I learned quite a few lessons from my dad, but one that still holds true both in my day-to-day existence and in my kayaking experience is: "Don't complicate things, keep it simple". That rule of thumb holds true in the kayak kitchen as well. If the recipe works, don't change it. One food that has been nourishing man for thousands of years is jerky, or dried meat. If you're not a strict vegetarian, it's the ultimate travel food!
A brief history… No one knows exactly when or how humans first learned to dry meat to preserve it for later consumption. We do know that drying is the world's oldest and most common method of food preservation, and that dried meat is a food known since at least ancient Egypt. It has been a basic feature of many cultures around the world for thousands of years. The word "jerky" itself is said to come from the language of the Incas in South America. Their word for dried meat was "Ch'arki". But the Incans weren't the only people who made jerky. The Chinese have been making "bakkwa" for centuries, and it is still a favorite gift given to friends and relatives during Chinese New Year. Mongolian nomads still prepare "borts" to survive their long winters by drying strips of fresh meat hung on strings from the roof of their yurt. In northern Finland "Kuivaliha" is often made of reindeer meat. It was originally used to preserve meat for the long winter months, and is still considered a delicacy. In South Africa, "biltong" is a dried meat introduced by Dutch settlers, who needed stocks of durable food as they moved into the South African interior.
In the Americas, dried meat was a basic foodstuff for aboriginal peoples, who were never certain when the next deer or buffalo would be caught. Since it often took days to organize a hunt for buffalo or venison, and the resulting harvest was much more than the tribe could eat before the meat went bad, drying meat for later consumption was paramount. Early explorers and settlers were impressed by the Native Americans' ability to preserve meat, and dried meats or jerky soon became a staple for traders and pioneers when travelling cross-country. It was an essential source of nutrition when fresh food and supplies were limited. Even if we can't claim jerky to be "as American as apple pie", we can say that it has become for many people part of the American psyche, symbolic of our pioneering past. And today it is still a favorite of Americans and Canadians, with sales of jerky and meat sticks of around one billion dollars a year!
Jerky's nutritional value… Jerky is a nutrient-rich meat made lightweight by drying (a pound of meat weighs about 4 ounces after drying). It's a paddler's friend because it can be stored without refrigeration. A one-ounce serving of beef jerky contains about 115 calories and 9.4 g of protein. One serving of jerky contains 1.5 mg of iron, 19 percent of the RDA for men and 9 percent for women. A serving of beef jerky also contains 7.3 g of fat, including 3.1 g of saturated fat. Keep in mind that the average recommended intake of saturated fats should be no more than 22 g. Beef jerky is usually also high in sodium, since salt is added as a seasoning. An ounce of jerky contains almost 600 mg sodium, more than a quarter of the maximum recommended daily intake.
Making jerky… When our ancestors made jerky it was a long process, starting with the hunt and then the drying process of the meat, either in the sun or over a low-burning fire. Paddlers could still choose to do it in the traditional way, but there's really no reason to do so. I make my jerky at home, using either a dehydrator or an oven and then I use the finished product for paddling meals or snacks while camping. Use any lean meat and cut into 1/8 to 1/4 inch strips, cutting against the grain of the meat. (A tip: place the meat in the freezer until it is firm but not hard; it will cut into thin slices much more easily.) Trim all the fat you can from the meat and cure it in the refrigerator for at least 8 to 12 hours. The basic salt cure is simply salt and black pepper, but adding spices boosts the flavor of your jerky.
Basic BEEF jerky
- 1 pound top round steak without any visible fat
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt
- 2 tbsp brown sugar, lightly packed
- 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tsp cayenne pepper, or chilli pepper
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp onion powder
Wrap beef in plastic wrap and freeze for 60 minutes or until firm, but not frozen. This makes it easier to slice. With a sharp knife, slice beef across the grain into very thin strips. You can also use beef that is already sliced and sold for fondue. Place all ingredients, except beef, in a large freezer plastic bag (Ziploc type). Mix well and add beef. Seal and let marinate 30 minutes for 12 to 24 hours.
Preheat oven to 160°F. Drain beef strips and pat dry perfectly with paper towels. Throw away marinade. Arrange beef strips (on a baking rack on a jellyroll pan) in a single layer with room between each strip for air circulation. Bake for about 6 hours, or until dry to the touch. Remove from oven and let air-dry in a cool dry place for another 24 hours.
To make different versions of jerky, change spices as you wish. You can also do this recipe with chicken.