Remember that scene in Forrest Gump where Bubba, amidst the menial army tasks of potato peeling and scrubbing floors with tooth brushes, lectures Forrest on the countless ways to prepare shrimp? Shrimp gumbo, shrimp stew, shrimp and grits… you get the idea. When you think jerky, the image that comes to your head might be of an ancient stick of beef from 7Eleven. But like shrimp, jerky has a shocking amount of diversity. There’s beef jerky, duck jerky, turkey jerky, ham jerky, Steve Martin jerky… wait, what were we talking about again?
Ah yes, jerky. Jerky developed out of the ancient practice of hanging meat to dry (is that where the saying came from?) to draw out moisture, preserving the meat and preventing spoilage. Sounds delicious, right? Hey, “dried meat” sounds better than “old meat.”
The origin of jerky is nearly impossible to pin down, but there is evidence that the Ancient Egyptians were producing large amounts of dried meat, and there are ancient forms of jerky to be found in China as well. Jerky made its way to Europe via the Spanish, who first encountered it in the 1500s through the Quechua people of the Andes mountains. The Egyptians may have had a different word for it, but the term “jerky” stems from the Quechua term charqui. That’s three – count ’em, three – ancient cultures that just could not get enough jerky.
Quechua charqui was originally made from llama, and while the most commonly found form today is beef, one can preserve any number of meats and make them into jerky. How? It’s surprisingly simple if you have a dehydrator.
Almost every jerky recipe follows three basic steps: slice, marinate, and dry. A dehydrator makes the last step incredibly simple.
The basic beef jerky recipe usually consists of Worcestershire and soy sauces, pepper, onion powder, and a few other spices – you can find a hundred such recipes online. But there’s a ton of room for experimentation. Use a different meat and change up your spices! Cajun spices are a popular pairing in alligator jerky. We found a great recipe at gnowfglins.com, utilizing the basic salt/pepper/granulated garlic combo and a touch of ground cumin and cayenne pepper. (The gnowfglins recipe is a slightly different way to use jerky – rather than marinating the meat, they ground up the beef and mixed in all their seasonings.)
Once you’ve got your spices all mixed up, all you need to do is thoroughly coat the meat and figure out a way to dry it. There are a few ways to achieve that sweet dry feeling, but the dehydrator produces the best and most consistent results. Unless you have access to a few acres of land and some curing houses, in which case, we’ll look for our invitation in the mail…
Dehydrators are, of course, not just limited to jerky. They’re great for fruit and veggie chips, herbs, granola, nuts, and a lot more. Just remember that dehydrators require food to be sliced uniformly. If your knife skills aren’t the sharpest, you can always try using a mandolin like the Kyocera Ceramic Slicer for fruits and veggies. Even better, you can hone your skills the old fashioned way!
We carry a beast of a dehydrator by Waring Pro, which offers 525 watts under the hood (similar wattage to a commercial KitchenAid mixer, for comparison’s sake), and has 5 stackable trays, which can accommodate large or small batches. If you want to see the dehydrator in action, feel free to swing by our Italian Market store this Saturday for our in-store demo. We’ll be drying out all kinds of things, not just jerky – and yes, we are giving out samples! The demo runs this Saturday from 11-3 – check it out!
Edit: Check out the ‘before’ of our store-made jerky! We did an overnight cure of Worcestershire, soy sauce, black pepper, garlic, smoked paprika and brown sugar and gave it a whirl in the Waring machine.