Would you believe that something as simple as beef jerky could have had a great influence on the settling of the American West? Well, it is true. Because it can be stored without refrigeration for extended periods of time, jerky became a staple of the Old West and allowed settlers, frontiers men, and cowboys to move west into uncharted territory.
Post Civil War
Following the Civil War, by the late 1860s former soldiers from both the Union and Confederacy were making their way west at the same time the cattle industry was expanding. Seeking work, many former soldiers adapted to make their living as cowboys. Cowboys would be in the fields for days or weeks tending to cattle. When it was time to take the animals to market after the Spring roundup, cowboys would go on long cattle drives herding the animals to midwestern railroad stations so they could be shipped to Eastern markets of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
In the Wild West of old, cowboys needed food that would not spoil on these long treks. This was important as that disease from spoiled foods was common and deadly. Jerky avoided these problems.
Beef jerky is a high protein, low fat food that fit the needs of cowboys and settlers perfectly. It can last for long periods of time without going bad. Because removing moisture from meat allows it to avoid spoiling, jerky can be stored for months without refrigeration.
Jerky was also a convenient food for cowboys because it did not need any further preparation in the field. This was important because when they were on cattle drives, it was not always possible for cowboys to make a fire to cook with. Not only did it not require further cooking preparation, jerky (also known as salted meat) could be easily packed and carried in saddle bags.
Making Beef Jerky
Cowboys made their beef jerky by cutting cow meat into thin strips. While flank steak is the primary cut of beef used today for commercially made jerky, in the 1800s cowboys were far less discriminatory about the cut of beef they used. If it was edible, they used it.
After the meat was cut into thin slices it was treated with salt and then dried. The salt inhibited bacteria growth, one of the key reasons jerky can last so long without refrigeration. Just like our Texas style jerky.
Smoking Beef with Wood
Sometimes cowboys would utilize specific types of wood in their smoke huts to give the jerky added flavor. Hickory gives meat a deep, rich flavor. It is suited for use smoking beef, pork, poultry, and even fish. Apple wood offers a mild flavor that is sweet and a bit fruity.
Cherry wood is an ideal go-to choice for smoking meat. Cherry wood provides a mild, sweet flavor that works with most meats. Because it is one of the hottest burning woods, mesquite offers a strong earthy flavor. Oak has a medium flavor, a bit more intense than apple or cherry, but not as strong as mesquite. Oak is often blended with other woods for a complex flavor.
Pecan wood is most often used to smoke poultry, but it can add a nice fruity flavor to beef as well. Walnut is a tricky wood to use for curing meat. It has a very strong flavor that can read as bitter. Alder provides a sweet flavor that is ideal for fish but can also be good for poultry and pork. Maple offers a sweet, mild flavor that mixes well with poultry. Mesquite is another great choice.
In addition to using salt and smoke to flavor the jerky, cowboys also used various spices like pepper and brown sugar to customize the flavor of their jerky. Native Americans would also use certain berries to flavor their jerky. Native Americans also made a jerky-like substance called pemmican. In making pemmican, Native Americans would mix ground meat and berries with melted animal fat. The meat substance would then be packed together into small cakes.
When it was not possible to build a smoke hut to cure the beef jerky, cowboys would use the power of the sun and wind to dry their meat. However, the preparation process was far more efficient when fire could be used to dehydrate the meat.
As cattle drives increased in the 1860s, cooks were hired to accompany the cowboys with chuck wagons – wagons specifically outfitted for meal preparation. On most days, cowboys were given a meal in the morning and one in the evening. The staples of the chuck wagon were beans, hard biscuits, dried fruit, coffee, and, of course, dried meat. The cowboys’ noon time meal was typically something that could be eaten on horseback. You guessed it - typically this took the form of beef jerky.
While many today think of beef jerky as merely a high protein, healthy snack you can get at your local grocery or convenience store, the dehydrated meat product was instrumental in the western expansion of early American settlers. In particular, cowboys were able to work the large cattle ranches and deliver the animals to market thanks to having beef jerky as a staple on the trails.
Let us know if you knew all of this in the comments below!
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