Jerky began as a product of necessity. Five centuries ago, South American tribes dried meat to prolong the next hunt. Lewis and Clark lived on jerky for a bitterly cold winter in North Dakota. But eventually, in conjunction with the growth of supermarkets in the mid-1900s, jerkymakers started using artificial flavors and chemicals to boost the product's sweetness and extend its shelf life (all-natural jerky lasts about 12 months; with additives, it keeps for twice as long). Industrial purveyor Oberto introduced its rubbery "natural style" beef jerky in 1964 and took over the market in the 1980s, around the same time pro wrestlers started pitching shrink-wrapped sticks of oily processed meat on TV.
"The myth of jerky is that it's junk," says Chris Woehrle, co-founder of Kings County Jerky Co. in Brooklyn. "But if it hasn't been shellacked in corn syrup, nitrates, or MSG, it's really healthy." High in protein, low in calories, and loaded with flavor, the new craft jerkies are an energizing snack on long hikes and bike rides, and are the perfect substitute for a bag of chips. Tangy, salty-sweet varieties pair so well with beer and wine, they're even being served as a hip, retro bar snack from San Francisco to St. Louis.
The tremendous growth of Woehrle's business, which began when he and his neighbor Robert Stout started smoking meats on an apartment balcony in 2009, is evidence of how fast-moving the trend has been. After months of testing, the duo began selling their product at flea markets, then opened an online store. By 2010, after they'd moved to an industrial space nearby, they were cranking out 75 pounds of jerky a day. Last December, they had to temporarily pause online sales due to a backlog of orders.
But making jerky doesn't require expensive gear or any culinary expertise – just eager taste buds and a desire to experiment. "Really, it boils down to a three-step process," Woehrle says. "Slice your meat, marinate it, dry it."
Kings County's Smoked Beer Jerky
• 2.5 lbs eye of round
• 2/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
• 2/3 cup soy sauce
• 2/3 cup dark beer or smoked beer, such as Schlenkerla
• 1 tbsp honey
• 2 tbsp cracked black pepper
• 1 tbsp onion powder
Put the beef in the freezer for about 2 hours, until it's firm but not frozen. It should be solid enough that you can cut it into 1/8-inch slices with a sharp knife but soft enough that the blade goes through easily.
While meat is firming, blend marinade ingredients in a bowl.
When meat is firm, remove all fat and slice with the grain. Add to marinade and mix well but gently. Marinate for 2 hours.
Remove your top oven rack and lay the beef on it, spacing slices so there's room for air circulation. Place foil or a baking sheet on the bottom rack to catch drips. Slide jerky rack into the middle slot.
Cook as instructed above, at 180°, for 16–20 hours. When ready, it should be dark and dry but still pliable.
Eat within one month.
Jerky Making Tips
Fat is great for grilling, since it will caramelize. But with jerky, you want to start lean. Buy a five-pound eye of round, a low-fat cut near the cow's muscular backside.
Go Beyond Red
Woehrle says salmon, tuna, and portobellos are all "awesome" for jerky. Skip poultry – the risk of salmonella is too high.
Prep a Flavor Bath
Try different combos of anything you like: soy sauce, beer, bourbon, chili flakes, herbs, curry powder, vinegar, citrus juice. Just stay away from oils – they'll go rancid.
Choose Your Weapon
To use your oven, set it to 180° (or lowest possible temp) and prop the door open with a natural wine cork. (Don't let the temp go above 200°. Get an infrared thermometer, to be certain.) If that seems like work, buy a countertop dehydrator for $30.