How Jerky Is Made: From Pharaoh Tombs to Your Corner Store

Food & Drink

Look at you. With your fancy fridge/freezer combo and fruit crisper with the little humidity control turn wheel that may or may not actually do anything. Living without fear of your food being spoiled rotten has got you…spoiled rotten.

In the days of yore, folks had to preserve their food using their wits and spits, with sun and smoke. Don your skins and scream at the sky. We’re learning about jerky today.

Who should we thank?
Dried meat has been a food staple of humans since the beginning of time. Preserved meats in almost-decent shape have been found in excavated Egyptian tombs. Were these discoveries worth the released curses? TBD.

Jerky was also made hundreds of years ago by people in the West. The Quechua people are actually responsible for the modern name, which has nothing to do with jerkiness. They called their dried meats (usually alpaca and llama) “ch’arki”, which eventually evolved into what we call the stuff today.

The native peoples of North America made a slightly different form of what we know as jerky from a mix of ground dried meat, rendered fat and berries. These little superfood cakes kept (and continue to keep) thousands of people alive through harsh winters, and profoundly influenced modern takes on jerky.

From there, jerky became a favorite staple of sailors and cowboys and soldiers and, well, everybody. We’re currently living in the golden age of jerky, baby. And the process is still evolving.

Get this jerky in my life
So how is jerky made? From Big Corporate Meat all the way down to your little kitchen, jerky making is the same basic 4-step process: Preparation, flavoring, curing and storage.

1. Preparation
Jerky is made from lean meat. Bones, connective tissues, and fat are removed. Factories have all sorts of cool toys like centrifuges and big smashy machines and filters that shake any non-meat critters away. At home, you have a good knife and a steady hand.

2. Flavoring
Jerky isn’t just salty because it tastes good. It’s salty because salt and other ingredients help in the curing process before the soon-to-be jerky is put under a heat source. Food factories that produce jerky use large tanks of brine and seasonings, and some even use needles that inject curing solution directly into the meat like some beautiful horror show of flavor.

When making jerky at home, your best bet is a large Ziploc bag full of meat strips soaking in marinade for up to 24 hours in your fridge—unless you can score one of those microneedle machines. And let us know if you find one. We’re in the market.

3. Curing
After seasoning, the meat needs to be dried out. And no, this isn’t where factory ceilings roll away to let the sunshine in. They gotta keep it clean—flies love teriyaki sauce.

That said, airflow is necessary, so we’re talking fans and moving racks. As for heat, it’s low and slow. This isn’t about cooking—it’s about dehydrating. This is a process that harkens back thousands of years. Strips of meat hanging on a stick, the sun gently punching like a welterweight on tiny, fleshy speed bags. Connect with your ancestors, my child!

At home, you’re working with an oven set at 175 degrees, with the door cracked a couple of inches, for anywhere from three to six hours. This is where quality control—i.e. frequent taste-testing—comes into play, you lucky so-and-so.

4. Storage
Jerky is preserved by nature, but for even longer-term freshness (and to not be gross), packaging is required. Most jerky on the market is packaged in vacuum-sealed bags. Some companies double-layer the bags to stay so so fresh.

For homemade jerky, you’re probably going to be so stoked that you don’t need to worry about a shelf life longer than a couple of days, but a Ziploc bag or glass jar will do you right.

Not in the moooooood?

Beef takes center stage when it comes to jerky, but jerky can be made from pretty much anything. Goat, venison, turkey, boar, squid and even fruits and vegetables. Same deal.

Yeah, you heard us. We said squid jerky.

Let’s stop talking about this
Agreed. Let us feast. With no hesitation! For this is a snack that bites back. Jerky is high in protein, low in carbs and is loaded with iron and zinc, two minerals that boost your immune system. Repeat: Jerky literally helps heal wounds.

And yeah, there’s also saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, but let’s just be stein-is-half-full people and say…moderation. Especially when you earn your jerky by, say, prying it out of a wooden crate or literally beating it out of its container with a stick.