The following interview was originally posted in 2013, but in honor of Labor Day and all the grilling this weekend entails, we've reposted our chat here for your entertainment and education.
It's a big weekend for cookouts, and in honor of that we checked in with Fritz Usinger, president of Usinger's, and asked him for a little advice.
Turns out Usinger, not surprisingly as a fourth-generation sausage maker, had lots of thoughts on grilling, but wanted to make one thing clear: His perspective might be different because of his love for and commitment to the product.
"My way is not the only way," says Usinger. "There's my disclaimer."
That said, Usinger spoke for almost an hour on his personal beliefs about grilling – and more. We learned a lot.
OnMilwaukee: Do you grill fresh brats differently from pre-cooked?
Fritz Usinger: Yes. Usinger's has both, and the methods of preparing are very different. Pre-cooked, of course, is easier because all the consumer has to do is brown and serve. A fresh brat is raw sausage and spices in a casing and takes more time and attention. It has a much longer cooking time, because it must be cooked all the way through.
My method for grilling a fresh brat is 'low and slow.' It's the opposite of grilling a steak, which you sear right away to seal in the juices and then cook at a lower temperature. With a fresh bratwurst, it has to acclimate to the heat slowly. Too much heat too quickly can cause the brat to swell so much that it will break the casing, which is what we are really trying to avoid. If the casing breaks, all of the juices and spices go into the grill.
So with a gas grill, you slowly turn up the heat. With a charcoal grill, you start with the brats on the outside of the grill and slowly move them toward the (much hotter) center.
How long do you grill a brat?
I have a 'two beer method.' The time it takes me to drink two beers – and I'm not talking about slamming a beer like a 21-year-old, I'm talking about a middle-aged guy drinking two beers – is the perfect amount of time to grill a brat.
You don't want to brown up the casing until the end, but you definitely want to crisp it up then.
What are your thoughts on parboiling?
There is no need to do it. If you're going to grill your sausage, if you parboil it, you're cooking it twice. You're overcooking it and losing flavors. I never do it. Parboiling makes the sausages rubbery.
Not even in beer?
Beer is for drinking. I don't want my brat tasting like a beer. I like to keep my beer and my brats separate. Usinger's does not make a beer brat.
How do you keep brats warm if you're done grilling but have other foods or drinks to prepare before you're ready to serve them?
I keep them warm in a preheated oven. When I start grilling, I turn on the oven to 350, then when I'm done grilling, I put the sausages in a Pyrex dish covered with aluminum foil, shut off the heat and stick them in the warm – but turned off – oven.
Leaving the oven on could dry out the sausages too much and remember, I've had two beers by now and I might forget about them, so a warm but not too hot oven is best.
Is defrosting necessary or can you throw frozen brat on the grill?
You should always defrost overnight. But defrost them in the fridge. A lot of us grew up with our mothers leaving meat on the counter to defrost and this is a big no-no from a food safety perspective because it can create surface bacteria.
Frozen brats on the grill will always be a problem. They take much longer to cook and most likely you'll burn the outside before the inside is done.
What grilling utensils do you recommend?
Tongs. Do not use a fork. When the sausage is cooking, you don't want to pierce or break the casing because, as I stated before, you lose the juices and the spices.
What are your thoughts on buns?
You need a bun that can stand up to a brat. One that was specifically designed to hold the brat and condiments. A good sausage roll or a brat bun is very important. I get mine from both bakeries or grocery stores.
What kind of condiments do you use?
Raw onion and tomatoes, preferably from my garden. That's it. I put my cooked brat in a bun and then make an incision – I don't cut it all the way through, just down the length of the bun and deep enough to create a "pocket" or an "open valley." Then I fill it with my diced onions and tomatoes.
I also like cutting into my sausages because it lets some of the heat escape and I don't burn my mouth.
No mustard or ketchup?
No, no, no. I want to taste the spices, not the condiments.
What spices are in a bratwurst?
I can't tell you that. But in general, brats have a lot of spices in common and every sausage maker has their favorites. Coriander, nutmeg, peppers, paprika, onion, rosemary, sage. There are many different combinations.
Are you a winter griller?
Yes. I really prefer garden tomatoes on my sausages, but I do grill all winter. The knobs on my gas grill are all broken because they cracked in the cold. I have to use a pliers to start it up.
How many sausages do you eat a week?
I sample them at work once or twice a week. I eat them at home, too.
Have you ever tried a veggie "brat?"
No. I have never had any interest.
Is the 4th of July the busiest brat holiday?
Really from opening day until Labor Day is our brat season. And it depends a lot on the weather. During the three-day weekends in the summer, if the weather is good, the store get cleaned out.
How long has your family been in the sausage making business?
My great, great-grandfather started the business in 1880. I'm the fourth generation. I grew up hearing about the business every night at the dinner table. I started out working at the plant Downtown when I was 16. Then I worked there during college, too. I went to Madison and got a degree in agriculture, specifically meat and animal science. I have been working full time for the company since I graduated in 1980.
Has the recipe/taste of the brat changed over the years?
No, the (classic) brat has not changed very much at all. We have added many new flavor varieties like Cajun brats and garlic brats, but we haven't tinkered with the original too much.
We have to honor the customers' expectations of the product. They grew up eating a Usinger's brat tasting a certain way and so that's how they expect a brat to taste.
But this is why we can have so many successful sausage makers, because people identify certain flavors with how it tasted when they were growing up and that's what they want to consume as an adult, too.
The only changes we've made are a little less salt because people are more sensitive to salt these days, but not there's only so far you can go. Salt brings out a lot of the other flavors. Also, our equipment, keeps getting more and more modern.
How many different sausages does Usinger's make?
120. We have a full selection at our store on Third Street. We have a lot of European specialty sausages.
Do you have a similar approach to cooking hot dogs?
Are you really gonna open that can of worms now? (Laughing.) Haven't you had enough?
Lay it on me.
"Hot dogs" – also called wieners or frankfurters – come with or without a casing. Most hot dogs are skinless. The casing is removed before the consumer buys it. Usinger's has a natural casing, which give the wiener some snap when you bite into it. There's more resistance. The casing keeps the spices and flavors in when you cook it as long as it doesn't get pierced or split in overcooking.
How do you cook your hot dogs?
Sometimes I grill them, but I prefer hot water. I boil water, turn off the flame and drop it in for five or 10 minutes. I'll even microwave them, but not for too long or they get weird and deformed.
And, I'm sure I know the answer to this, but do you ever put ketchup and mustard on your dog?
No, no, no. Tomato and onion only again.
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.