But in Sheboygan, Wis., widely considered to be capitol of the bratwurst belt, many locals politely shake their heads at this pre-soaking business.
Chuck Miesfeld is a fourth-generation sausage maker and owner of Miesfeld Meat Market in Sheboygan (miesfelds.com). He agreed to speak with me about when to soak a brat in beer — and why — in hopes that it might help "straighten those people out."
By “those people,” Mr. Miesfeld was referring to his countrymen in Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison, as well as farther-flung wannabe Sconnies on the internet, who believe that pre-cooking brats in beer before cooking them is proper.
“The whole deal with soaking them in beer,” Miesfeld told me, “is about keeping the brats warm until you put them on your hard roll. If you’re cooking brats on a charcoal grill, which is the only way you should be doing it, and there’s nobody standing there with a hard roll, there has to be a way to keep them warm.”
The hard roll of which Miesfeld speaks, the only Sheboygan-approved brat holder, is the antithesis of the soft hot dog buns upon which brats are too often served. Even at Miller Park in Milwaukee, the only baseball stadium in America that serves more brats than hot dogs, brats are served on those “squishy buns,” as Miesfeld calls them with disdain. If you don’t live within striking distance of a Sheboygan bakery, your best bet would be a German or Austrian bakery that makes a hard-crusted white dinnerroll. In Sheboygan its customary to pack two brats into a single hard roll.
As for the idea that the pre-soaking in beer results in a juicier brat, Miesfeld isn’t impressed. If a brat dries out on the grill, he said, it was either overcooked, or a sub-par product.
But while the primary purpose of a post-grill soak in beer is to keep the brats in optimal shape for serving, Miesfeld concedes that the submersion adds more than heat.
“You do grab some flavors from the beer, but that’s not the real point. If you were doing it for flavors you’d want to leave the brat in there a long time, but you don’t want to leave the brats in too long, because they get mushy. It’s just a half-hour thing.”
Miesfeld’s post-cooking brat bath includes butter and onions in the beer. And as the bartender from Milwaukee had advised, Miesfeld urged me not to use good beer. It should be kept at around 170-180, he said, which is not quite simmering. And there is no place for black pepper, despite what the bartender from Milwaukee says. “If you have to add black pepper, you’ve got a (bad) brat.”
While he isn’t a pre-soaker, Miesfeld does drop the brats into cold water for five minutes before grilling, which softens the casings, making them less likely to split.
The key to the proper grilling of brats is to not have the fire too hot, he told me. Control any flare-ups with water, and turn them often. Skilled brat chefs can determine with a squeeze of their fingers when a brat is cooked. But using a meat thermometer poked into the end of just one brat, when the internal temperature reaches 180 degrees, it’s done.
I followed Miesfeld’s instructions, mixing a can of cheap lager with a tablespoon of butter and half an onion, sliced, on a burner. And against everyone’s advice, I couldn’t help making another beer bath with a high-quality IPA. I don’t cook with wine I wouldn’t drink, and I figured the same applied to beer, though it hurt to pour such good beer into the pan.
I compared brats that were pre-soaked in each of my two beer baths with those that were immersed after grilling. I also made a brat that was simply grilled, and without any exposure to beer (except in my mouth).
The brats placed in beer after grilling were noticeably juicier, with the first bite exploding awkwardly in my face. They had more of a beery flavor, and I’m sure the butter didn’t hurt. I preferred them. The pre-soaked brats were closer in flavor to the non-soaked brat, and juicier, but less juicy than brats soaked after cooking.
As for any difference between the fancy IPA and the cheap lager, I couldn’t detect any. At least, on this point, Mr. Miesfeld, myself and the bartender from Milwaukee can all agree.