Beef jerky is a staple of modern mankind. We find it at grocery stores, gas stations, state fairs, and even on the Web. It is a tasty treat that is a part of Americana, but where did it originate?
The earliest known mention of jerky comes in the form of a recipe written in Latin at approximately 160 BC. Credited to a Roman named Cato the Elder, the recipe called for pork to be salted and dehydrated using fresh air and smoke.
Modern jerky can be traced to the 1500s in South America from a process developed by the Quechua tribe. The Quechua tribe are ancestors of the ancient Inca empire.
The Quechua tribe made a form of jerky called ch'arki – which is loosely translated to mean “dried salted meat”. The process entailed adding salt to thin strips of meat from game animals. The salted meat would then be dried in the sun or over fire for an extended period of time, until most of the moisture in the meat had been removed. In addition to giving jerky it’s signature flavor, the salt would also inhibited bacteria growth. The meat had to be cut thin so that it can be dried quickly without the use of high temperatures which would cook the meat.
While beef jerky is the primary form of dried meat you will find today, the tribes of ancient South America would use the meat of such animals as alpaca and lama. The meat would be deboned, and the excess fat cut away. It would then be cut into thin pieces and pounded flat.
Finally, the meat was rubbed with salt and then dried. The process enabled the people to preserve high-protein meat for times when food was scarce. Jerky can be stored for months without refrigeration.
Explorers and Jerky
When Spanish conquistadors encountered the meat curing process on their ventures to the Americas, they adopted it and conveyed the process to the rest of the world. They also renamed it from ch'arki to charqui.
Early explorers of the Americas built smoke huts to expedite their own meat curing. These explorers learned that adding different spices allowed them to customize the flavor of their jerky. If you go shopping for jerky today, you will find many flavors meeting a wide variety of tastes. A few of the flavors you can commonly find include peppered,sweet & spicy,jalapeno,barbeque, andteriyaki.
Jerky versus Pemmican
A product similar to charqui was made in North America by the Cree tribe. Pemmican is a concentrated mixture of protein and fat from large game animals. While the Quechua tribe in South America used lama and alpaca meat, the North American Cree used meat from buffalo, elk, and deer. The Cree also used additives like cranberries and sasktoon berries to flavor the pemmican.
Similar to jerky, the process for making pemmican involved cutting the meat into thin pieces which was then dried until brittle. Stones were then used to pound the meat into small pieces. Next the shredded meat would be mixed with melted fat. The mixture would then be packed in rawhide pouches.
In North America, Native Americans taught European settlers the process for making pemmican. The pioneers embraced the salted meat and thus jerky was born.
It was during the expansion west by North American pioneers that jerky reached its height in popularity. The fact that meat could be stored for long periods of time was instrumental to the survival of pioneers as they made their way west.
Modern jerky is considered a very healthy snack. It is high in protein, low in calories and fat, and has minimal carbohydrates.
The best meat for beef jerky is muscle meat from a cow. The most preferred taste comes from the use of flank steak from range-fed cows.
Today, meat is often marinated with a seasoned spice liquid or rub. Store bought jerky typically also includes brown sugar for flavor, however zero sugar varieties are gaining in popularity. It is also now common for meat to be ground into a paste and then formed into pieces of jerky. This type of meat product is still called jerky, but it must contain the qualifier “ground and formed.”
In today’s day and age, jerky is made in large, low-temperature drying ovens with multiple heating elements. Typically, the ovens treat the meat at a temperature under 70 °C/160 °F. Fans are used to vent the moisture-laden air. This modern method of production dries meat in a matter of hours. Chemical preservatives such as sodium nitrate are also now commonly used in mass production of jerky. In the U.S. commercially sold jerky must meet a 0.75 to 1 moisture-to protein ratio. Generally, it takes 90 g of 99% lean meat to generate 30 g of jerky.
Modern jerky comes in many forms. Beef, pork, goat, and lamb meat are all used in commercial jerky manufacturing. Game animals such as deer, kudu, springbok, kangaroo, turkey, and bison are also commonly used to make jerky. More exotic forms of jerky use such meats as ostrich, salmon, alligator, crocodile, tuna, emu, horse, camel, and earthworm.
Today’s jerky is typically packaged in plastic bags. The bags are either nitrogen gas flushed or vacuum sealed. In order to prevent oxidation of the meat’s fat content, the sealed packages are often shipped with small pouches of oxygen absorbers made from iron particles that react with and remove oxygen.
Traditional jerky made from sliced muscle meat is popular and readily available in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. We use 100% USA sourced beef. Jerky is becoming increasingly popular in other countries around the world including Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Germany. In China, a variation on jerky made from pork is popular. It is called pork chip. In Rome, Italy, people enjoy a jerky-like substance called coppiette. Coppiette was originally made from horse or donkey but is now generally made with pork.
Interesting enough, jerky is still commonly included in military field rations because it is light weight, high in protein, and is edible without further preparation. Since 1966 jerky has been included as a space food for astronauts.
Next time you are craving a high protein snack, Bulk beef jerky might just be the thing for you. From ancient Rome to astronauts in space, jerky is a time-tested treat that not only tastes good, it’s good for you.
Comment below if you knew the history of beef jerky!