Several motorcyclists have gathered to swap snacks. One has a melted and ruined candy bar. Another has granola, but his wife has him on a diet and he’s not willing to trade. A third has been carrying an egg salad sandwich since early that morning, evidently oblivious to “The Zone” of spoilage. Another cyclist dismisses that sandwich as little better than toxic waste. They begin to trade around their inadequate refreshments when Alton rides up to offer them delicious beef jerky! It’s carb free and has just two grams of fat per serving. It’s the perfect marriage of protein, flavor and chewiness. Naturally preserved, it can survive for years outside of the refrigerator.
The word “jerky” comes from the Inca word “ch’arki” which means “dried meat.” But some form or other of dried meat is known to most cultures. It is one of the first, perhaps the
first, prepared food. To learn more Alton turns to Deb Duchon, nutritional anthropologist. She postulates a scenario where some early men roam the African savannah 65,000 years ago. They chance upon and slay a wildebeest but as they enjoy their meal some proto hyenas appear and chase them away. One snatches a leg and climbs a tree. He leaves the leg there for later. A month passes and the same early man finds himself chased by a rhinoceros. Chance intervenes and he escapes up the same tree he climbed earlier. He discovers that the wildebeest leg is still there! Time passes and the man grows hungry so he peels some meat from the leg and discovers it is still edible! it has become chewy and meaty and has not rotted. The man realizes that this dried meat can carry his group through the lean season; the early man who mastered this skill survived when others didn’t.
Alton’s at Harry’s Farmer’s Market where they have... no wildebeest. They do have beef and Alton looks at the cuts available. New York Strip comes from the short loin and is crosscut. Jerky made from it would crumble as the short fibers separated. Bottom round might work but it’s hard to butcher and Alton has never liked the flavor. Flank steak – now there’s the answer!
Alton takes his meat home to consider how to dry it. Meat, he says, provides what microorganisms need: water, protein, fat, minerals. It’s all there and many different creatures are ready to chow down. Alton considers how to rid his meat of these unwanted flora and fauna. Dehydration will shrivel their cells and kill them, salt will draw still more moisture and acids will stunt their growth!
To ensure his meat dehydrates quickly Alton cuts it into narrow strips. This increases the surface area to mass ratio, providing more places for moisture to exit. Alton cuts carefully in narrow strips that follow the grain. Alton suggests partially freezing the meat (or partially thawing frozen meat). The meat is easier to cut properly when it is stiffer. Frozen meat will contain cells pierced by ice crystals, but the goal is to eventually dry the meat so these cellular perforations help here. When the meat has chilled to the right firmness Alton slices it into bacon sized pieces with a chef’s knife.
Alton plans a marinade (not brine) to discourage those microorganisms. He mixes soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce with a little honey and some black pepper, onion powder, red pepper and a bit of liquid smoke...
Alton digresses a bit at this point to show how one might make liquid smoke. He starts with a terra cotta oven and puts a tall vent pipe into the chimney. A collar of aluminum foil keeps the pipe in place. The pipe gives the smoke some time to cool. Alton places a bundt pan on top of the vent pipe, using another ring of foil to secure it. Charcoal goes into the oven and well soaked wood chops go on top of that. Alton sets two spaces onto the bundt pan and then inverts a slightly smaller bowl into them. Finally, he puts a zip top bag of ice on that bowl. Essentially, the device works like a distillery. Hot smoke cools through the vent pipe and emerges from the hole in the bundt pan. It strikes the chilled surface of the inverted bowl and condenses, then drips down into the bundt pan. The smaller size of the bowl ensures the smoke drips into the pan and not onto the ground. In about ten minutes Alton gets a teaspoon or so of the smoke, enough for his jerky.
Alton puts his meat into a zip top bag and pours in the marinade. Then he squeezes the bag a couple of times to work the marinade into the meat and slides the whole thing into the chill chest for three to six hours. Less time and the marinade won’t soak in. Longer and the meat may be too salty.
Marinade complete, Alton drains his meat and pats it dry. But it’s still flexible and moist. Even with the salt this meat would succumb to microorganisms inside of a month. What Alton needs is a way to dry the meat completely.
What Alton needs is a dry wasteland like a desert. Such a place is so inhospitable people don’t usually live there – but there’s a tent nearby. Entering, Alton discovers... W, dressed as a djinn (specifically, as Barbara Eden’s character from I Dream of Jeannie
). Alton asks her for a desert in a box – a food dehydrator. She “blinks” several of the devices into existence.
She tells Alton about the dehydrators. They’re similar; they have plastic or silicone shelves on which the food rests and fans to blow heated air across that food. The problem is that they cannot move enough air to dry food in a reasonable time, so they use heated air – as hot as 140º. That can actually cook the food, changing its flavor. W leads Alton outside to a different environment: the cool dry air of the Peruvian Andes! Then she vanishes in a puff of smoke, leaving Alton to find his own way home.
Alton does find a way home where he takes W’s lesson to heart. He lays his meat into the grooves of furnace filters and stacks them, finishing with a filter on top. A bungee cord holds the fan and filters together. Alton puts the whole assembly into the window and sets the fan to blow outwards. That prevents his entire house from smelling like curing meat.
Drying time depends on fan speed and filter thickness. Alton usually checks after eight hours but allows that it has taken as long as twelve. When the meat is dry Alton removes it from the filters and discards them (they’re no good for their original purpose at this point).
Alton stores jerky in plastic jars or other open containers, not in zip top bags. The bags trap moister next to the jerky where it will partially rehydrate the meat and promote mold.
Alton finds himself in front of a camp tent playing a harmonic (poorly). There he explains that jerky was a common staple of trailblazers and cowboys because it was light and easy to carry but very nutritious. They often didn’t eat it plain, but instead used it to make other foods. Alton demonstrates.
He snips some jerky into one inch pieces and pours hot water over them to let them steep. Then he heats some oil in a skillet and sweats some aromatics: onion and green pepper with a tiny pinch of salt to help them give up moisture. The jerky has a lot of salt so Alton goes very easy on the salt here. After awhile he adds some garlic, the jerky (and its water) a can of tomatoes and some heavy cream (yes, there’s heavy cream on the trail). He brings it to a boil and reduces it to a simmer to cook for awhile. This jerky tomato sauce works well over pasta, rice, Texas toast or – Alton’s choice – biscuits.
Alton’s learned new respect for an old food, and he hopes viewers have the confidence to make this staple themselves. It’s a satisfying snack and a flavor packed ingredient. It’s an old food with a new dimension and seriously... Good Eats!