June 12 is National Jerky Day. Celebrate by gnawing on a hunk of preserved meat!
Jerky probably originated with some of the South American tribes. The Quechua tribe, ancestors of the Inca, created a similar product they called ch’arki (or charqui). Ch’arki was made by salting and spicing the meat from game animals, then drying it in the sun or over a fire for several days. When the Spanish conquistadors were shown this method of preservation they eagerly adopted it.
Smoking meat wasn’t new, nor was the end product called ch’arki. It was the addition of the salt and spices beforehand that made this food special. The practice spread as the Spanish colonized the American Southwest. It became a staple foodstuff for pioneers and cowboys.
Making your own jerky is fairly simple. Start with a cut of lean meat, preferably range- or grass-fed for better flavor. Flank steak is a good cut for jerky, as is London broil, rump roast or brisket. You can also use game meat like venison. You’ll need around five pounds of raw meat to make one pound of jerky.
Modern curing solutions add sodium nitrate to the salt water. This stabilizes the color and prevents the meat from becoming rancid. It also prevents the growth of bacteria. This curing solution is mixed with what’s called the brine, which is a mixture of water, spices, sugars, salt, and phosphates. Common spices can include soy sauce, lemon juice, pepper, garlic powder and maybe even monosodium glutamate (MSG). Worchester sauce or teriyaki sauce can be added. You can try different types of sugar, like sucrose, dextrose, brown sugar, or dark corn syrup. And flavored salts can give your brine a kick. Try hickory or onion flavor. Some people add a flavoring known as liquid smoke, which is simply smoke dissolved in water. This will give your jerky a smoky flavor even if you’re not actually using an open fire. You can even add brandy or sherry if you wish.
If your butcher won’t or can’t slice the meat for you, put it in the freezer until it is firm, but not solid. If you press on it, it should give just a little. Using a good serrated knife, cut against the grain as thinly as possible (about 1/8 of an inch thick). You may want to cut the initial chunk of meat in half before you start cutting, then put the other half back in the freezer so it will be firm enough for you to cut up.
Mix your marinade (you can Google different recipes until you find one that sounds good to you) and pour it into a sealable container. Add the meat slices one at a time, making sure they’re fully submerged. Place the container into the refrigerator and leave it for five or six hours, shaking and rotating every thirty minutes.
If you’re actually drying over a smoky fire, it’s going to take at least eight sunny hours to make jerky. Most people use a dehydrator nowadays. Drain the meat on a rack before you add it to the dehydrator. Some people like to totally dry it off, but that will take some of the flavor away. If your dehydrator comes with a catch-tray (or a fruit-jerky tray), place that on the bottom to collect any drippings.
Arrange the meat slices as close together as possible without actually touching one another. If they touch, they’ll stick together and that may inhibit air flow. Set the dehydrator on its highest temperature and plan on a drying time of four to eight hours (depending on the thickness of the meat).
Before storage, go through your jerky and cut it into more manageable pieces. You can also use kitchen shears and snip off any fat that got through your initial check.
If you don’t have a dehydrator, you can use your oven. Preheat to 175 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and place a rack over the foil. Dry the beef with paper towels and arrange on the rack as in the dehydrator (not touching). Bake for three or four hours until dry and leathery. Use your kitchen shears to cut into smaller slices.
Enjoy your jerky. If you use one of the modern techniques, spare a thought for your characters, who’d have been sitting beside a smoky fire for eight to twelve hours. Happy Jerky Day!