I have it on good authority that one of the items our soldiers overseas most often request in their care packages from home is beef jerky. This information comes from an unimpeachable source, namely my daughter Anna, whose boyfriend, Shaun, is bravely serving our country as an Army sergeant in far away Afghanistan. So I've been busy lately. Making beef jerky.
Jerking, culinarily speaking, simply means to cut meat into thin strips and then dry it. Drying is the world's oldest and most common method of food preservation, and early man either dried strips of meat in the sun or hung it close to the campfire, which kept off the flies and gave the meat a pleasant, smoky taste.
Jerky brings to mind Native Americans, the pioneers of the plains and the cowboys of the old West. It was their chief staple?#34;high in protein, lightweight and portable. Rehydrated, it could be used in soups and stews, and best of all it had a long shelf life.
Today, beef jerky remains popular as a handy source of nutrition for backpackers and anyone else without access to refrigeration. Kids (mine included) are especially fond of beef jerky and are always delighted to find it in their lunch boxes. And I, of course, am always delighted to make it.
Keep in mind that true beef jerky is produced from a single piece of beef. Much of the jerky that's sold commercially is generally chunked or ground, molded and then cut into strips. Binders and extenders such as beef and soy protein are added, as well as monosodium glutamate. You can buy real jerky, but it can be expensive (up to $15 per pound). Making it at home, in the oven, is both easy and economical.
I prefer to use only salt and black pepper for flavor, and occasionally cayenne pepper (if I want it really spicy). For added flavor the sky's the limit and the meat can be marinated overnight with such seasonings as soy sauce, wine, beer, tequila, onion or garlic powder, chili powder, Worcestershire sauce, etc. Be imaginative, but bear in mind: from caveman to cowboy to soldier (and even to your kid's lunchbox), it's all good.
Choose lean beef, such as round steak, flank or beef brisket. Three pounds of raw beef will yield 1 pound of jerky.
Firm the meat in the freezer just to the point where ice crystals form to make slicing easier.
Line the bottom of your oven with tin foil.
Remove all the fat from the meat.
Cut the meat into thin strips no more than 1/4-inch thick.
Place the strips of meat on wire racks and season with salt and ground black pepper.
Place the racks in the oven.
Set the oven temperature to 160 degrees and leave the door partially open (I use a wooden spoon).
Lower the heat, leave the door propped open, and maintain a temperature of 130 to 140 degrees for six to eight hours.
The jerky is done when it has turned nearly black and will crack (not break) when you bend it (if the pieces snap in two it means the jerky is overcooked).
Let the jerky cool completely.
Place it in zip-lock bags or airtight jars.