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Beef Jerky
by Elliot Essman
In his brilliant 1983 comedy Trading Places, Eddie Murphy impersonates a traveling African who shows his horrible personal taste by loudly offering beef jerky to his fellow train compartment occupants. Murphy may well deserve the chuckle he gets, but in reality jerky has history, nutritional value, and, in the right hands, taste. Specialty jerky manufacturers offer a wide variety of quality product. You can make your own jerky at home if you put your mind to it. You can eat jerky right out of the bag or you can use it as an ingredient or condiment in a variety of dishes and cuisines.

Electrical refrigeration is a recent innovation. For thousands of years, cultures all over the world have preserved meats and fish by drying them in the sun. Taking the water out of meat also reduces its weight dramatically. In North America, native peoples began to preserve game, especially buffalo, by dry smoking and drying. The result, called charqui by the Spanish, became the perfect portable food. The English corruption of the word is "jerky." Jerky isn't often associated with fine cuisine, perhaps because of its backwoods, frontier connection, or maybe simply because of its similarity with the pejorative word "jerk." I've cooked with jerky for years, finding it an ingredient of exceptional versatility.

The people of the Rocky Mountains, whether Indian, Hispanic or Anglo, have often depended on smoked and dried meat products for basic survival in a harsh climate. An important variant of basic jerky developed by Native Americans was pemmican: dried meat mixed with dried berries and melted bone marrow or animal fat: a nutrient-rich survival food. Early trappers and explorers of the Rockies quickly came to depend on jerky and pemmican for basic nourishment. Though jerky can be made with any meat or fish, today beef jerky is the most popular product. Small specialty jerky operations are numerous. Each claims to have the most authentic secret family recipe.

Jerky made without sweeteners (as I prefer it) is an ideal snack for those on low carbohydrate diets, though not for people who must watch their sodium intake. It satisfies cravings by providing salt, crunch and flavor. Because fat doesn't truly dry, most jerky is created from lean meat, with no outside fats or oils added. By contrast, the lion's share of commercial crunchy snacks, whether or not marketed under appealing "health" brand names, are filled with fats, carbohydrates, or both. Good jerky has neither, and has the added benefit of being compact, durable, and delightfully light in weight. You won't go wrong packing some into your ski jacket next time you hit the slopes.

Though any food can spoil, jerky gets a head start over other preserved meats in the shelf life department. Though it starts as raw meat, the heat drying process kills most bacteria. The salt takes care of the rest. In addition, jerky's dryness gives outside bacteria no wet medium in which to grow. Since I take a month or so to plow through a large bag of jerky, I keep it in the refrigerator in a zip lock bag once opened.

To use jerky as a condiment, pulse a batch a few times in a food processor until you get little flecks. The result is similar to bacon bits, though with very little fat. Sprinkle the jerky bits on salads or use to add crunchiness in omelets or dips. Grind the jerky into a power and use it like a spice. Add it to soups, stews, or marinades for extra richness. I use it to kick up my salsa and guacamole. In either case, go easy with the salt shaker to compensate for the jerky's high salt content.

You can also rehydrate jerky to restore some of the meat's original texture for your dish. Treat the jerky as you would dried mushrooms. Soak it in a liquid-water, broth, or even wine-until the pieces plump up, usually within a half hour or so. As with mushrooms, try to use the soaking liquid as a recipe ingredient.

Making your own jerky is a substantial subject that engenders all kinds of conflicting opinions. Serious home jerky makers will employ an electric dehydrator, a smoker, or both, though you can make jerky in a conventional or convection oven. As with any home food manufacturing operation-home beer brewing comes first to mind-you can keep your jerky making operation simple, or it can become a bottomless pit of time, money and space in your home. There are no shortage of guides, equipment suppliers, and flavoring kits available.

Since most of us are no longer nomads, we're hardly likely to depend on jerky for survival, but it's still a great weapon to have in our culinary arsenal. When your guests ask you how you imparted that delicious, smoky flavor and inimitable texture to your dish, it's your call whether to tell them or not. Personally, I like to keep at least some of my secret ingredients truly secret. Top -- Food Articles Home

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