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An underappreciated virtue of sunglasses worn on a cord around your neck is that they are there, at the ready, to catch errant bits of sauerkraut that may jump ship. So it was this afternoon when I went to put them on, following a research excursion for my RJ blog readers. I disposed of the scofflaw sauerkraut bits in an environmentally friendly way – using my portable enzyme digester.

Now on the cusp of summer grilling and backyard Zen, I share with you my decades of devoted avocational research into Midwestern bratwurst culture from here in its putative homeland, Wisconsin.

At the outset, I confess my ignorance of bratwurst traditions in its native Germany although it’s obvious that some of those traditions have travelled with it across the pond — vouchsafed among fond affections of German and Germanic immigrants. Whatever that was, here in the Midwest, its translation is a thing of epicurean beauty.

The Sausage

The bratwurst (Old German: “meat sausage ordained by Woden himself”) is a subtly seasoned, pork-dominated link sausage slightly fatter and longer a standard hot dog. It is normally grilled and served on a bun or a roll with (traditionally in Germany) sauerkraut.

From this humble and simple starting point, the brat (defined here as sausage, bun and condiments) spiraled off into many variations in the wilds of the New World culinary frontiers before coalescing back to its purest form — that I will describe for you at the end.

The standard bratwurst, widely available in Midwestern grocery stores is known in some quarters as a “white bratwurst” or a “Sheboygan” or “Sheboygan-style” bratwurst. This descriptor emerged to distinguish it from a famous and older variety, the “red bratwurst.” The white bratwurst is typically grilled whole and is a paler color owing to the high, sometimes exclusive pork/pork fat content. The red bratwurst is reddish because it’s made with smoked beef. Red bratwurst are “butterflied” (split lengthwise with a knife) and then grilled.

To help you visualize this variant in the wild, I schlepped down to State Street Brats (a holy of holies in bratwurst culture) to buy one and photograph it for you. Again, disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner. The things I do for my RJ blog readers…

The standard bratwurst has become the baseline with the red brat now an endemic (but dearly loved) evolutionary relic. Other variants involve tinkering with the mix of spices or the addition of novel ingredients. So, for instance, one frequently sees “Packer” brats where diced green peppers and cheddar cheese are added to celebrate the team colors of the Green Bay Packers. Right now, our village meat market is advertising 22 varieties of brats and not long ago, a local gas station (!) was advertising 40-some varieties.

To borrow from the famous movie:

Shoeless Joe Jackson: “Is this heaven?”
Kevin Costner’s character: “No. It’s Wisconsin.”

Johnsonville is everywhere and makes a fairly good bratwurst but it’s omnipresence trades convenience for corporate conformity and one misses variations found in small artisanal operations. Seek out the small producers or your neighborhood butcher. My daughter out east tells me she’s found a vegan variety that’s “just as good.” I have not tried it, nor the myriad other varieties. Much work to do, I suppose, though I am loath to make much of a departure from the tried and true.

The Bun

Fortunately for my Hollander kin, the highest expression of the brat bun is also the cheapest, the white-bread, store-branded, summer hot dog bun. Turnover on these things is fast enough that one will nearly always find a package that is squish-worthy soft and fresh. These normally are packaged in lots of eight whereas commercial bratwurst are sold in lots of six leading to a well-known curiosity over why bratwursts and buns are not packaged in equal quantities. Conspiracy theorists will claim that this is a collusion between bakers and butchers to always make you buy a minimum of 24 of each (the lowest common multiple of 6 and 8) to avoid running out of buns before your bratwurst are all used or vice-versa (which is worse). This really isn’t a problem though. Simply err on the side of too many bratwursts. A refrigerator-cold leftover bratwurst au natural (meaning the bratwurst not you – unless you are in to that sort of thing) eaten with your fingers while leaning over the sink is among the most satisfying and elegant breakfasts a busy person may find.

A bratwurst will seem over-large in a standard hot dog bun, prompting marketers to develop “bratwurst buns” that are fatter and slightly longer (still sold in lots of eight) reasoning that more room in the bun advantages the building of the brat. I find the bread:sausage ratio is too high and the extra room in the brat drives extravagant use of condiments – both in variety and quantity, again overwhelming the bratwurst itself.

Toasting the bun should only be used to resurrect an otherwise stale bun (and you can own your guilt for poor planning, you Calvinists, you). The soft/squishy nature of the fresh hot dog bun holds the precious juices and anchors the essential condiments. It also stimulates a requisite mindfulness as you a build the brat to a maximum condiment capacity and then try and eat it without the whole thing disintegrating into a delicious mess in your fingers. Ah, summertime.

With buns, elegance, serendipity, and attention sit side by each with economy.

Condiments: the great catsup controversy

Hot dog cultures in New York and Chicago have driven two unfortunate trends that spill over into bratwurst culture. These are 1) a dizzying array of potential condiments (chili, all manner of fresh and pickled vegetables, catsup, mustards, mayonnaise, etc., etc.), and 2) endless silly arguments over what the proper combination of condiments are for dressing a “proper” hotdog. Not my expertise. So, I will resist such trivialities and just tell you that the proper dressing for a bratwurst consists of just three: sauerkraut, spicey brown (aka German) mustard, and diced white onions. Mustard and any one of the other two are acceptable in a pinch. All others are gilding the lily and may peg you as a noob in some circles.

At my modest Piggly Wiggly, I counted over 30 varieties of mustard with all but a handful packaged in plastic, and the glass jar options mostly restricted to tiny craft mustards (yes, this is a thing in Wisconsin).

Look for coarse brown mustard in a glass jar. Common yellow mustard is a pale substitute, and it has always bothered me that the brat stand at UW’s unions are served near huge pump-containers of yellow mustard despite the great university’s pride of place in the center of brat culture. If you know where to look, you can find foil packages of Grey Poupon. It’s a little embarrassing but, as they say, any port in a storm.

Catsup is controversial and its use is a spillover from its ubiquity in other American cuisines and its popularity among children because of its sweetness. Some years ago, I was making small talk with a new student before my first lecture that semester and found out that he was a transfer student from a southeastern school.

“Welcome to Wisconsin,” I said playfully. “I’ll teach you the secret handshake and proper bratwurst etiquette.”

“Bratwurst etiquette?”
“Yes. Mustard. No Catsup.”

He laughed.

At that point another student piped up to say that he knew of a tavern near Milwaukee that has “an NC-17 policy.” No catsup for anyone over 17. (Authors note: True story! Take your catsup/ketchup controversies elsewhere.)

Hence there are pockets where catsup is grudgingly or defiantly allowed. Proceed with caution in mixed company.


Brats are typically grilled outdoors. Less often fried. The goal is to sear the sausage casing such that it caramelizes and contributes rustic umami notes to the flavor profile. Baked recipes with sauerkraut or potatoes are an off-season specialty that I will not address further.

The bratwurst is its own temperature sensor. It is cooked sufficiently when you can hear/feel/see the juices boiling and pressing against the casing and steam is escaping.

Use of beer is a well-loved tradition. As I learned from my parents, preparing brats for a special occasion is enhanced by soaking the brats in a mixture of beer and chopped onions overnight. A variation of this includes boiling the brats in the beer mixture and finishing them on the grill. A boiled brat without the finishing sear is a pallid gray thing that will repulse sensitive guests, so be discreet. Grilling with the standard costume of cargo shorts, crocs, and a favorite tee (in all weather) adds to the authenticity.

With large gatherings of grad students, I will heat the brats in a beer brine with a slow-cooker next to the grill and will return the grilled brats to the hot brine after searing them. This approach has several advantages, 1) the brine turns into a savory smoky marinade, 2) the bratwursts stay warm and juicy at the end of the buffet, 3) the slow-cooker lid keeps the flies away and 4) it provides the professor a little technique-based theater to aid in the ongoing project of convincing grad student that you do, in fact, know what you are doing.

There you have it. Make mine a local bratwurst, soaked overnight and grilled until the casing is just crispy, dress with white onions, sauerkraut, and coarse brown mustard. Serve it to me in a squishy hotdog bun and let me plop myself into a camp chair in the barefoot grass.

That’s as good as it gets.

Crocs photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Tim Van Deelen

Tim Van Deelen is Professor of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. He grew up in Hudsonville, Michigan, and graduated from Calvin College. From there he went on to the University of Montana and Michigan State University. He now studies large mammal population dynamics, sails on Lake Mendota, enjoys a good plate of whitefish, and gains hope for the future from terrific graduate students. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I have a Rabbi friend originally from Milwaukee who breaks kosher at Packers games by eating you know what. I want to thank you for this enlightenment. What is your judgment on those young men from the Gibbsville Wisconsin (near Sheboygan) Reformed Church young adults group who, when they came for a week of volunteer work in Brooklyn, brought a grill with them, loaded into a pickup truck, and then proceeded that week to eat their brats between two hamburger patties!?

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Yikes seems a little extreme. But having a passing familiarity with young men, and having once been one, I am not overly surprised.

    • Jodi VanWingerden says:

      Dan, I believe that would be called an “Oostburger.”

  • Bruce Buursma says:

    Curiously funny this should appear today on the RJ menu, since just last night I attended a well-prepared and tasty lecture by the esteemed James Bratt who was introduced to the crowd as “Dr. Brat.” I’m sure Jim would cheerfully cede the title to you, Tim, with relish.

    • Jim says:

      I’ve been called worse. My Sheboygan-reared mother always insisted that the CRC folks in town would avoid the beer during the local bratwurst fest. Guess the Germans had all the fun. Tasty treat here, Tim. Discourse on cheese curds in the future, please?

  • Jodi VanWingerden says:

    As someone born and raised in Sheboygan, I read your piece with great delight (as always with your pieces). But I must contend that the best brat is the unadorned brat — just fresh-off-the-grill sausage on a bun. Or maybe even a hard roll from Johnson’s Bakery. Perfection.

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Oh what great memories this brings back of my days in Pella as a college student! Thank you for this

  • Robert Otte says:

    I too was born and raised in Sheboygan, a city which at one time boasted on a large sign to being the Wurst city in the world. For a time, Sheboygan celebrated Bratwurst days, serving brats for breakfast, lunch, dinner and all points in between, all washed down with copious amounts of beer. I vividly recall witnessing a garbage truck full of empty beer cans.
    Tim has certainly given us a primer on the bratwurst, hitting all the necessary ingredients. But bratwurst are best eaten in Sheboygan. Only in Sheboygan can one purchase the tasty treats offered by local butchers. The ubiquitous Johnsonville brats are a watered-down version of the real thing. Only in Sheboygan can one enjoy brats on a “semmel,” a German baked roll with a crispy crust and soft interior. The semmel size calls for the local option of a double brat. The hot dog bun is second class substitute.

  • Loren Veldhuizen says:

    More research needed….Kevin Costner misquoted…wrong state, Tim, but delightful anyway. Thanks.

    • Tim Van Deelen says:

      Yep. I made the Iowa/Wisconsin switch deliberately to serve my point. I should’ve found a better way to flag it. No offense intended for Iowa (where I have deep family roots).

  • Ray VanderWeele says:

    For many years folks from Sheboygan would sponsor a brat fry at Calvin. They wanted to bring a tasty supplement to another part of the world to what seemed to many of us Sheboyganites, a lack of tasty cuisine. It also allowed for beer to be on the campus, although it was disguised in the beer sauce.

    Thank you for writing about an important topic that we can all agree on.

    Ray Vander Weele

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      My first brat ever was in 1971, on the Calvin lawn between the library and the commons. I had never heard of such a thing before.

  • Tim Van Deelen says:

    Ah, the joys and perils of peer review. Evidently the highly developed culture surrounding Sheboygan (Jim, Jodi, Robert, Ray) suggests a more ancestral node. Given this, my treatment of bun may need further research (Jodi, Robert) and my description of the red brat as antecedent to the white brat needs to allow that this may be a mostly Madison phenomenon following the introgression of pre-existing Sheboygan tradition. More work to do.

  • Dave Dekker says:

    Having a father who was born and raised in Sheboygan , I learned early on that your brats came from Miesfeld’s triangle meat, market, and your hard rolls from City Bakery.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Not sure if this adds to or detracts from the thread, but here’s a bit of whimsy I wrote several years ago to commemorate “the affair of the sausages.”

    As Lent fell upon the Swiss burg known as Zurich,
    A bleakness descended on Rathaus and Kerk.
    Herr Zwingli, himself never known as a funster,
    Was leading the small congregation Grossmunster.

    Why was there no Freiheit? And why no Erkiesen?
    If not in the Scriptures, then there was no reason
    To shun the consumption of wurst or krakauer,
    Without which, one’s face appeared pallid and dour.

    A pastor, a shepherd, committed soul-soother,
    Old Ulrich stood shoulder to shoulder with Luther,
    Though, scoring their theses as pathways to heaven,
    Martin : ninety-five; Ulrich : just sixty-seven.

    “If you bind us to manmade traditions, then you’re a
    Transgressor against the rule sola Scriptura,
    The Bible says nothing to privilege fish
    As the meat of the season, no matter your wish!”

    But since this was her’sy, the bishop of Konstanz
    Drew up a condemning and bitter remonstrance:
    “Oh look! Now it’s speisen and – gasp! – Fasnachtkichli!
    Mein Gott! Very soon they’ll be eating it weekly!

    And pretty soon every Protestant jerk’ll
    Be gouging on hot tartiflette and spanferkel!
    Not to mention that decadent dish of raclette;
    Even chocolate will gladden the protestant set!

    And we’ll have none of that! No such carnal heart-warming,
    Or the church will soon fall, for our gates they’ll be storming!”
    “So be it,” said Ulrich, “we must have our freedom!
    (And, speaking of sausages, I didn’t eat ‘em!

    But that’s not the point.) Christ alone is our guide;
    As his word is our warrant, we won’t be denied
    What we need to give nurture to body and soul,
    We’re subject to Him, not beneath your control!

    Be careful, dear Bishop, our thoughts have great gaussage,
    So soon this will be about far more than sausage!”
    Dear Ulrich was right, our great hero named Zwingli,
    Whose teachings can still make reformed souls get tingly.

    Though a good deal of history is long since forgotten,
    The story’s still told. Its lessons, not rotten,
    Are well and alive, and now you are well-versed
    In the tale of this day. Now bring on the wurst!

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Great work Tim. Reminds me of a day more than thirty years ago when David Risseuw who I think was from Sheboygan, shopped with me and then made the beer and onion marinade and then cooked brats to perfection for a bunch of synod delegates. One of many good RCA memories.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    I prefer my brats homemade with wild-harvested Anatidae and Cervidae blended with pork shoulder for fat content. No bun. Lots of homemade lacto-fermented garden produce (cabbage, carrots, radishes) on the side. No spreadable condiments typically, but if I’m in the mood a homemade BBQ sauce of some sort. Porter, Stout, or IPA goes in the mouth as opposed to the crock pot (not that you can’t do both). As a Minnesotan I must insist on calling it a jalapeno-cheddar brat if it has green and gold in it.

  • Lori says:

    This Milwaukee girl says “Yes!” to the hard-roll! (Another Wisconsin thing).
    Personally, I think the many variations that have appeared in recent years aren’t actually brats. They may be a perfectly fine sausage, but start adding peppers, cheese, cherries, mushrooms, etc and, while you may have a perfectly fine sausage, it is no longer a brat.

  • Gretchen Schoon Tanis says:

    As a current resident of Germany I can attest to some things (although please note it comes from a very northern perspective): one, each town has their own flavor/take on the bratwurst although there are some that have widespread appeal. Hence there are probably over a thousand different kinds of bratwurst in Germany. Two, they serve their brats on brötchen (a small hard roll type thing) or, much to my dismay/delight as a newcomer, a small triangle of wonder bread type white bread. I decided they just wanted us to enjoy the brat without the fuss of the bread. The bread was there simply as a holder we could eat. Three, yes mustard and, if you need it, mayonnaise – never, ever ketchup. Thanks for this reflection – I look forward to exploring Wisconsin more for comparison.

  • Van Rathbun says:

    I’m so glad many people have referenced the Sheboygan County hard roll! Twelve years in Cedar Grove taught me many things.
    Although many would say brats are grilled, a Wisconsinite would say they are fried, on a fryer, AKA a grill.
    Brats are fried with a beer in hand.
    Brats, nearing that perfect finish must be frantically moved from on location on the fryer to another assuring symmetry and avoiding hot spots.
    Once fried, brats may be kept in a roaster, crockpot or pan with at least a pound of melted butter in it.
    A newcomer to the area nearly called social services when they saw the sign for the upcoming “Brat Fry” believing it was a cruelty to punish disobedient children that way. Not realizing it is every organizations generic fundraiser.

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