When I first moved to Chicago from North Carolina, I was amazed at the variety of sausages. There were polish sausages, bratwurst, bockwurst, Italian; sweet and hot, among others. At that time, the sausage that I knew best was knackwurst which is smoked like a hot dog, only thicker and made from all beef. When I visited a German-style butcher shop in the city, I was intrigued by the uncooked, unsmoked sausages and couldn’t wait to taste the “beer brats” as they are called in Chicago and the Midwest.
I thought that my sausage ignorance was just because I was from the South but often, even today, when I mention my love of beer brats, people respond with a “what’s that?” Back then, I worked with a woman who was from an old German family in Wisconsin and she schooled me on the correct way to make beer brats. She explained that you grilled the uncooked bratwurst first over indirect heat until the sausage was burnished brown and cooked through. Then you remove them from the grill and place them in a simmering pot of beer. She made sure that I understood that most people make the mistake of simmering the sausages first in beer and then grilling them. If you do that, the flavor of the uncooked sausages melts into the simmering beer leaving the sausages tasteless, and it is almost impossible to get good grill marks on the boiled sausages.
Wanting to make sure what she said was correct, I tried it both ways and she was 100 percent right. Even though most people boil the sausages and then grill them, a taste test proves her theory right. You must grill first and simmer second for optimum flavor, texture and caramelization. Besides a better flavor, this method is more convenient.
You can grill the brats in advance and keep them warm in simmering beer for 1-2 hours. You can even reheat any leftovers the next day or make them a day in advance for a tailgate. Just be sure to simmer the hot sausages in the beer right after you take them off the grill and then cool them and store them in the refrigerator in the simmering liquid.
Serve the brats with your favorite buns and condiments such as potato rolls, pretzel rolls, spicy mustard, grainy mustard, sauerkraut or my favorite, Fennel Apple Sauerkraut for those looking for a tangy topping but don’t like traditional sauerkraut.
Beer Brats With Apple Fennel Sauerkraut
Start to finish: 30 minutes
8-10 pork bratwursts, uncooked
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 large white or yellow onion, divided
2-3 bottles or cans of beer, whatever you drink
8-10 hoagie, pretzel or potato rolls
2 cups Apple Fennel Sauerkraut, warmed or other favorite condiments
Special Equipment: 5-8 quart Dutch oven
Preheat the grill.
Melt the butter in the Dutch oven or heavy duty saucepan. Cut the onion in half and cut into half-moon slices. Place in the bottom of the Dutch oven and let cook for about 5 minutes or until translucent. Add the beer and bring to a simmer. Set aside.
Meanwhile, remove brats from packaging and set in the center of the cooking grate over indirect heat. Turn occasionally and let cook for about 20 minutes or almost cooked through. I like to cook them until they are a deep brown color.
Remove from grill and place into the simmering beer and onion mixture. Bring the liquid back to a gentle boil. Immediately reduce the heat to very low and simmer with the lid on for at least 15 minutes. The brats are now ready to serve directly from the stockpot. If you are going to serve them later, turn off the heat but leave them in the liquid. Either refrigerate or simmer them again just before serving.
Apple Fennel ‘Mock’ Sauerkraut
The dressed-up mock sauerkraut substitutes grated apple and fennel for the traditional cabbage. The result is a fresher, sweeter alternative to ballpark sauerkraut.
1 large fennel bulb
1 tablespoons olive oil
1 Large Vidalia onion, chopped
5 Granny Smith apples, grated
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
1/2 cup hard cider or apple juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Clean and cut the fennel bulb in long strips (julienne) and trim tops. Reserve furry leafy part that resembles dill and chop finely for later use.
Heat oil in heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium heat, add onion and kosher salt. Cook until onion begins to brown, add strips of fennel, stir, and let cook covered for about 5 minutes or until fennel begins to wilt. Reduce heat to medium-low.
Meanwhile, mix grated apple with lemon juice and add to pan. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes. Add butter, mixing well. Add caraway seeds, reserved fennel tops and hard cider or apple juice. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, uncovered. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Remove from heat and let sit to allow the flavors to mingle. The sauerkraut can be made up to two days in advance and kept covered in the refrigerator until ready to use.
Nutrition information per serving: 558 calories; 286 calories from fat; 32 g fat (13 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 63 mg cholesterol; 1176 mg sodium; 48 g carbohydrate; 2 g fiber; 11 g sugar; 17 g protein.
Elizabeth Karmel is a barbecue and Southern foods expert. She is the chef and pit master at online retailer CarolinaCueToGo.com and the author of three books, including “Taming the Flame.”