Jerky — meat that has been dried to a very low moisture content and usually does not require refrigeration — is a favorite snack food for many Americans. In days gone by, jerky was made to preserve meat while it was plentiful, and was eaten when fresh meat was scarce. Today, it is often considered a snack food. Jerky is a light, compact protein source, making it a handy food for backpackers and other outdoor enthusiasts.
Some say Native Americans made the first jerky thousands of years ago, using buffalo. Others say jerky came from South America, where the Quechua tribe, ancestors of the ancient Incas, produced a dried meat called ch’arki, or charqui. It was made by adding salt to strips of meat and allowing those strips to dry in the sun or over fires. Jerky was used along with dried fruit and animal fat to make pemmican.
Spanish explorers in the Americas learned to make jerky and brought it back to Europe. Later, American cowboys and pioneers adapted making jerky for their travels. Their techniques made jerky an American staple food. The meat strips could be sun-dried or dried on a scaffold over a slow, smoky fire for half a day. If it was not convenient to stop for any length of time, pioneer wagons would lumber along with strips of meat hung on the side to dry. Chuck wagon cooks carried jerky dried in strips that were sometimes 6 feet long. They prepared meals for hungry cowboys by adding chunks of jerky to stew. A lone cowboy would soften the jerky in water for a tasty meal.
Beef jerky makes a good nutritional snack, but it is expensive since a pound of meat dries to about 4 ounces. Jerky can be stored in a cool, dry place in zipper-seal bags for up to three months. However, if you see any moisture forming on the inside of the bag, either dry the jerky further by putting it back in the oven or dehydrator, or refrigerate it.
Whether in the pantry or the refrigerator, you will find jerky too tasty to stay around very long. Here are some things you should know before making this wonderful meaty snack.
• Jerky can be made by drying it in the sun, the oven, a dehydrator, some sort of smoking apparatus, or even the microwave (though we don’t recommend it).
• Jerky should be stored in airtight, snap-top containers or zipper-seal bags in a cool, dry place.
• A vacuum packer is ideal.
• After jerky has been completely cooled and put into storage containers, check to see if moisture forms on the inside of the container or bag. If any moisture is present, the jerky must either be stored in the refrigerator or freezer, or put back in the oven, dehydrator, smoker, etc., for additional drying time.
• Small shiny patches of fat on finished jerky can be wiped off before storing.
• Jerky can be stored on a pantry shelf for up to three months.
• Jerky loses about three-quarters of its weight during the drying process.
• Flank steak, top round, or any meat with low fat works well for making jerky.
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