Since the beginning of time there have been so-called “good” cuts of meat…and what’s left over. Through history the definition of good cuts has morphed, but there are always some trimmings as surplus. Before the introduction of the hamburger and the hamburger joint, the leftover meat was ground, seasoned, and stuffed into intestine to make sausage. Most of this sausage was then smoked to preserve it, refrigeration for the masses being a relatively recent innovation. Old world ethnic sausages are fantastic, regardless of their ethnicity. New world sausages suffer more and more from a sameness: the grind is getting finer, intestine casing has become synthetic, disco chemicals with unpronounceable names have replaced the old preservative salt mixtures, vegetable-based fillers are being used, fat content is getting reduced radically and annually, it goes on and on. Bottom line, it’s hard to find a good sausage to smoke or barbecue these days.
Texas barbecue sausage originated with the German, Czech, and Polish settlers that streamed into Texas between 1831 and the 1880’s. They brought with them their old world style sausages that were made at hog-killing time in the fall, and smoked with the hams, to store for food through the winter. There are countless variations, made in links, ropes, coils, or patties, but the most popular and typical are the ones made with garlic, black pepper, all-beef or all-pork, venison (extremely popular in Texas), turkey, German with mustard seeds, Czech with coarse pepper, “wet”, “dry”, and the all-time favorite: the Elgin “hot gut”.
Elgin (pronounced EL as in elbow, and ghin, as is begin) is a small farming town just northeast of Austin, celebrated nationwide for their barbecue sausage. The sausage known as the “hot gut” originated at the Southside Market, a meat market/smokehouse which opened in 1886. It’s a medium-coarse grind, all-beef, natural casing sausage flavored with garlic, black pepper, and cayenne. Over the years several copies have sprung up, and the original market-barbecue restaurant has moved to shiny new digs. Sadly, the hot guts of today, made by all of the big Elgin companies, are tamer and leaner than those of yore. They’re still quite good though.
Our favorite type of sausage to smoke or barbecue is either an all-beef, all-pork, or beef and pork combination, with a coarse grind, stuffed into a natural medium casing. It needs to be about 25 to 30% fat to still be juicy and have some real flavor (lack of enough fat is the biggest problem facing sausages made today; fat equals flavor). It should have a noticeable garlic flavor, with immediate heat from coarse black pepper, and a singeing finish from cayenne. This is exactly what the old time Elgin hot guts used to be like. The mass producers may have changed their recipes with time, but several of the local operations like Louie Mueller’s in Taylor, and Smitty’s and Kreuz’s in Lockhart, Patek’s in Flatonia, and Gonzalez Market in Gonzalez still make them with the old taste.
We’d be remiss to not mention Texas’ other famous sausage: the incredible smoked turkey sausage made by Billy Ray Inman at Inman’s Ranchouse BBQ in Marble Falls, Texas, a small hill country town a short drive northwest of Austin. Their turkey sausage is quite simply one of the best sausages in Texas. It's a very coarse grind that is hand-stuffed in a large natural casing, then slow-smoked over oak on the pit, with a piquant finish redolent of garlic and black pepper.
Billy Ray’s uncle Lester used his wife Doris’ German grandmother’s recipe for beef or venison sausage and adapted it for turkey, which he started selling during deer hunting season at his Exxon gas station in Llano, Texas in 1960. In 1964 he persuaded his brother Francis to open a satellite branch in Marble Falls, and the Ranch House was born. Francis retired to make candy for a hobby, and son Billy Ray assumed the helm, changing nary a thing. By the way, the only other meat they sell is smoked brisket, which is superb. Another very high quality and but finer ground smoked turkey sausage is made by Vencil Mares, the owner of Taylor Cafe in Taylor, Texas, a small farming village just north of Austin.