IT’S CHEWY. REALly chewy. Jaw-numbingly chewy. But once you’ve chewed your waythrough a slice of jerky, you’ll find you can’t stop at just one.
"Man eats jerky by the ton, piece by savory piece," says A.D. Livingston, author of "Jerky — Make Your Own Delicious Jerky and Jerky Dishes Using Beef, Venison, Fish, or Fowl."
One reason is the blend of intricate flavors:Jerky is salty, smoky and sometimes downright spicy, depending on the recipe the cook has used.
And, because it’s made from lean cuts of meat, it’s naturally low in fat and high in protein.
It’s also the perfect backpack food for schoolchildren, picnickers and outdoor enthusiasts: The moisture has been removed, making it as light as a leaf.
Jerky might be considered the earliest snack food. A South American native tribe called the Quechua made it as early as 1550, and our forefathers dried meats and seafood into jerky as a matter of necessity, to preserve the food for long periods without refrigeration. The North American Cree Indians also made a jerkytype food called pemmican, using a powder of dried venison or buffalo.
Ah, for the simplicity of yesteryear. Nowadays, there are hundreds of recipes for making jerky, but the most basic calls for thin strips of meat (usually beef) to be salted and slowly dried.
From there, it’s all up to the cook’s creative juices. Up for something ethnic? Think recipes for Chinese Beef Jerky, Kaula (Hawaiian-style Jerky) or Mexican Jerky.
Don’t want beef? Use wild game, poultry, fish and even tofu.
Love to experiment with flavors? Use a variety of seasonings and herbs. Salt is traditionally used as the main preservative, but if you want to leave it out, acids such as vinegar and citrus juice in marinades can help kill bacteria. Salt, however, also helps draw out moisture from the meat.
The hardest part of making jerky is the time commitment. It can be a pain cutting the meat into 1/4-inch thick strips, and then it can take up to eight hours or more of oven drying to complete.
On the Colorado USA — Do it Yourself JerkyPageWeb site, www.diac.com/~ek wall2/jerky/, Steve Ekwall recommends letting the butcher at the grocery store do the slicing for you.
"Buy your rump roast and have them slice it on their slicing machine," he says. "It’s quick and easy and most food stores don’t charge anything to do it."
Then, unless you have a special recipe, make a brine. Jerky is generally brined in a solution using 2-1/2 cups pickling salt per 3 quarts of water, plus any optional herbs and spices. After one to two days, remove the meat from the brine, pat it dry and proceed with drying.
"The concept of making jerky is simple: constant low heat and moving air to dry out the seasoned meat evenly," says Peggy Trowbridge, a food writer and contributor to homecooking.about.com. "It’s a fine balance: high enough heat to withdraw moisture, but not hot enough to cook the meat. Adequate airflow is necessary to move the moist air to disperse it."
What’s the best method for drying jerky? For the home cook, ovens or food dehydrators work well.
Ovens: It’s important that the heat setting be as low as possible. The optimum drying temperature is 145 degrees. Do not use the broiling element. If the oven isn’t vented, place a wooden spoon in the opening to hold the door ajar. Then place a fan blowing toward the oven door, which will create the necessary air circulation. Do not overload the oven.
Dehydrators: These machines have multiple layers of stacking trays and operate at 145 degrees. Remember, the lower trays will get more heat than the top trays. Keep an eye on the jerky, and rotate the trays from top to bottom at least every hour.
Smokers: If you have a nonelectric smoker and a lot of patience, you can make some delicious jerky in it. However, it’s hard work keeping the smoker at a constant 140 degrees unless you use an electric smoker.