park lot and it’s a post-graduate course in the bratological sciences: aromas of beef, pork, and veal brats; beer baths; gas and charcoal grills; yellow, brown, and Dijon mustard; kaiser and softer rolls. There are easily hundreds of permutations on the brat, all prepared by incredibly particular tailgaters, yet all different. But they can all stake their claim as an authentic Wisconsin brat experience.