Heat in a large soup pot over medium-low heat:
11⁄2 tablespoons olive or other vegetable oil
Add and cook, stirring, until tender but not browned, 5 to 10...
Labor Day… the so-called “end” of grilling season according to the secret cabal of culinary authorities who control the publishing-food-writing-styling complex. Come Labor Day, black helicopters swoop down in the middle of the night filled with thugs that quickly “disappear” your favorite flipper, fray your grate cleaning brush, and urinate on your charcoal. Glossy magazines are no longer filled with those picture-perfect grill marks and everyone starts talking about braises, stews, and apple desserts… all because that’s what we “want.”
Obviously, this oft-repeated seasonal narrative grates on my nerves, as I’m sure it does any serious grilling/barbecue enthusiast whose lust for starting fires and cooking over them knows nothing of such abstract concepts as “memorial,” “labor,” or “cold.” For us, wintertime is merely an inconvenience that must be overcome with bigger fires and stronger drink. We are legion, and growing stronger… soon, the foodie press will recognize our purchasing power and begin running grill porn well into December.
Until that glorious day, we at the JOY Kitchen will continue to recognize Labor Day as some sort of sweet “farewell” to outdoor cooking… not because we respect the boundary it purports to delineate, but because many of you are expecting some sort of end-of-summer extravaganza, and we love an excuse to go all-out.
So here it is, a “project” to separate the casual weekenders from the dedicated griller of meats: homemade bratwurst finished off Sheboygan-style in a beer-butter-herb bath with braised onions. A pain in the butt? Yep. Unnecessary? Perhaps. Delicious? Absolutely. Soul-satisfying? Definitely… making your own sausages from scratch is a great confidence-builder that opens the door to so many new and exciting things to try. Think of it as a “gateway” charcuterie project, just like curing your own bacon.
A few general guidelines: all ingredients (casings excepted) should be kept very cold when grinding and mixing. Wash you hands and sanitize work surfaces with a bleach solution after each step (1 tablespoon bleach for every gallon of water).
First thing to do: find sausage casings. These can be found from a variety of online retailers, but you can usually find them at the butcher counter of grocery stores that stuff their own sausages (if a grocery store near you sells unusual flavors of sausage from their deli case, they probably make their own). Natural casings are best; we do not recommend plastic casings because they are impervious to moisture and may allow the growth of harmful bacteria. For bratwurst, you want small casings measuring about 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Most of the time, casings are packed in salt. You need to rinse them off and soak in a bowl of cold water for thirty minutes (work over the sink!). Be sure to run water through the casing… it will inflate and make it much easier to work with later.
There are a few specialty items required for doing sausages right. The most important: a sausage stuffer. Slightly less important: a meat grinder.
Meat grinders vary wildly in effectiveness. We have owned and extensively used the food grinding attachment for our stand mixer and have had mixed results. Stand-alone models are supposed to be much better, but they cost upwards of $300 for “cheap” models. Typically, we avoid buying specialized equipment that most home cooks will not shell out the big bucks for. This is a huge conundrum for sausage-making, which involves grinding meats with high fat content (or pure fat!). Sub-standard grinders will not cut fatty stuff, but “smear” it, which ruins the texture of your sausage stuffing and clogs up your grinder. The only thing you can do to avoid smearing is to cut the meat in pieces that will fit down the feed tube of your grinder and freeze them on a tray in a single layer. This will make “smearing” less likely… if your grinder parts are made of stainless steel, chilling them in the freezer will help as well.
If you do not have a grinder, you can try pulsing the meat in a food processor, rearranging frequently to get an even consistency. The fatback will not react well to this method, so you will have to repeatedly freeze it solid and slice with a sharp knife until it looks “ground.” This might sound like a big pain, but it’s actually quite easy if you have the time to keep refreezing it. I was forced to hand-slice all of the meat for these bratwursts when we recently unpacked our grinder to find the cutting blade missing. Having bought all of the ingredients, I made lemonade: just thinly slice, freeze for an hour or two, and repeat until you have the right consistency. Trust me, it’s therapeutic… like cooking roux.
Sausage stuffers can be stand-alone, lever-operated devices (think a big potato ricer with one big hole and a “tube” that the sausage skin slides onto… narrower tubes make slimmer sausages). Most meat grinders have a stuffing attachment that fit onto the collar that secures the grinding plate, blade, and auger. For these, you grind the meat first, take out the plate and blade (there’s usually a spacer to take their place), and run the ground meat through again with the stuffing tube attached. In either case, run the motor (or press the lever of your hand-operated stuffer) until your filling is just beginning to emerge from the stuffing tube. This gets all of the air out so there is not a big bubble at the end of your first brat. Slide the rinsed sausage casing onto the tube and tie a knot at the end. Extrude the meat slowly. As the casing fills, slide off more casing as needed. Try to get an even distribution; be sure not to over-stuff the casing. Every now and then, take the stuffed casing and slowly twist it at 4-inch intervals to form the brats.
Alright… that’s all you need to know going into this recipe. Oops, one more thing: it’s worth it! Oh, and about the beer-butter-herb bath: it isn’t essential, but we really like it... not only does it taste good, but it makes cooking the brats and timing dinner a snap. You can remove the brats from the grill to the simmering bath when they’re browned and finish cooking them through (for “insurance”). Plus, the beer bath keeps them warm until your guests get hungry. For larger cookouts, the bath turns into a magical vat from which hot brats never cease emerging.
Read all of the information above before proceeding! Freshly ground spices are always better. If you’re going to the trouble of making your own sausage, try going that extra step.
Cube, chill thoroughly, and grind in small batches using a 3/16-inch plate:
1 ½ pounds pork butt, fat trimmed and discarded
1 pound veal shoulder or beef hanger steak, fat trimmed and discarded
½ pound pork fatback
Combine in a bowl with:
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons ground white pepper
1 teaspoon dried marjoram
½ teaspoon caraway seed
½ teaspoon grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground allspice
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
(1 tablespoon garlic, minced)
(2 teaspoons red pepper flakes)
Mix thoroughly and refrigerate. If salt-packed, rinse and soak for 30 minutes:
3 feet natural sausage casing
Slide the casing onto your stuffer’s tube. Put the pork-beef mixture into the stuffer and extrude run until the mixture begins to emerge. Tie the casing into a knot and start extruding the meat into the casing, slipping more casing off as necessary. Gently twist into 4-inch lengths. Cut apart or leave in a string and refrigerate until ready to cook, no more than two days (freeze in zip-top bags with the air squeezed out to store longer).
In a large sauce pan or Dutch oven, bring to a low simmer:
6 cups beer, preferably a German pilsner, lager, or ale
1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 large onion, grated
1 large onion, thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, smashed
(1 tablespoon red pepper flake)
1 bay leaf
Salt and black pepper to taste
Prepare a medium grill fire. Brown the bratwurst evenly, off to the side of the coals, being sure to turn frequently. When the brats are browned, remove to the just-barely-simmering beer bath and let sit for fifteen minutes or longer.
Serve the brats in good, crusty buns with the braised onion slices on top. Have sauerkraut, whole-grain mustard, and ketchup on hand.