A Chewable Feast

A snack that is cut and dried might not appeal to everyone, but jerky's popularity is growing.

November 28, 2001|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Let's talk jerky.

No, not the Jim Carrey, Jerry Lewis jerky. Jerky, as in dried dead animal.

Doesn't sound too inviting that way, does it? It doesn't look very inviting, either.

Be honest. If a waiter brought you a wrinkled dried slab of meat on a platter with some grilled vegetables and an appropriate starch, you'd send it back, wouldn't you?

But looks aren't everything. Jerky is a much-in-demand food, especially this time of year, when hunters are most active.

"Deer hunters are the best jerky makers," says author and outdoorsman A.D. Livingston, "not only because they have the raw material on hand, but also because it seems to be one of their favorite snack foods."

Livingston, 68, has written 10 cookbooks, the latest a 151-page how-to called Jerky (the Lyons Press, $14.95).

He isn't the only one cashing in on jerky's popularity. Gourmet catalogs are selling it, as are some specialty-food shops - and we're not talking Slim Jims on the gas station counter, either.

Jerky can be made from elk, buffalo, salmon, ostrich and pheasant, to name a few varieties. Flavors range from teriyaki to mesquite.

"You should try alligator," suggests Livingston.

Tastes like chicken?

"Kinda," he says, chuckling. "More like a combination between chicken and fish - like frogs' legs."

Gourmet jerky isn't cheap. Cabela's, the outdoor catalog retailer, sells a 11.6-ounce sampler pack of wild-game jerky for $19.99. Eight ounces of salmon is $34.99.

But the price hasn't given Americans pause. The Snack Food Association reports that retail sales of jerky and beef sticks grew almost 29 percent in 1999 and 32 percent in 2000. That translates into sales of 121.4 million pounds, or $1.74 billion, in 2000.

"It's the fastest-growing snack-food category," says Ann Wilkes, a spokeswoman for the association. "Nothing else is growing at 30 percent."

By comparison, pork rinds are the second-fastest-growing category at 21 percent, followed by pumpkin and sunflower seeds at 16 percent, Wilkes says.

Some consumers are drawn to jerky because it's low in fat and stores easily. Others are eating it because they're on a high-protein diet, association surveys show.

And it doesn't hurt that jerky exudes an all-American chuck-wagon spirit.

Credit that old cowpoke Amenhotep I, or one of his buddies in the ancient Egyptian pharaoh's club, with putting down in writing how to make jerky. He, no doubt, ripped off the recipe from the cave man, who dried meat over a fire to save it for a snowy day or the Ice Age.

Native Americans made 80-pound slabs of pemmican, a mixture of sun-dried venison or buffalo and berries, and stored it in large rawhide sacks the size of pillowcases, Livingston says. They sold or traded it with trappers and pioneers, who dubbed it jerky from charqui, a Spanish word for dried strips of meat.

These days, jerky-makers use electric dehydrators and kitchen ovens to remove moisture from cuts of meat and fish.

Livingston prefers electric stoves over gas models and convection ovens over toaster ovens. The keys, he says, are low heat (80 degrees to 150 degrees) with decent air circulation and a way for water vapor to escape.

The best bet, however, is an electric dehydrator, which also can be used for making dried fruit and vegetables.

Jerky spices are as common as liquid smoke and soy sauce and as exotic as Myron's 20-Gauge, a wild-game and fish sauce made in Orange, Mass.

"Whatever you do, don't scrimp on salt," Livingston says. "That's the No. 1 mistake. The jerky doesn't taste good if it doesn't have enough salt."

Bob Holsinger, who might be Maryland's jerky king, has some additional advice.

The owner of Holsinger's Meat Market in Maugansville makes 22,000 pounds of venison jerky each year and nearly 200 pounds of beef jerky each month. His recipe has won a number of regional awards.

"The meat means a lot. You need to use good muscle meat. Meat with sinew is too gristly and chewy," he says. "I won't use anything for my beef jerky but boneless top round."

Holsinger places sliced meat and his secret blend of spices into a vacuum-sealed "tumbler" that resembles a washing machine.

"That literally draws the seasoning into the meat, and that's how it tastes best," he says of the 24-hour marinade process.

Regardless of the method, don't be surprised at the amount of natural shrinkage. It takes 5 pounds of lean red meat to make 2 pounds of jerky.

"It's not an exact science. The equipment, the temperature, the type of meat and the kind of seasoning all alter the equation," Livingston says. "Properly prepared jerky is dry to the touch and bends without snapping."

Improperly prepared jerky can put you in the hospital with food poisoning, but finding the balance between low, slow drying and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommendation to cook jerky to an internal temperature of 160 may seem impossible.

"It's a tough question," Livingston says. "But I'll take my chances with high-quality beef and wild game. I'm much more afraid of eating at a cafeteria with a buffet laid out and people breathing on it."

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