Although beef jerky is probably best known as an American pioneer tradition (think John Wayne westerns or Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett), various cultures around the world have been drying meats as a method of preservation for nearly 500 years. Today, beef jerky continues to be a popular snack among a wide range of people, and for good reason. It is lightweight, portable, convenient and delicious. Whether you’re hiking the trails or commuting to the office, jerky can be a quick and delicious snack to keep your energy levels up and your taste buds satiated.
Here’s a quick look at some of jerky’s notable history:
Biltong originated in South Africa in the 17th century. Dutch settlers used their recipes for drying meats in order to preserve game in the hot climate. Preparation begins with marinating the meat for a few hours in a vinegar solution, then adding spices — coriander, black pepper, brown sugar and salt. The meat is drained of any excess marinade and hung to dry. A medium cure is achieved in 4-5 days of drying. The pioneers settling North America dried meat by hanging it for several days on their wagons. This method lent itself to spoilage and disease however, so they soon began smoking meat over low fires while they camped. This method cured the meat in a matter of hours, compared to days for sun-drying on the wagons. Inasmuch as the smoking method required stopping on the trail, smoking provided for a better curing of the meat and reduced spoilage and disease. North American natives created pemmican from a pressed mixture of cooked meats and berries. Available meats included elk, deer, and of course buffalo. South Americans began drying slices of salted meat in the sun or over smoldering fires as early as the mid-sixteenth century. Most notably were the Quechua Tribe, a faction of the Inca Empire, who called their concoction Ch’arki. The Spanish Conquistadors hung strips of goat meat on their ships as a method of preserving it during their long voyages. As they colonized the Americas, their name for their dried meat, Charqui, became prevalent. It is the etymological root of what we now know as jerky.
Let’s get adventurous!
Just because jerky has been around for centuries doesn’t mean you can’t be a pioneer in your own kitchen! Making your own homemade beef (or elk or venison or buffalo) jerky is not only simple and fun, you also avoid the unhealthy nitrites, nitrates and other preservatives typically found in store-offered packaged jerky. And you can control all the flavors you want to add.
Here’s my simple yet delicious recipe for making a medium-hot yet sweet jerky that is sure to please: I’ll use a 2.5-3 pound top round roast, often packaged as London Broil. (As an aside, London Broil is not a cut of meat, it is a style of cooking. Typically what is marked as London Broil will be a Top Round Roast. These work great for jerky as they are quite lean and usually well trimmed.) Trim off any excess fat and slice the roast into half-inch thick strips. Place the strips in a bowl or baking dish. Add the marinade (see below) and stir the meat strips around to coat them well. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 12-24 hours. Occasionally (every 4 to 6 hours) stir the mixture, to get an even saturation into the meat. Ideally, you want the meat to become an even brownish color throughout; this means the meat has absorbed the fullest amount of flavor from your marinade. To make the marinade, we’ll combine what’s on hand in the kitchen with a heaping dose of imagination. Truly, you can add just about whatever you like. Here’s one of my favorites:
- Worcestershire Sauce — 5 or 6 good squirts for a 2-3 pound roast.
- Frank’s Red Hot (or any hot pepper sauce) — 5 to 10 dashes depending on how hot you like it.
- PickaPeppa Sauce (or any fruity spicy sauce) — a couple teaspoons or so.
- Red Pepper Flakes — optional, but you know you want them.
- Molasses — about 2 tablespoons. This gives a depth of sweetness behind all the hot flavors we’ve just added, and really enhances the finished product!
Mix the ingredients well, and pour over the meat. As mentioned previously, stir the mixture every four hours or so during its marinating process. Total marinade time should be at least overnight, preferably longer. I do about 16 hours. When the meat has finished marinating, lay the strips on your dehydrator trays. Try to keep the strips flat, and avoid letting strips touch each other. A 2-3 pound roast in strips should use four to five trays. Run the dehydrator at 165 degrees Fahrenheit (or highest setting). Depending on your dehydrator, it may take from 4-12 hours to finish. My unit takes just about 6 hours to make great jerky from a wet marinade. Your time will vary depending on your dehydrator, the thickness of your strips, your environment, and most importantly, how dry you like your jerky. Check it often as it cooks, and when its texture is as you like it, call it done. (Be sure to let it cook for at least four hours… this should kill any active bacteria.) Just to be safe, I recommend refrigerating your jerky, in an airtight container. It should last upwards of two weeks refrigerated, perhaps longer. If you wish, for longer-term storage, your jerky can also be frozen; be sure to use well-sealed plastic bags or airtight containers to prevent freezer burn. The most important aspect of beef jerky is to enjoy it, both the preparation and the consumption!! So, on that note, enjoy!