A friend informed me that she was about to take her first camping trip. She planned to join a woman’s group for a weekend camping in a state park. Having camped a time or two myself, I gifted her with several slabs of classic camping fare: beef jerky.
She was not impressed.
In fact, she was disdainful, literally turning her nose upward and only taking the proffered bag by holding it at arm’s length and muttering something about “too much testosterone in the recipe.” However, when next I spoke with her, I found she had converted. The jerky had, once again, proven an iconic camping nosh, applauded by the other women in her crew.
Jerky definitely has its own mystique and has been frequently identified with the outdoors. Even before television commercials featuring an endorsement by Sasquatch, legions of campers, climbers, cavers, anglers, paddlers, hunters, hikers and outdoorspeople in general looked to jerky for portable protein. It’s no-preparation, very nourishing and can be quite tasty.
What’s in the Name?
Jerky’s origin can be found in humankind’s quest to preserve food from abundant times. Perhaps the first jerky was made by the ancient Egyptians drying massive amounts of meat by slicing it and laying the slices out in the sun to dry. Dried foods found preserved in tombs give evidence to jerky’s durability.
Jerky got its name nearly 500 years ago when a South American native tribe, the Quechua, ancestors of the Incan empire, began drying fresh meat as a method of preventing it from spoiling. Called ch’arki, or charqui, the Quechua used the sun, wind, and smoke from fires to preserve and extend the meat’s “shelf life.”
Later identified with cowboys and cattlemen from the American West, their jerky was mainly cow meat and meat scraps left over from butchering, cut into thin strips, heavily salted and then dried. Inhibiting bacteria growth with the salt enables jerky to last so long without refrigeration. Today’s commercial jerky can be thin strips of beef, pork, lamb, venison, poultry, or even ground and formed meat. But, the best jerky can come out of your own kitchen.
Making Your Own
Food safety is extremely important when making jerky. Following strict food safety precautions — starting with cleaning all equipment, surfaces and containers — can help prevent foodborne illnesses such as Salmonella and E. Coli.
Traditionally, jerky was often cured in salt, possibly mixed with sodium nitrite, as a first step. Curing is another line of defense against bacteria and enables the finished jerky to last longer. Curing is optional if the meat is heated to 160 F, and fowl to 165 F. The goal, however, is to dry the meat, not cook it.
Rather than hanging strips of meat out in the sun, wind and smoke to dry a la Quechua, try using a culinary dehydrator or a kitchen oven. A culinary dehydrator can cost under $100, will dry the jerky evenly and quickly, and can also create dried fruits and veggies. To avoid adding yet one more appliance to your kitchen countertop, you can also make quality jerky in a standard residential oven.
Partially freeze the meat, then use a sharp knife to cut it into quarter-inch thick strips. Drop the strips into a plastic bag and add marinade to thoroughly coat the strips. Seal the bag, place it in the refrigerator, and let it marinate for up to a full day. Drape the marinated strips over the oven racks after placing a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven to catch the drippings. For a less messy method, put one layer of strips on wire racks placed on foil-covered baking sheets. Again, the goal is to dry the meat, not cook it. Heat the jerky at 175 degF., flipping it once, for about 4 hours until it is dry and firm, but still pliable. Store it in a sealed container or plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Basic Jerky Marinade
- 1/2 cup soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 2 teaspoons steak seasoning
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- For a sweeter, tenderer jerky, add 1 tablespoon sugar to the marinade
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. Email your questions and comments to RHWay2Go@gmail.com.