To jerky lovers, it must have seemed like manna when the makers of Jack Link’s air-dropped hundreds of little jerky packets, via miniature parachutes, over a championship youth baseball game in the meat-packing capital of Omaha, Neb. Last year’s “Operation Sky Meat” marked the first National Jerky Day, June 12, in a thoroughly modern American marketing ploy for an age-old international food with year-round appeal.
Ancient Egyptians ate jerky. So did early cultures elsewhere in Africa and in the Andes. When meat was plentiful, it was salted and dried, preserved in a lightweight, portable, protein-dense form.
The term “jerky” derives from the native Peruvian charqui, meaning dried meat, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food.” Cutting meat into long strips and drying them in the sun or by the fire was common among Native Americans and picked up by the colonists. Jerky became a mainstay of the American West.
“It referred to sun-dried meat. You’d slaughter the animal” – cattle, bison, deer, elk or antelope – “and strip or jerk the meat,” explains Don Reeves, an anthropologist and McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Okla.
Cowboys, called “cow hunters” in the 1820s, carried jerky or salted beef when they were moving cattle, Reeves says: “You’d put it in biscuits, or you’d have it in your sack or in your pocket. It was a good source of protein if you were out where you couldn’t get fed.”
Native Americans used jerky – or a ground form of it, mixed with acidic fruit and fat into something known generically as pemmican – as sustenance to get through winter in colder climates. “February used to be called the starvation month in a number of Indian languages,” Reeves says.
Settlers learned jerky preparation from the American Indians. Sarah Cummins, who as a girl in 1845 traveled across Kansas in a wagon, described the technique:
“To prepare this dried or jerked meat, the newly dressed meat is first dipped into a … strong brine, then hung over a frame of small poles and allowed to drain. A fire of hardwood now supplies the drying, curing smoke.”
The advent of reliable, year-round refrigeration has long since turned jerky from necessity to nicety, a convenient protein source for truckers, other travelers and outdoors enthusiasts.
Jerky’s popularity continues to swell. The Snack Food Association, a trade group, reported sales of $259 million in 2012, up 8 percent from the previous year. Jack Link’s alone – from Link Snacks Inc. of Minong, Wis. – accounted for $146 million of that amount.
Jerky has become a staple of gas station-convenience stores, parked beside crunchy snacks and candy bars. It has proliferated on the Web, too, with offerings from nearly every state: beef from Divine Bovine of Palm Desert, Calif.; reindeer or musk ox jerky from Indian Valley Meats in Indian, Alaska; blackstrap beef jerky from Smith’s Log Smokehouse in Monroe, Maine; barbecued alligator jerky from the Beef Jerky Outlet in Fort Myers, Fla.; elk jerky from Pearson Ranch in Colorado Springs, Colo.
It comes in flavors as varied as the imagination. Northern Meats, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula city of Marquette, offers cherry maple beef. Krave Jerky of Sonoma, Calif., sells a basil citrus turkey version. Phu Quy Delight, a Vietnamese shop in Falls Church, Va., peddles French beef jerky spiced with chilies and sugar and another dressed with curry. Snack Hawaii distributes teriyaki ahi tuna jerky, among many flavors. (I once had salmon jerky that a tribal guide stripped from the rafter of the Makah Museum in Neah Bay, Wash., near the northwest tip of the continental United States. It was brittle and smoky but edible.)
In January, Native American Natural Foods, an Oglala Lakota company on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, plans to introduce a cranberry buffalo jerky. It will be part of its Tanka line of buffalo protein bars, bites and sticks, a variation on pemmican but without the fat. The Lakotas’ dried-meat mixture, which they call “wasna,” traditionally was made with animal fat “to have enough calories to get through the winter,” says Mark Tilsen, the food company’s president. “But we don’t add fat because we’re in one of the areas with the highest rates of heart disease, juvenile onset diabetes” and other chronic ailments. Tanka’s low-calorie, high-protein products – including the tender Tanka Bites of buffalo meat with ingredients such as dried apples and orange peel – are available online and through select museums, along with REI and many Whole Foods stores.
The type of hardwood used for smoking also affects jerky flavor. Northern Meats’ owner, Glenn Andrews, says he favors hickory, though he sometimes uses mesquite or cherry to subtly alter the taste.
Good jerky starts with a good cut of meat: top round beef or venison briskets. Drying will reduce the volume by at least 50 percent. The good stuff starts at about $4 for a quarter pound for beef.
If you make jerky yourself, the cost falls – at least after you’ve amortized the cost of supplies. These can include seasonings – marinades or dry rubs – and equipment. A sharp knife and reliable oven are just fine for starters. The more jerky-obsessed might consider investing in equipment such as a smoker or dehydrator. Suppliers such as The Sausage Maker Inc. of Buffalo, N.Y., offer tools such as a “jerky gun” ($49.99) which looks like a caulk gun and ensures uniform strips of ground meat, or the jerky cutting board with knife ($39.99). Like a bagel cutter, it has a guard that separates knife blade from finger tips.
Jerky makers at all levels of experience might do well to consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food safety tips. You want to last at least through the lean season.
You can make jerky with a home oven or dehydrator. After drying the jerky, briefly return it to a 275-degree oven to ensure that it’s safe to consume, the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension advises in a recipe adapted here.
- 1/4 cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon liquid smoke
- 2 pounds lean beef or venison
In large glass or other nonreactive bowl, combine all ingredients except meat. Stir the resulting brine until powder has dissolved.
Slice meat into strips about ¼-inch thick. Add to bowl, mixing meat strips with seasoning until all surfaces are coated. Let stand 1 hour, or cover and refrigerate overnight.
Remove meat strips from brine or seasoning, pat dry with paper towels. Dry indoors using an oven or a dehydrator. Stretch strips across clean oven or dehydrator racks. Strips can be close together but not overlapping. Leave enough open space for air to circulate.
For oven drying, set the temperature to 150 to 175 F. Place filled racks in the oven, but not within 4 inches of the heat source. It may be convenient to place foil on a lower rack in the oven to catch any drips from the meat strips. Dry for 6 to 8 hours – propping oven door open about 1 inch during first few hours to let moisture escape – until meat becomes dry and almost crisp.
For dehydrator, dry at 145 F or higher. Do not use a dehydrator that lacks temperature control or a fan to aid in air circulation. Dry at 145-155 F for 6 to 8 hours.
After drying, return meat strips to oven preheated to 275 degrees. Heat for 10 minutes. This step ensures that homemade jerky is safe to consume.
Remove oven-heated strips and cool on absorbent paper or wire racks. Pat with clean paper towel to remove any beads of fat.
Store in airtight plastic bags or jars with a tight-fitting lid. You can store jerky at room temperature in a cool, dry location for 1 to 2 months, or in the refrigerator or freezer for 3 to 12 months. Freezing or refrigerating jerky will extend the shelf life but is not required for safety. Once dried, jerky can be removed from the freezer or refrigerator and safely placed at room temperature for extended periods of time.
According to the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension, the only home-style dehydrators known to produce safe jerky are the Garden Master Pro from Nesco and the Excalibur from Excalibur. Laboratory research indicates that safe jerky cannot be guaranteed if using other models.
Like bacon but without the fat, jerky adds a depth of flavor to salads and side dishes. This recipe has been adapted from Krave Jerky of Sonoma, Calif.
- 3 cups cooked quinoa, warm or at room temperature*
- 1 cup cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced in half
- 1 ripe avocado, cut into bite-size pieces
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
- 7 tablespoons olive oil (divided)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 1 to 2 teaspoons red curry paste, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon chili flakes, or to taste
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 medium Japanese eggplant
- 2 to 3 teaspoons kosher salt
- 3 to 4 ounces chili lime beef jerky, cut into bite-size pieces
- 2 to 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
In large mixing bowl, combine quinoa, tomatoes, avocado, parsley and, if desired, cilantro.
In a small bowl or jar with lid, combine 5 tablespoons of the olive oil with the red wine vinegar. Add curry paste, chili flakes, salt and pepper to taste, blending thoroughly to make dressing. Pour dressing over quinoa-tomato mixture and toss to coat evenly. Set aside.
Meanwhile, cut eggplant into half-inch cubes (there’s no need to peel the tender skin). Place eggplant in colander, sprinkle with kosher salt and let the mixture sit for 5 minutes. Press eggplant with back of spoon to remove excess moisture.
In a skillet over medium-high heat, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add eggplant and saute until lightly browned.
Stir the eggplant and jerky into the quinoa-tomato mixture. Finish with a sprinkling of lemon juice before serving.
* One cup of dry quinoa, combined with 2 cups of liquid, will yield about 3 cups cooked quinoa. If you don’t have quinoa, substitute rice, faro or another grain.