German Sausage: A Guide to the Best of Oktoberfest Meats
Bratwurst. Knockwurst. Weisswurst. With so many "wursts" in the world of German sausage, it's easy to get a bit confused. But never fear—with the help of Matt Reichel (head chef at legendary Chicago restaurant The Berghoff) and Vincent Delagrange (head butcher at Cleveland's Ohio City Provisions), we've created a guide to German sausages that'll make you more familiar with some of the Oktoberfest food you're bound to see this fall.
- What It Is: While any wiener on a bun is technically considered a brat, the authentic German varieties are usually made with veal or pork and seasoned with fresh herbs like parsley.
- How It's Made: Regardless of the variety, every brat is intended to be grilled and put in a bun.
- Beer Pairing: A classic German sausage deserves a classic German beer, so go with an Oktoberfest-style lager, known in Germany as a märzen.
"Lighter and mellower, but that's not to say they're not robust."
– The Berghoff chef Matt Reichel
- What It Is: Think of these as the hot dog's stubbier, slightly more flavorful cousin. According to Reichel, "knockwurst is kind of similar to a hot dog in format, texture, and color. It has garlic, but it's not overpowering." A telltale sign of a great knockwurst? A solid snap of the casing when you bite into it.
- How It's Made: Knockwurst is aged for a couple days before it's smoked, after which chefs will either grill or boil it..
- Beer Pairing: The earthy, nutty notes of a dark bock beer work well with the knockwurst's garlicky profile.
"The closest thing you'll get to an American hot dog." – Reichel
- What It Is: A truly old-school sausage, the thuringer is typically made with ground beef (and sometimes pork) and is known for its strong spice profile, which usually includes marjoram and caraway. Reichel says that The Berghoff's thuringer, which is spiced with mustard, is "one of the more flavorful sausages [they] carry."
- How It's Made: German food laws (which are, in fact, real) are unsurprisingly strict about how to make different types of sausage, and they dictate that a true thuringer is at least 6 inces long. They're sometimes smoked, and they're usually grilled or fried in a pan.
- Beer Pairing: The bitter, hoppy notes of an IPA pair well with the thuringer's strong spices while also serving as a tasty palate cleanser.
"Different from most other German 'wursts' because of the unique spice blend used: caraway, marjoram and garlic"
– Butcher Vincent Delagrange
- What It Is: Black, peppery blutwurst are literally made of blood—though that's blood that's been congealed over low heat and thickened with ingredients such as oatmeal.
- How It's Made: Blutwurst is usually fried, sliced, and served cold in deli-meat-like slices.
- Beer Pairing: Since the blutwurst is on the richer end of the spectrum of German sausages, a crisp and light German pilsner is a good choice for a pairing.
"A hearty sausage made with the blood of an animal mixed with grain. As bold as those who try it." – Delagrange
- What It Is: Weisswurst (German for "white sausage") is a veal sausage that gets its pale color from cream and eggs. It's a specialty in Munich, and it's traditionally served with rye bread and sweet mustard.
- How It's Made: The traditional way to make these mild, slightly sweet links is to poach and serve them in the same pot of water.
- Beer Pairing: Since weisswurst are a breakfast and brunch staple in Bavaria, an easy-going, citrusy wheat beer is a natural pairing.
"A light sausage in color and flavor, a favorite midday snack in Bavaria." – Delagrange
Tips for Picking Out Quality German Sausage
It's one thing to order a plate of wursts at a German restaurant or Oktoberfest, but how does one go about choosing the best German sausages at a store or butcher? To help, Reichel and Delagrange offered up some tips.
Look for natural casing.
"I've had some sausages with synthetic [casings]; I don't particularly care for them. I think it's like eating plastic and shoe leather. They're chewy, and the casing is not the part you want to chew—it's what's inside that you want" Reichel says.
Delagrange agrees. "[Natural casing] just enhances the eating experience. There's a textural difference, which is enjoyable."
Be adventurous, and try something new.
That means trying sausages made with other proteins besides pork. "Years ago, I was making a scallop sausage with shrimp, spinach, and spices," he says. "That was 30 years ago. [Today], anybody who's into charcuterie is going to sell 20 or 30 different styles."
For Delagrange, the adventure lies in introducing a new generation to a time-honored tradition. "To a certain extent, to cook some of this stuff is an opportunity to almost time travel and re-create a meal that's been made for hundreds of years. And that's always kind of a cool experience," Delagrange says.
Buy from a local butcher.
"Especially in Chicago, there are some really great butchers," Reichel says. Plus, when "buying local, you don't have to worry about [the sausages] being on a plane that couldn't land anyway because of the wonderful weather we have," he jokes.
Cleveland also has a robust butchery scene, and at Delagrange's local grocer and butcher shop, freshness is key. "Our stuff is ground, cased, and put in the case within three days. So it's always going to be pretty fresh," Delagrange says. "We don't have robots doing it, either."
Top photo by staff photographer Andrew Nawrocki
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