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Here's why science says not to bother...Daniel Higgins
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Getting ready to parboil your brats? Here's why science says not to bother
Of course, there are plenty of other factors than parboiling that determine if you like a bratwurst, including the seasonings and grind of the meat.
Tempers will flare up quicker than flames from pork fat hitting hot coals when telling a backyard grill master how to grill bratwurst. Specifically, if it's best to parboil or not.
Grilling cookbook authors including Jamie Purviance, Steven Raichlen and the America's Test Kitchen team extol parboil benefits. Shorter grill times and adding beer flavor are the biggest gains.
Johnsonville Sausage bratwurst packages instruct grillers to toss fresh brats directly onto the grill.
Ralph Stayer, retired CEO of Johnsonville, said his brat grilling method skips parboiling in favor of enjoying a cocktail while grilling the brats.
Uncooked brats need more turning, which includes more double-click tong checks, which are two of best reasons to grill anything.
Experts are divided on the parboil debate, but not the science. And it's not good news for team parboil.
Jeff Sindelar, associate professor in the meat and science department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the uniform heat of parboiling provides more ease of cooking and that water (or beer, in this case) is one of the best mediums to cook in. But not for all foods.
"Parboiling isn’t the best for bratwurst," he said. "Because you want to provide gentle heat. A slower increase in heat."
Before delving into the science, Sindelar points out that bratwurst means "frying sausage" in German.
Bratwurst would be called "gekochtewurst," or something similar, according to Google translate and my friend living in Germany, if these sausages were made to be boiled.
Semantics is not science, but it provides a clue to the true intent of preparation.
Bratwurst ingredients — ground meat, sugar, salt, pepper and other seasonings — bind together to maximize texture and flavor under the right conditions.
Proteins unfold in the meat and casing when heated. During the unfolding process, proteins bind with fats, salt, pepper and seasonings to create texture and flavor.
Parboiling speeds up the process that can create a mushy meat texture, develop rubbery casings and separate the casing from the sausage.
Proteins unfold slower in the medium-low heat of a grill. That environment creates more opportunities for the meat proteins to properly bind with the fats, seasonings and the casing.
Meanwhile, proteins in the casing shrink and dehydrate, leading to binding with the ground meat proteins. That bind creates a snap to each bite.
It would seem science has settled the debate: stop parboiling brats.
But, there is more to taste than how proteins combine. Smell, sounds, the surroundings and more can impact human perception of flavor. So can memories.
If the sight and smell of brats boiling in beer before hitting the grill brings back fond memories of family and friends, science stands little chance of changing your mind.
When it comes to a beer bath for the brats, Sindelar said it's possible to change the bratwurst because even at a proper hold temperature of around 140 degrees, the brats are slowly cooking. Limit time to a couple of hours, but less is best.
While cooking method impacts final results, there's no helping a bratwurst that doesn't suit your tastes.
A bratwurst maker's use of seasonings and quality of meat impact the final product, but so does the coarseness of the meat grind.
Coarser grinds deliver a big flavor hit up front that fades as the meat is chewed. Finer grinds need the chewing process to release layers of flavors.
Generally, a Wisconsin bratwurst is meaty and salty with a hint of sage, ginger, coriander and nutmeg.
A true German or European style bratwurst will be more subtle, said Sindelar, with all flavors present and balanced.
With all of this in mind I embarked on ingestigative reporting. I wanted to use fresh bratwurst that are widely available across Wisconsin. By that standard, that means Johnsonville Sausage Company and Klement's Sausage Company.
Also, I'm aware there's a butcher shop in your town that makes "the best" bratwurst, but that's a story for another day.
Brats went directly from package to a gas grill set to medium-low heat. Yeah, yeah, I hear purists screaming that I should have used charcoal but using gas allowed me to eliminate heat as a variable.
Johnsonville Original BratwurstCost: $4.29-$6.49
Weight: 19 ounces
Cooking time: 35 minutes
Splitting: None to minimal.
Browning: I probably went 5 minutes past done to get the golden brown color I like.
Tasting notes: Big immediate hit of salty, pork fat flavor backed by slight peppery bite. Other seasoning flavors are muted.
Klement's BratwurstCost: $2.49-$4.49
Weight: 16 ounces
Cook time: 25 minutes but I moved them to an upper rack away from the heat after about 20 minutes. They could have been served at that time.
Splitting: Three of five had significant splits which started about 10 minutes into grilling.
Browning: Easily turned a beautiful golden-brown.
Tasting notes: A wonderful blend of classic brat seasoning complements mild pork flavor. Each bite brings out more flavor. Slow down and chew longer to get the most out of these brats.
More:Johnsonville brats: How a small town Wisconsin butcher shop joined the global sausage race
More: Use the right beer to make those bratwurst even better