Undoubtedly all of us have heard at one point or another, don’t use a fork to flip your meat. It’s easily one of, if not, the most prevalent grilling tips out there. Heck I even wrote about it 3 years ago, and our friends at Johnsonville made a music video out of the concept. But recently I’ve been thinking about this more and more. I use an instant read thermometer to make sure I get my food not only to a safe temp, but to try and also avoid overcooking. As you’re probably aware this involves sticking a probe into the meat. Naturally, I try to limit the amount of times I do this, but it does raise an interesting dilemma. How bad is it to pierce your meat products?
I think it’s safe to reason that it really depends on the sort of meat your cooking. Let’s assume we’re speaking about a true cut of meat like a steak, chicken breast, or something else just cut from a muscle. I can’t recall I’ve ever seen a geyser of liquid come pouring out of something like that from a simple prick. However when I think of sausage I do know that once the integrity of the casing is broken the juices will run pretty consistently. I’m no scientist, nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express recently, but I would be willing to bet that the combination of the ground meat, seasonings, and casing all contribute to this problem.
To test that hypothesis I decided to try some brats 4 different ways. For 2 of them I would grill them only using tongs for one, and a fork for the other. The other 3 would be trialed in a “hot tub” of sorts, which is basically a poaching liquid. For the ones going into the liquid I would cook 1 before hand, using tongs, then submerge it in the bath for 10 minutes and the last one I would cook the brat in the liquid and then finish it off on the grill.
The guinea pig for this test was a pack of Johnsonville Beer n’ Bratwurst that I had in the freezer. These were most likely purchased at the beginning of May so they haven’t been in the freezer too long. Will using a previously frozen product affect the results of the test? Maybe. I just know that they’ve all been subjected to the same conditions and since this is somewhat of an abusive study I didn’t want to use a brand new pack.
The “hot tub” recipe I’m using is one I got from the Johnsonville site. It is pretty simple being nothing more than a mixture of beer, onion, and butter. They call for pregrilling the brats, but as noted above we’re doing them 2 ways. Since my grill of choice for this experiment will be my go to tailgating grill, the Weber Q100, I am going to downsize the size of this so that I have some room to spare for grilling.
Since it would be tedious, and somewhat lenghthy, to post the the all data from the test within the confines of this post I’ve decided to post that information here in a PDF file. My summary of the testing follows in the next paragraphs.
As you might have guessed “Brat 2”, that was turned with the fork lost the most weight, and was in my opinion the worst of the bunch. It should be noted that I made every effort to keep the use of the fork to a minimum while still using it as the only tool, but due to the loss of control and precision that you might find with tongs, this was a tall task.
The shocking result for me in the test was how much liquid “Brat 1”, which was grilled with tongs, lost during cooking. Based on my own observation it seems that even the slightest sticking to the grates, or over squeeze with the tongs, was enough to make small tears in the casing. It was still better than “Brat 2” though. Based on this small sample size there was little difference between Brat 1 and 2 in tasting, both benefited from a thorough browning and developed much of their flavor from that.
The “hot tub” brats easily retained more weight throughout their cooking. Brat 3, grilled then placed in the tub, was the standout winner among all the entries. It had a similar flavor from a good browning on the grill, and the increased moisture really made for a pleasant experience. Brat 4, tub then grill, was my predicted winner before the test, but I failed to give it a good browning on the grill due to time constraints.
Even though only preparing one sample with each cooking method is going to make for a less than perfect experiment, I do think that it was valid enough to make these quick points:
- The test still confirmed that you will lose more juice if you stab your brats during cooking. Plus the rapid release of grease and fat could lead to more flare ups. Not to mention that the fork just felt plain clumsy when using it for that task. Stick to tongs.
- Since you should cook brats to at least 160 F you have to make sure you go slow. It should take between 15-20 minutes according to the Johnsonville instructions. I think if you go too fast you’ll end up with a charred mess that is under-cooked. If time is an issue go with a precooked product.
- The “hot tub” proved to be a beneficial tool. I can see it being especially handy when you have a longer tailgate planned and you may want to eat several times without cooking multiple times. It kept the sausage hot and moist, and the onions that have been simmering in beer are amazing as a condiment.
The final point I’d like to make is that all of the Brats were still delicious, even if some were better than others. Start with a good quality product and you will have to be pretty negligent to end up with a bad result.