Jerky is lean meat that has been trimmed of fat, cut into strips, and then dried to prevent spoilage. Normally, this drying includes the addition of salt, to prevent bacteria from developing on the meat before sufficient moisture has been removed. The word ‘jerky’ is a corruption of the Spanish ‘charqui,’ which is from the Quechua word ‘ch’arki,’ which means to burn (meat). All that is needed to produce basic ‘jerky’ is a low-temperature drying method, and salt to inhibit bacterial growth.

Modern manufactured jerky is normally marinated in a seasoned spice rub or liquid, and dried, dehydrated or smoked with low heat. Some makers still use just salt and sun-dry fresh sliced meat to make jerky. Some product manufacturers finely grind meat, mix in seasonings, and press the meat-paste into flat shapes prior to drying. Jerky is ready-to-eat and needs no additional preparation. It can be stored for months without refrigeration. When the protein to moisture content ratio is correct, the resulting meat is cured, or preserved.

The meat must be dried quickly, to limit bacterial growth during the critical period where the meat is not yet dry. To do this, the meat is thinly sliced, or pressed thinly, in the case of ground meat. The strips of meat are dried at low temperatures, to avoid cooking it, or overdrying it to the point where it is brittle. Some additional form of chemical preservative, such as sodium nitrite, is often used in conjunction with the historical salted drying procedure to prepare jerky. Smoking is the most traditional method, as it preserves, flavors, and dries the meat simultaneously.

Most of the fat must be trimmed off prior to drying the meat, as fat does not dry, thus creating the potential for spoilage as the fat becomes rancid (modern vacuum packing and chemical preservatives have served to help prevent these risks). Because of the necessary low fat and moisture content, jerky is high in protein. A 30 g (about 1 oz) portion of lean meat, for example, contains about 7 g of protein. By removing 15 g of water from the meat, the protein ratio is doubled to nearly 15 g of protein per 30 g portion. In some low moisture varieties, a 30 g serving will contain 21 grams of protein, and only one gram of fat. This leads to the high price of such brands of jerky, as it takes 90 g of 99% lean meat to generate that 30 gram serving.

Unpackaged fresh jerky made from sliced, whole muscle meat has been available in specialty stores in Hong Kong at least since the 1970s. The products are purchased by kilograms, and customers choose from 10 to 20 types of meat used to make the product. Some are sold in strands instead of slices. Macau has opened numerous specialty shops also, many of which are franchise extensions of stores from Hong Kong. Compared to the sealed packaged versions, unpackaged jerky has a relatively short shelf life. This type of jerky has also become very popular in convenience stores in the USA. This product is called ‘slab’ jerky and is usually marketed in plexiglass containers.

Also popular is shredded dry jerky (meat floss) sold in containers resembling snuff or dip. In China, in addition to the more traditional forms of jerky, there is also a similar product which is usually made from pork called pork chip. A similar product is quite popular in Rome, Italy, and its hinterland: it is called coppiette and was originally made with horse or donkey meat, but it is now generally made with pork. Coppiette are seasoned with red pepper and fennel seeds. Coppiette were usually eaten while drinking wine (mostly white) in Roman osterie. In Tamil Nadu, India the dish is known as uppu kandam which forms part of authentic non vegetarian cuisine. In Ethiopia jerky is called qwant’a. In addition to salt, it is seasoned with black pepper and either berbere or awaze. A similar product, biltong, is common in South African cuisine; however, it differs very much in production process and taste because it utilizes the acid in vinegar rather than salt to inhibit bacterial growth when drying the meat.

Since 1996, jerky has been popular with astronauts as space food due to its light weight and high level of nutrition.

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