Way back in the days when Mr. Caveman first discovered fire, he was happy to realize there were much better ways to eat his meat besides raw. He learned to enjoy the taste of meat cooked over a smoky fire, but he didn’t have a refrigerator to store the leftovers. Since there were no beef jerky makers back then, he had to figure out how to preserve his meat to last over a long winter.
Beef jerky as we know it and love it today doesn’t actually date back to the cavemen. But it does come from the word quechua, from natives in the South American Andes mountain range. It literally means “to burn meat.” Curing, a term from the Latin meaning “to take care of,” involves adding salt compounds to it that preserve it and stop bacterial growth.
Indians, settlers, cowboys, and all types of early pioneers were quick to learn the techniques for slicing meat into thin strips, salting them, and laying them out to dry in the hot sun. Beef dominated as the primary meat used in jerky, but venison, elk, kangaroo, and moose were also popular. With today’s easy-to-use beef jerky makers, people are trying new things, making jerky from turkey, alligator, ostrich, tuna, and horse meat.
Today’s recipes generally call for the meat strips to marinate in a sweet, tangy, or salty liquid before they are dried. The drying process itself occurs at a low temperature, ranging from 70 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, so that the meat is not dried out to the point of brittleness. Sometimes wood is smoked during the process to give the meat added flavor. It does have to be cured before it is smoked.
Some beef jerky makers will process strips of meat cut from a highly muscled-meaning low-fat-piece of meat. Other units are available that tightly compress ground meat mixtures. The procedure can take from a couple hours or up to three days.
If you want to create jerky strips from ground meat, one of the first tools you will need is called an extruder. All you need to do is choose your meat mixture, keeping the fat content at or below 5%, mix in pre-packaged curing and spices, load the meat into the barrel of the extruder, and pump the trigger to produce long, lean strips for drying.
Experimentation among jerky enthusiasts has produced helpful suggestions. If you want a leaner ground meat mixture than you find in your local grocery case, ask your butcher to grind some lean steak for you. Try mixing mixtures of pork and beef. Give some of the meats mentioned above a try. Some people love lamb. Use a marinade from your own recipe, or search for one on the internet.
The best way to dry your jerky is to invest in one of the great beef jerky makers available on the market today. Some of them come with extruders included. Typically, they are equipped with a 350- to 500-watt heating element. The unit contains trays on which to lay your meat. There is also a fan to blow the air throughout the unit and dry out your product.
If you’d like to experiment with drying other foods, try a beef jerky maker that handles herbs, fruits, and vegetables as well as meat. The best units are opaque, to preserve your food’s nutritional value. All of them work by forcing hot air, usually from a top-mounted fan, across each tray in the unit. Many people find it helps to rotate the trays during the drying process.
With some units, you can dry meat on one or two trays, with fruit and herbs placed on the other ones. These foods make wonderfully nutritious snacks, and they travel anywhere. You’ll be ready for a camping trip in no time!