Do-it-yourself Jerky
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“Do-it-yourself Jerky,” New Era, Nov. 1973, 14

Do-it-yourself Jerky

The next time you go past the check-out counter at a grocery store you’ll probably notice a little glass jar with thin strips of dried meat in it. If you’ve ever eaten jerky before, your mouth will probably start watering; you’ll unscrew the lid of the jar, pull out a strip, and start munching your way right back into history. Jerky is meat that has been preserved by drying. It was used by the ancient Egyptians, the American Indians in both North and South America, the early explorers and pioneers, and many others.

In North America the Indians cut meat from wild game, especially buffalo, into long thin strips that they hung high in the tepee or over a campfire. The smoke and heat then circulated up and around the meat and helped dry it. Pyroligneous acid in the smoke, especially hardwood smoke, flavored the meat and helped preserve it.

Jerky was an ideal food for the early explorers who had to travel long distances carrying few provisions. Meat is 70 percent water and 20 percent protein, so when two-thirds of the water is removed by drying, the protein content, percentage-wise, increases, and the total weight decreases. This allowed the hardy adventurers to travel light, and since the high quality protein in meat includes the essential amino acids, the adventurers were able to remain healthy on a jerky diet in spite of the strenuous lives they led.

Sergeant Daniel Tyler, a member of the Mormon Battalion, recorded, “We jerked beef until about 2 P.M., when we were ordered to take up the line of march. This order gave much dissatisfaction, as another day or even the remainder of this day and night would have enabled us to dry much more meat without increasing the weight of our loads.”

The frontier has long since disappeared under a flood of steel mills and supermarkets, and now we can refrigerate our meat instead of jerking it, but jerky still tastes just as good as it did when Jim Bridger gnawed on a hunk of it while discovering the Great Salt Lake.

Unfortunately it costs more. Our forefathers could take venison from the hills without a please or a thank you, but the little glass jar at the check-out counter wants at least 15 cents every time you unscrew its lid.

There’s a way to sidestep the little glass jar. Why not do what Sergeant Daniel Tyler did? Why not jerk it yourself? It’s just as easy now as it was then, and it’s nice to have a pocketful of savory jerky to suck on when you start off on an overnight hike. The next time you bring a deer home you can fix it the way the original Americans often did and lay away some good eating for the long winter.

Of course, in one sense jerky isn’t especially cheap even when you make it yourself. That is, if meat costs you two dollars a pound to begin with, and then you reduce its weight by two-thirds, what’s left is suddenly worth six dollars a pound. On the other hand you still have the same nutritional value as the original meat, and it’s noticeably cheaper than that in the glass jar.

You don’t need a modern smokehouse to make jerky; you don’t even need a tepee. The following instructions can be used or modified to make jerky from either beef or venison. Follow the basic procedures, experiment a little as you learn how, and you can produce tastier jerky than even the Indians ever had.

Method 1

1. Select lean meat pieces with minimum connective tissue. Pieces approximately 4 by 2 by 8 inches or larger from the round or the loin eye are best. Trim fat from surfaces.

2. Freeze meat to 20° to 30° F. to temper or harden the meat for slicing.

3. Slice across the grain in thin (1/8 inch thick) slices. You may also slice with the grain (1 1/4 inch wide), but the jerky will not be as tender. Dipping the long-cut, round strips in boiling water for 2 to 3 minutes will help tenderize the meat. (I prefer the crosscut slices.)

4. Dip each piece of meat in a small pan filled with a suitable barbecue sauce, or brush sauce onto both sides of each piece of meat. (You can make your own sauce by using your favorite seasoning in a vinegar-water or vinegar-vegetable oil base, three parts vinegar to one part oil. Stir often to prevent settling.)

5. Place the thinly sliced meat pieces on a 1/2-inch or smaller mesh wire screen or on a flat surface (cookie sheet).

6. Sprinkle both sides with a mixture of sugar and salt in a 2-to-1 or a 1-to-1 ratio. Some prefer brown sugar.

7. Caraway and coriander seeds (1-to-2 ratio) can be ground and sprinkled lightly over the product if you wish that extra something. (Note that no pepper has been included in this recipe. If you like pepper, season to taste. It is not necessary, however, and the Indians didn’t use it.)

8. Place the meat on the screen or pan and put into a smokehouse or regular kitchen oven at a temperature of 90° to 120° F. until dry (brittle). Do not exceed the oven temperature of 120° in your haste to finish your product. Burnt offerings are not desirable. The length of time will vary with the meat used, the thickness of slices, etc., but be patient. It does no harm to turn the oven off and reheat the next day if necessary. You may wish to reseason in the sauce or with the sugar-salt mixture. Do not over season. Meat gets saltier to the taste as it dries.

9. Store the finished product in plastic bags in or out of the refrigerator.

10. Eat as desired for snacks or survival. It’s excellent with apple cider or just plain water.

NOTE: A smokehouse can be made from a large box or an old refrigerator. If you use a box be careful of fire danger. (Add a small blower exhaust fan if you wish.)

Heat Source—electric hot plate, gas burner, charcoal briquets, or hardwood fire.

Smoke source—hardwood sawdust or chips in a pan, or place directly on charcoal (soak in water before putting on charcoal).

Use a thermometer to check temperature, which is controlled with draft and dampers.

Cold smoking—locate heat and smoke source to one side of smoke box, thus lowering heat in box.

This unit can be used for drying fruit or making fruit leather or fruit jerky.

Method 2

Boil the meat strips in salt water for three minutes (2 lbs. salt to each gallon of water). You can add saltpeter or Prague powder if you wish. Hang the strips in the sun, and cover them with cheesecloth to keep the flies off. By putting a canvas over the meat and building a small wood fire under it you can give the jerky a smoked taste if you wish.

Illustrated by Dick Brown