Jerking a round

Sleep long, little sister," said the hero of Edward Abbey's The Brave Cowboy, whispering to a doe that he had just shot. "Don't be mad at me - I'm gonna make real good use out of you." He then builds a drying rack of willow branches and a small fire beneath the rack. His plan is to jerk the doe and pack the jerky into his saddlebags, giving him the food he needs to evade the unrelenting pursuit of Sheriff Johnson.

You don't need to be a great American archetype, or even a hunter, to make jerky. All you need is meat. So if you just go buy some good beef or salmon from the store, you can still make high-quality jerky at a fraction of what you pay for pre-made.

But I must admit, most of what I know about jerky came from the image of the Brave Cowboy jerking his deer, an image that's been with me for years. As soon as I began hunting, I began experimenting with jerky, quickly realizing what generations of brave cowboys and Indians have known for years: there is little better to throw in your backpack, saddlebag, lunchbox or pocket. Packing a flavor and nutrient punch disproportional to its shriveled size, jerky is great not only for munching, but for cutting up and cooking as well: fry jerky in grease, cook it in stew or throw some cut jerky into a pot of raw rice and cook it. And when hunting season rolls around again, my diet is simple: deer jerky and snickers bars. And all through backpacking, river floating, skiing more jerky, which all adds up to a lot of jerky. So this year, inspired by the Brave Cowboy, I decided to jerk an entire deer - even the backstraps.

Strictly defined, jerky is just dried meat. The drier the meat, the longer it will keep. In the past, smoke was commonly used to accelerate the drying process and to add flavor. While old-time cowboys and Indians may have done without salt, there is no reason why you should. Salt - or soy sauce - adds flavor and preserves the meat much better than simply drying it.

Most recipes recommend cutting the meat into 1/4-inch strips. I like thicker strips, which give a meatier taste. Just remember that thick strips must marinate and dehydrate longer. Cutting across the muscle grain makes jerky that is easier to chew. You have several options for drying. Food dehydrators work really well - that's what I use. Electric ovens work, too, just make sure that only the bottom element is on. You can lay the meat on the grates or you can hang the strips from the grates with toothpicks. Either way, you probably want to place a pan below to catch the drippings. Keep the temperature near or below 140, and crack the door so moisture can escape. Gas ovens, on the other hand, are tough to keep at that low a temperature, so your best option with a gas stove is to just use the pilot light, with the door cracked.

The ideal option, of course, would be to use a smoker and hickory, mesquite, apple, cherry or some other good smoking wood. If you have a smoker, or the desire to build one, go for it. Nowadays, many people opt for an oven or dehydrator and add liquid smoke to the marinade. Liquid smoke is a solution in which real smoke particles have been dissolved. It adds a smoky taste, possibly indistinguishable from real smoke. While I like a smoky taste, I don't need it, so I don't bother with liquid smoke. Plus, liquid smoke kind of freaks me out.

Since salt (or soy, or liquid aminos) is the only necessary ingredient in any jerky marinade, the rest is up to your taste. Add sugar, honey, maple syrup or fruit juice if you want a little sweetness (honey offers the added bonus of being a preservative as well). Adding acid, like vinegar or wine, adds flavor and can help soften tough meat. Whatever you do, just be sure it's real salty. I just made a very nice tangy batch with soy, garlic, lime and tamarind paste.

The following recipe is my reliable standard, a guaranteed crowd pleaser: Cut the meat into strips. Put the meat in a nonmetallic bowl and cover the meat with the following marinade: a 50/50 mixture of soy sauce and liquid aminos, plus Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, onion powder and black pepper to taste - strong is good. Marinate overnight, checking occasionally to make sure that the meat hasn't absorbed all the marinade. If it has, add more soy or liquid aminos - enough to cover the meat - and stir it in.

For salmon, I like a marinade of soy, aminos, fresh dill (loads of it, chopped), and brown sugar. Cut a filet crosswise into inch-thick strips, and marinate overnight. Place the strips on the dehydrator skin-side down. Don't overjerk! These nuggets go great on salad.

As your meat dries on the dehydrator, bear in mind that good jerky has a slim chance of escaping un-munched. Your family or housemates will hover like vultures, moving in at every opportunity. If you are able to finish with a stash of jerky, I recommend storing it in the freezer in plastic bags. When you want to eat it, let it return to room temp and start munching. At this point, you'll be ready to win the West all over again, pardner. ☯






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