Regular readers of this blog are used to hearing about my jerky-making. I thought it would be fun to take some of what I’ve learned over the years, along with links to people who know a lot more than I do, and put all of the information in one place. So this is the first of a special series of jerky-related posts, which I hope will be interesting and useful.
I love jerky. What’s not to love? It’s salty, and smoky, and chewy, and (often) peppery, and just generally a wonderful snack. When properly made, it’s low-fat and high-protein (it’s nowhere near low-sodium, of course, so you can’t exactly call it health food).
Multiple sources I’ve found online suggest that the word “jerky” came from the Quechua word “ch’arki,” which the Spanish invaders turned into “charque.” Jerky began with the native Americans, and it was a way of preserving meat and making it easily transportable. Today, we think of salt and smoke as flavor elements, but the salt is actually there as a preservative, and the early jerky was dried over a fire, the smoke helping to keep away insects. Even the peppery flavor of jerky may relate to ancient people recognizing capsaicin’s natural anti-microbial properties.
In its finished form, jerky is well-preserved because it’s a quite inhospitable place for microbes. There’s little moisture, and that moisture is a hyper-saturated syrup of salt, sugar, and possibly other ingredients such as nitrite cures. The trouble comes in getting a nice, refrigerated piece of raw meat from point A to point B in a safe manner while preserving the expected flavor profiles. Jerky-making takes time, and time increases the risk of spoilage if you don’t handle the meat correctly.
There are differences of opinion about what’s safe and what’s tasty. The USDA insists that jerky be heated to a minimum of 160 degrees, essentially cooking it, before it is dried. But some sources, such as wildlife writer A.D. Livingston and Food Network personality Alton Brown, say that the flavor of cooked jerky is different and that carefully-sourced and carefully-handled meat can be dried at lower temperatures to preserve more of the rare beef flavor.
Jerky’s been around for ages, but its renewed popularity in the past decade or two stems from high-protein diet fads and from the easy availability of electric dehydrators. I use a dehydrator to make jerky, and so that’s most of what I’ll talk about here, but there are other methods, and I’ll mention them as well.
Making your own jerky has several advantages. It’s fun; it costs a lot less per ounce than store-bought jerky (although you may end up eating more of it, which eliminates some of the savings), and it lets you control flavors and ingredients.
First, let’s define what jerky is. Jerky can be made from a variety of meats, not just beef and venison. The selection of usable meats increases if you’re willing to cook the meat before drying it. Beef, of course, is readily available everywhere, and venison jerky is popular because it gives hunters a way to dispose of excess meat. A couple of years ago, a high-school classmate of mine had a large amount of venison and offered, if I would make it into jerky, to let me keep half of the finished product. I’d have done it as a favor to him, although I much prefer beef jerky to venison jerky. In any case, he never followed through.
Most of what I’ll write here applies equally well to beef and venison jerky, so if you’ve got venison, you’re in business.
Jerky, in its simplest form, is meat that has been flavored and/or cured, and then dried. It does not have to be — and should not be — completely dessicated or rock-hard. It should have enough moisture to remain chewable.
Beef sticks, like Slim Jims, are not beef jerky. They’re a form of sausage, made with a casing, and are much higher in fat than jerky. Jerky-makers try to avoid fat as much as possible.
There are two different types of jerky: whole muscle, or sliced, jerky, and ground meat jerky. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll explore.
That’s a quick overview to get us started. In the next installment, I’ll talk about equipment.