Braunschweiger is a polarizing food. Haute cuisine, it's not. But you'll find it in lunch boxes all over town. Advocates love it, critics diss it, and many uninitiated young souls haven't a clue what it is.
It's a type of German pork liver sausage, sometimes called liverwurst. Found in the deli, it's soft, spreadable and nearly always smoked. Where do you stand on the subject of braunschweiger?
Here's my take. I contend that the classic braunschweiger lunch meat is way more than that. It is a gateway sausage, a precursor of today's fashionable artisan-made pates, salumi and charcuterie.
This local expert agrees. "I've never made braunschweiger per se," says Justin Severino, owner of Cure, the housemade-charcuterie-driven bistro on Butler Street in Lawrenceville. "We do smoke a German beer sausage made with pork, pork liver, sofrito and spices, whose texture is between coarse and fine. We also make a pork liver mousse. I'm a firm believer that any sausage made well using solid technique is delicious. Braunschweiger can be that kind of sausage."
Tons of people whom you wouldn't suspect are closet fans of braunschweiger. Ask around. My favorite shocker is a YouTube video of comedian Stephen Colbert teaching Martha Stewart how to make a braunschweiger appetizer. (In the last few seconds of the clip, she lets him lick her blouse.) See it at http://blogs.villagevoice.com/forkintheroad/2010/11/martha_stewart_6.php.
But which brand of braunschweiger is best? We set up a comparative taste test at Crested Duck Charcuterie, a butcher shop and deli in Beechview. Only braunschweiger fans were invited: we were chef-owner Kevin Costa, a couple of pals whose identity I choose to protect because they are on butcher shop watch lists for begging too many free deli samples, and yours truly. We tasted six samples, comparing their appearance, texture, ingredients and price. The results are in.
Crested Duck's house-made artisanal pork liver mousse, dark in hue, smooth and silky, set the baseline. Made with pureed pork liver, cream, butter, olive oil, onions and garlic, it was intense and full-flavored. Without a casing and classy enough to be called a pate, it could be a sophisticated first course when plated with baguette slices, gherkins, capers and mustard. As Mr. Costa remarked, "This is for special occasions. A little goes a long way." It's $19 a pound.
We also sampled Silver Star, made locally in McKees Rocks; Alberts, made in Taylorstown near Washington, Pa.; Schaller & Weber, and two other commercial deli brands of braunschweiger sold in supermarkets, all about $5 per pound. Each has its fiercely devoted fans, but we weren't among them.
Our panel voted Usinger's Milwaukee-style braunschweiger Best in Show uber alles the deli brands. Made with pork liver, pork, salt, beef, onions and spices, it is soft, creamy, spreadable and peppery in flavor. Sliced or spread, it is most suited to sandwiches. The only source for the Usinger's product in Pittsburgh is McGinnis Sisters stores, where it retails for $8.99 a pound. A spokeswoman for the stores says, "We sell braunschweiger weekly all year long to a mature demographic."
Grandma might have some braunschweiger in the fridge, especially if she's German. To her and many older folks, it's comfort food. One of the earliest sightings of braunschweiger -- named for the German town of Braunschweig -- was in 1934, and it gained popularity during pre- and post-WWII years. It became, and remains, an iconic lunch box staple.
By 1840, Pittsburgh's local population was made up mainly of Germans, Scotch-Irish and English immigrants, according to a researcher at the Heinz History Center. Around that time, half the population in both Pittsburgh and the City of Allegheny (now the North Side) was German. Part of the North Side, then home to many breweries, still is called "Deutschtown."
Besides their language and customs, the Germans brought along their foods including their beloved sausages, or wursts: Bratwurst, weisswurst, blutwurst, bockwurst and leberwurst, the last of which, when smoked, becomes braunschweiger.
Some people still like their lunch time braunschweiger spread on soft white bread and smeared with mayonnaise or butter, but others will hold the mayo and top it with ketchup instead. For a hot version, slice and fry in a pan and serve on toast, sometimes with a little ketchup. No wonder the stuff gets a bad rap.
Here's the sequence to making today's quintessential sandwich:
Take two slices of rye bread and spread them with a thin coat of mayonnaise. Pile on several quarter-inch slices of braunschweiger, top with a generous slice of Bermuda (sweet) onion and lightly sprinkle with coarse salt. Add the top slice of bread, cut on the diagonal, and lift a bottle of full-flavored beer. That's heaven, people. Heaven.
Want to try before you buy? Max's Allegheny Tavern over on the North Side makes an open-face Bavarian Club sandwich. Thick slices of Breadworks rye bread are stacked high with Usinger's Milwaukee braunschweiger, strips of grilled bacon, slices of hardboiled egg and sweet onion, tomato and spinach. The "sammitch" is topped with a secret sauce that looks a whole lot like 1000 Island dressing. Drinking anything but a beer with it would be an insult to Germany.
If you have a braunschweiger memory, send us an email.
Silver Star Braunschweiger Spread
- 8 ounces Silver Star Braunschweiger
- 8 ounces cream cheese
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
Mix all together and spread on favorite cracker.
Marlene Parrish: 412-481-1620 or firstname.lastname@example.org .