Meat that has been cut into strips, trimmed of fat, marinated
in a spicy, salty, or sweet liquid, and dried or smoked with low heat (usually
under 70°C/160°F) or is occasionally just salted and sun-dried. The result is
jerky, a salty, savory, or semi-sweet snack that can be stored for a long time
Left: Spiced strips of jerky.
The word "jerky" comes from the Quechua term Charqui,
which means "to burn (meat)".
Jerked meat was one of the first human-made products and was a crucially
important food preservation technique for survival.
Any particular preparation or recipe for jerky typically uses
only one type of meat. Around the world, meat from domestic and wild animals are
used to make jerky. Domestic animals include bovine, pig, goat and sheep or
lamb. Wild animals include deer, elk, caribou, kangaroo, bison and moose are
also used. Recently, other animals such as turkey, ostrich, salmon,
alligator, tuna and horse are also used.
The meat must be dried quickly, to limit bacterial growth during the critical
period where the meat is not yet dry. To do this, the meat is thinly sliced, or
pressed thinly, in the case of ground meat. The strips of meat are dried at low
temperatures, to avoid cooking it, or over-drying it to the point where it is
In present-day factories, large jerky ovens are made of insulated panels. Inside
these low-temperature drying ovens are many heater elements and fans. The ovens
have exhaust ports to remove the moisture-laden air. The combination of fast
moving air and low heat dries the meat to the desired moisture content within a
few hours. The raw, marinated jerky strips are placed on racks of nylon-coated
metal screens which have been sprayed with a light vegetable oil to allow the
meat to be removed easily. The screen trays are placed closely in layers on
rolling carts which are then put in the drying oven.
Some additional form of chemical preservative, such as sodium nitrate, is often
used in conjunction with the historical salted drying procedure to prepare
jerky. Smoking was, and still is, the most traditional method, as it preserved,
flavored, and dried the meat simultaneously. Salting is the most common method
used today, as it both provides seasoning to improve the flavor as well as
preserve the meat. While some methods involve applying the seasonings with a
marinade, this can increase the drying time by adding moisture to the meat.
A similar product,
biltong, is common in South African
cuisine; however, it differs very much in production process and taste.
Biltong differs from jerky in two distinct ways:
Left: Homemade beef
biltong, based on the South African recipe.
The meat used in
biltong can be much thicker; typically biltong meat is cut in strips
approx 1 inch wide - but can be thicker. Jerky is normally very thin
The vinegar and
salt in biltong, together with the drying process, cures the meat as
well as adding texture and flavour. Jerky is traditionally dried