During my recent travels in and around Austin, I got to sample a lot of sausage, one third of the so-called “Holy Trinity” of Texas barbecue (along with brisket and ribs.) Thanks to a mail order shipment from Southside Market in Elgin, I even got to enjoy some as a prelude to the whole hog at a Memorial Day barbecue on the coast of South Carolina. And I’ve quite come to enjoy the stuff.
This Texas barbecue staple originated around the turn of the 20th century in the meat markets founded by German and Czech immigrants, who brought a long tradition of sausage-making to the Lone Star State. Just as barbecue pits allowed them to transform less popular cuts like shoulder clod into a salable smoked product, sausage was a practical (and tasty) way to use up the scraps and trimmings left over from butchering.
Over the decades, a few primary varieties of barbecue sausages have emerged. The most basic, commonly called German beef sausage, is made from coarsely-ground beef at a ratio of around 35% fat to 65% lean meat. It’s seasoned with salt, pepper, and often nothing more. Czech-style sausage incorporates a generous dose of garlic, while the so-called “hot guts,” a specialty of the town of Elgin, spices things up with plenty of cayenne and crushed red pepper.
Once a novelty, jalapeño cheddar sausage—the beef augmented by diced pickled jalapeños and tiny cubes of cheddar—has now achieved iconic status. Some joints incorporate a little pork into their sausage mix—5% at City Market in Luling, 15% at Kreuz Market in Lockhart—but beef is still in the starring role.
In Luling and Lockhart, the sausages are bent into a circle and tied into rings before smoking. In Austin and elsewhere they’re in more the standard sausage link shape. Many joints will let you order by weight and slice the sausage into bite sized chunks for you, but I think you really need a whole, intact link to get the full Texas sausage experience.
A proper sausage has a coarse, meaty grind, not the smooth, finely-ground texture of hot dogs. There should be a good dose of smoke from the pit, and the interior should be exceptionally juicy but not greasy. Most important of all is the tension of the casing. It should snap beneath your teeth when you first bite it, a crisp pop that unleashes all the savory richness inside.
Be sure to have a few napkins or paper towels handy. A really good link will send a gusher of juice spilling out over your fingers when you bite into it. And don’t even think about using a knife and fork. This is Texas, where barbecue is eaten with bare hands, and sausage might be the ultimate finger food.