I was probably 3 years old when I got my first taste of this gloriously tasty, dried meat we call jerky. When you're that young, all you cared about is that food tasted good, never stopping to think about what the stuff you were eating was made of. I put jerky down like there was no tomorrow with a silly grin and overworked jaw.
It wasn't until a few years later that I put two and two together and figured, Hey, jerky is pretty much “raw” meat?! It was between playing a round of The Oregon Trail (buying supplies at the general store, including dried meat) and watching a Ronco Food Dehydrator infomercial (in which they made beef jerky) when I realized the meat I enjoyed so much is not cooked. Well, not cooked in the traditional sense that steak is. I was eating old, tough, raw meat … why didn't I get sick? What is this stuff?
Jerky production has a long history and can be traced back to almost all ancient civilizations, from the Incans who made llama jerky to South Africans who made biltong (a type of dried, cured meat). Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans taught Europeans the art of drying meat, which in turn, helped spread jerky clear across the globe.
In general, meat jerkies are not cooked, but dried instead. Drying food is a technique of food preservation that far outdates canning. So what's the science involved? In layman's terms, when meat has no more moisture, enzymes can no longer react with it. (These enzymes can come from bacteria or fungi, or even naturally occurring autolytic enzymes from within the meat itself.) In other words, dried meat can last a long time before it goes bad.
Because jerky is essentially meat minus the moisture, it is dense in nutrients and light in weight. In fact, a pound of meat weighs about 4 ounces after being turned into jerky. Aside from significant weight savings, this shelf-stable, high-protein food can be stored without refrigeration. Undoubtedly, this allowed our real-life Oregon-bound wagon train friends the luxury and nutrition of meat, even on a long arduous trip. The benefits of this wonder food are not lost on people today.
Enter the modern-day survivalist. When choosing what types of food to pack away for when all hell breaks loose, we certainly do have plenty of choices at our disposal. Canned, bottled, freeze-dried, airtight bagged — you name it, someone's probably created it. We might have our 3,600-calorie food bars in our go-bags and years' worth of MREs stowed away in our underground bunkers, but those kinds of food can taste downright nasty and may not be as portable to boot.
Let everyone's (read “my”) favorite childhood junk food come to the rescue! As mentioned before, jerky is lightweight and easily stowed. It is mostly impervious to the elements, provides plenty of energy to burn, and can last a long time (mileage may vary, but usually up to a year or more). Best of all, it's tasty stuff. Jerky can be used to supplement a well-rounded survival meal plan, enjoyed as a treat to uplift your spirits, or consumed as an easy-to-reach energy source in a lightweight bug-out bag. One might argue that jerkies are heavy on sodium and can induce thirst, so that's a factor to keep in mind.
In this issue of OG, we take a look, smell, and taste of jerkies of a variety of types and flavors. We go from gourmet to gas station, and rate them as we taste them. Riding along the flavor train with yours truly are Network Manager John Schwartze and Editor Patrick Vuong to provide second and third unabashed opinions of this great jerky taste test.