9/21/2017 10:33:00 PM It's time to get serious about making jerky
It all started years ago.
I was a youngster, hanging around with the other kids. One of other guys on the playground called me aside and gave me a handful of the stuff, swearing me to secrecy. I tried it. From that moment, I was hooked.
As a kid I tried it only occasionally, but my desire grew fast. The deep pleasure spurred me to greater and greater lengths in order to secure my fix. Simply buying it wasn't enough, so soon I was making my own. Sadly, the addiction has gotten completely out of hand.
I have smoked it indoors, outdoors and even tried to smoke it in the dead of winter on my front porch. I've rolled it on the kitchen table, tried different blends and even given it to my own children.
Man, I love jerky!
This became the topic of focus when I suddenly realized that we are within spitting distance of deer season and, as usual, there is still a considerable amount of venison sitting in my freezer. If I dig deep enough, there are even a few freezer-burned roasts still in residence from two years ago. As we are within a few weeks of replenishing my stash of raw material, it's time to get serious about making jerky.
If experience were the best teacher, I would certainly qualify as an expert. Over the years I have made jerky that caused grown men to weep with joy. I have also made many more batches that also made men weep, but not from ecstasy. The path to becoming a jerky authority is paved over with thousands of pieces of burnt, over-dried and over-salted meat.
There is no greater outdoor snack than venison jerky and its twin brother, the snack stick. While the level of salt can give some people problems, the food is otherwise healthful because it is very high in protein, but has less fat than a piece of chicken.
In the simplest form, jerky is plain dried meat. If the meat is dried over a hickory or mesquite fire, it is tastier and longer lasting. With the addition of salt and other spices, it becomes exceptionally delicious and will last nearly as long as the infamous preservative-laden Twinkie snack cake.
It seems that everyone has a favorite jerky recipe, and I have tried most. However, my experience has been that the best batches of jerky tend to be ad-hoc affairs built using on-the-spot measurement and common sense.
Salt is the prime ingredient in most jerky recipes. It gives the salty tang, enhances the flavor of other ingredients and helps preserve the meat. It is also easy to overuse and ruin an entire batch.
One of the best ways to simultaneously salt and season the meat is by the use of soy sauce. The thinly sliced meat is marinated in soy sauce, drained and dried in a smoker, dehydrator or a very low oven with the door propped open. After adding a pinch of garlic powder, I find this to be one of the best yet easiest recipes. By varying the marinating time, you can adjust the saltiness of the finished product. My benchmark is four to six hours.
I must admit that after all the various recipes and mounds of ruined meat, I have finally come around to using commercially manufactured jerky cures. By following the instructions exactly, you will turn out a very good final product with a proper balance of spice and salt. While it seems not quite so "handmade" when using a mix, the end results are far better than most homebrew recipes.
In the last couple of years, I have been partial to snack sticks. To make these, you need ground meat and a jerky extrusion gun or sausage stuffer. You can also use the jerky gun to make flat sticks of ground jerky, so even those with less than perfect teeth can enjoy the tasty snack.
A major point of uncertainty for Yours Truly has always been the degree of dryness. Jerky that is too wet will quickly spoil, but too-dry jerky is very similar to chewing on a hickory-smoked tongue depressor. As it is difficult to gauge the degree of dryness until the jerky has reached room temperature and had a chance to stabilize the water content, good jerky judgment is necessary. My current wisdom on the subject is that if the inside of the meat still appears slightly too wet, the jerky is done.
You can use other wild meats for jerky. I have tried turkey, fish, pheasant breast and goose fillet with moderate success. Most are tasty, but I haven't yet perfected my technique on these meats so the results have been somewhat variable.
By the way, are there any medical professionals in the audience who could use several pounds of salmon-flavored tongue depressors?
Brent T. Wheat is an award-winning columnist, and publisher of WildIndiana.com. His column appears weekly in The Times.