Bratwurst 101: Cook, eat, sniff out quality

Back where I grew up, the ultimate compliment – regardless of weather or time of year – came down to these words: “That’s a good brat.”

You’ll find multiple brat frys almost every weekend in Sheboygan County, at taverns, churches, bowling alleys and parks. I can think of a half-dozen grocery stores with outdoor booths for service clubs to sell brats. I know of at least one brat maker (Miesfeld’s) that has a drive-through window.

The most typical fund-raiser meal here is a hamburger or brat on a hard roll (preferably from City Bakery), a heap of warmed German potato salad and a ladle of baked beans. Add a can a pop, but not a slice of homemade pie, and you usually can keep the tab at $5.

So brats are everywhere, and that makes us pretty picky about how they’re prepared.

What’s a good brat? It’s more than a zesty sausage that’s plopped into a bun.

It is browned slowly and evenly. Juicy. Simmered with onion slices in butter and/or beer. Use tongs, not a fork, while handling. Don’t even THINK about boiling, broiling or microwaving them.

Yah-hey. Let’s get that grill going. The Sheboygan County Convention & Visitors Bureau has a guide to all of it, called “Come Fry With Me.” Go to www.sheboygan.org or call (800) 457-9497 to learn more.

I root for the brat during the Miller Park sausage races. I have eaten cream of bratwurst soup, have seen menus with brat tacos and brat egg rolls, know where to buy brats that contain no salt, or plenty of jalapenos. Oddest version: French Dijon Apricot Bratwurst.

I have been proud to work as a cashier at the World’s Largest Brat Fest, a fund-raiser that takes over Memorial Day weekend in Madison. Sorry, Sheboygan, but if we’re talking about just quantity, Brat Fest leaves your Brat Days (Aug. 4-6) on lukewarm coals.

Picture 189,432 brats sold in four days. This year 75 nonprofit groups split $86,000 in proceeds, the biggest payout ever.

The Madison fest began 22 years ago at Sentry Hilldale. Now grocer Tim Metcalfe has moved it from the store parking lot to Willow Island, which means 10 times more space to grill, stand in line, linger in the sun (or rain). It’s also more hassle for the organizers, so as of this year there no longer will be a brat fest on Labor Day weekend, too.

That’s a shame.

Usinger’s in Milwaukee is hauling out a 50-foot bratwurst to grill and to celebrate its 125th birthday during German Fest at the lakefront Henry Maier Festival Grounds this month. Brats and hot dogs will cost a buck from 5-10:30 p.m. July 28, when festival admission will be free. Proceeds from sales will help Second Harvest of Wisconsin.

Johnsonville Sausage, the nation’s top bratwurst maker, is surrounded by farmland in Sheboygan County. The little town on County M (off Highway 23) gets lively this Sunday, for its annual Sausage Fest. It’s breakfast, then a Dixieland church service, polkas, beer and brats until about 7 p.m. For more, call (920) 8893-3054.

Although Johnsonville’s brats get a lot of attention – they even go to Japan – Wisconsin is full of small, award-winning meat shops, too.

The 2004 Wisconsin State Fair winner, in the Cooked Bratwurst category, was Tim Hoff of Hoff’s United Foods, Brownsville (east of Waupun).

The competition gets more complicated at the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors. Annual brat judging is split into four categories: Fresh Traditional Bratwurst (Custom Meats of Marathon was grand champion), Fresh Specialty Bratwurst and Pre-Cooked Bratwurst – Uncured (RJ’s Meats, Hudson, took both categories), and Smoked Bratwurst – Cooked and Cured (Louie’s Finer Meats, Cumberland, was tops).

So all kinds of small towns are in on the act.

Want to be more conscientious brat consumer or connoisseur? Check out:

www.sheboyganjaycees.com – The annual sponsor of Brat Days in Sheboygan gives grilling advice as well as festival details.

www.bratfest.com – The World’s Largest Brat Fest headquarters. Buy aprons to Zippo lighters with the festival logo.

www.johnsonville.com – Johnsonville Sausage shows its sense of humor. Dip into the Brat Hot Tub, sling brats and catch condiments.

www.klements.com – Klement’s Sausage Company, Milwaukee, has online sausage races. Official sausage provider for the Milwaukee Brewers, Bucks.

www.usingers.com – Usinger’s, also in Milwaukee, shares its Old World wisdom. Get straightened out about bratwurst, knackwurst, yachtwurst.

www.wi-amp.com – The Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors showcases the state’s best meat markets, many from small towns.