“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 drying racks of willow branches and a small fire beneath the rack. His plan is to jerk the deer and pack it into his saddlebags, giving him the food he needs to evade the unrelenting pursuit of Sheriff Johnson.
This image has stayed 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.
This year, inspired by the Brave Cowboy, I decided to jerk an entire deer—even the backstraps. As I butchered it, I cut the meat into strips and then froze the raw strips, categorized by cut, in quart Ziploc bags. One by one, I pull these bags from the freezer and thaw, marinate and dehydrate the meat. I’m starting with the tougher cuts, saving the tender morsels for when I have my technique perfected. I think I’m close.
You don’t need to be a Great American Archetype, or even a hunter, to make jerky. All you need is meat. Even if you just buy some good beef from the store, you can make jerky at a fraction of what you pay for pre-made.
Strictly defined, jerky is nothing but 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 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. 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 with toothpicks. Either way, you probably want to place a pan below to catch the drippings. Keep the temperature below 140 and crack the door so moisture can escape. Gas ovens 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 recipe, 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 batch with soy, garlic, lime and tamarind paste.
The following recipe is a real 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. 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.
As you place your marinated meat strips on the dehydrator, bear in mind the fact 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 storable supply of jerky, I recommend storing it in the freezer in plastic bags. It may not be necessary, but it doesn’t hurt anything.