Bo Moreno really wants to produce his own sausage for Moreno Barbecue. Since the South Austin joint moved into a brick-and-mortar location last year, Moreno added more staff. But he still doesn’t have the employee he needs to trim, grind, season, stuff, and smoke the sausages. In the meantime, he needs a way to not waste the raw beef scraps trimmed from every brisket. So Moreno is now in the burger business; both smashed and smoked burgers—along with melted beef tallow—are on the menu.
Barbecue joints have been using beef and pork scraps for smoked sausage since the late 1800s, when the first meat markets began selling barbecue. It was an effort to eliminate waste and to hone a time-honored craft. Sausage-making is still alive and well in Texas barbecue, but it’s not a simple process to turn cold, raw meat into hot guts. Specialized equipment is required to stuff the ground meat into casings. The meat needs to be kept extremely cold, so it’s often necessary to interrupt the process in order to re-chill the meat. Careful measuring of seasonings and adequate mixing—but not too much—is required to create a uniform batch. And traditional Texas sausages are smoked twice to get the right snap. The process is a real grind compared with forming patties for a burger.
Whether it’s used in burgers, sausage, or even chili, brisket trim needs to go toward something profitable. The three-year average cost for Choice grade brisket on the wholesale market between 2017 and 2019 never crested over $3 per pound. Since April of last year, that same product has been above $4 per pound for more weeks than it’s been below that mark. That’s a huge jump—and thus far it’s been a painful, sustained increase rather than an uncomfortable spike. Getting everything out of those expensive briskets is now, more than ever, a high priority for pitmasters.
Burgers and barbecue haven’t mixed all that much in Texas until fairy recently. Yes, there was Guy’s Meat Market in Houston, which served its smoked burger for decades before closing down in 2017, and a few other barbecue joints that offered a griddled cheeseburger for the smoke-averse. Then, in 2015, Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ in Austin started serving its half-pound smoked burgers as a Thursday special. LeRoy and Lewis Barbecue followed a couple years later with what is still my favorite smoked burger in Texas. After the folks at Tejas Chocolate + Barbecue opened a second restaurant in downtown Tomball in 2019 dedicated to the smoked burger, Tejas Burger Joint, the dam seemed to burst. Since then, I’ve enjoyed smoked burger variations everywhere from Rejino Barbeque in Olton to Smokin’ Moon BBQ in Pharr.
“Burgers were really our quick fix,” Patrick Feges of Feges BBQ in Houston told me. He plans to produce a Hungarian smoked sausage at both locations of Feges BBQ, but he doesn’t yet have the employees to make it happen consistently. Until the sausage can be a destination for all that brisket trim, he’s using it for burgers. The Greenway Plaza location has added smoked burgers as a daily menu item, and the newer Spring Branch location serves a double smash burger that’s seared on the griddle rather than smoked. Similar smashed brisket burgers were a welcome find last year at Bandit BBQ and Weathered Souls in San Antonio.
Brandon Hurtado thought he could make enough beef sausage to use up all his extra brisket trim, but the demand for brisket just kept growing at Hurtado Barbecue in Arlington. He uses two thousand pounds of brisket every week, but loses 15 to 18 percent in trimming. Of that, two hundred pounds of beef go to producing sausage, and the rest is used for smash burgers served daily at the barbecue joint and at Hurtado’s bar next door, Hayter’s. The thin patties have crisp edges, as a proper smash burger should. A fluffy sesame seed bun gets slathered with garlic butter before grilling, and the burger is topped with thick pickle slices and shredded iceberg for more crunch. The side of fries is cooked in a deep fryer full of beef tallow, which also comes from briskets. “We’re using everything we can, because it’s too expensive to go to waste,” Hurtado said.
Melted tallow is sold by the quart every day inside Moreno Barbecue. If you want the smash burger and the smoked burger, you’ll have to plan ahead. For now, the only times to try both are all day Wednesday and on Fridays after 6 p.m. I really enjoyed the juicy patties and the grilled onions on the double cheeseburger, which is only lightly smashed. The smoked burger obviously has more barbecue flavor thanks to the oak smoke, but it also gives more of a barbecue experience with the stout bark, the juicy interior, and the salt and pepper that coats the surface. The thick half-pound patty is the closest I’ve found to the LeRoy and Lewis burger.
Evan LeRoy encourages any pitmaster to get the most out of brisket trim with a simple burger. LeRoy is exacting on the steps needed to produce an excellent burger, but he admitted that “it’s much, much easier” than sausage-making. One downside is that it’s hard to make a burger stand out from a crowd. I’ve often encouraged the craft of sausage-making because it’s a great way to produce a signature item that reflects the pitmaster’s personal tastes. One smoked burger patty might be more juicy or smoky than the next, but most aren’t all that unique.
Then there’s Cash Cow Burger Co. in Buda, a food truck opened by the folks at Valentina’s. You could try the standard smoked patty, but instead go for the signature Mo’ Money burger, available every day. It’s stuffed with Boursin cheese and topped with grilled onions, arugula, and burger sauce. Co-owner Miguel Vidal said Cash Cow will have rotating special burgers, like the El Patron stuffed with cheddar and bacon. Through his creativity, Cash Cow is able to get some personality into each burger, in the same way 2M Smokehouse in San Antonio has used its serrano and Oaxacan cheese pork sausage to help craft its individuality.
To make a great smoked burger at home, start with a fattier mixture than the standard 80/20 ground chuck from the grocery store, as the patty will lose a good deal of fat during the smoking process. Thin patties will dry out in the smoker, so aim for half pounders. Coat the unseasoned patties in a good layer of salt and black pepper just before they go into the smoker. They’ll need to smoke for about an hour. Pull them when the patties are medium rare. Let them rest while a griddle heats up, then sear them well to further develop the crust and to bring the temperature up to medium. If making them at home, you should eat them right away, but if you’re serving them for a party, LeRoy suggests melting the cheese on top to provide a protective layer and setting the patties in a single layer onto a sheet tray coated liberally in beef fat. Dress the bun simply so the flavor of the meat and smoke comes through. Do all this, and it will be difficult to convince yourself you’re eating scraps.