Go ahead, be a jerk

When I was growing up, one of my family’s favourite treats for the grill was the boerewors sausage from Florence Meats. It wasn’t a short trip from home, so my parents would tend to buy large quantities and stash it in the freezer. Sometimes, they would bring home another treat as well: biltong, which is South Africa’s answer to beef jerky. I’ve been a fan of beef jerky ever since.

For some reason, I got bitten by the bug the other day, giving me an early start on this month’s not-quite-charcutepalooza project. A quick survey of the recipe in Charcuterie showed it to be as simple as other salt-cured, whole-muscle charcuterie projects: a 24-hour salt cure, followed by several hours of drying. Unlike sausage, you don’t have to worry about it breaking if you don’t keep it cold enough, and unlike partially dried items, you don’t have to worry about controlling the ambient humidity to find that sweet spot between case hardening and mold.

Indeed, with jerky, you want the humidity to be as low as possible, since jerky is supposed to be dried all the way through. In Charcuterie, Ruhlman and Polcyn call for the beef to be dried at 90°F/32°C – roughly the temperature of a nice summer day – for 16 to 24 hours. But my dehydrator doesn’t go that low, and its instruction manual says to dry meats at 155°F/68°C. On the assumption that this figure was purposely high for liability reasons, I split the difference and set the dehydrator to 115°F/46°C. Six hours later, the strips were darkened and leathery, so I decided they were done. (I must admit, it wasn’t until I was a couple of hours into the process that I realized that jerky is essentially a raw beef product. But I eat beef tartare with gusto, so it didn’t bother me.)

I’m hedging all my bets by storing the jerky in the fridge, but I don’t think it’s going to last long enough for it to matter! The spicy, salty, chewy beef is a highly addictive, very satisfying snack.  And once again, I find myself marvelling at how, by following a recipe and seeing how straightforward the preparation is, the door opens to so many other possibilities. This batch was seasoned to spec with garlic and onion powder and minced chipotle chillis, but the spicing options are myriad. Teriyaki is a popular flavour in commercial products, and I’d be eager to try something involving smoked paprika, since I currently lack a good smoking setup. And then there’s the question of different kinds of meat…

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