Smoking, curing and air drying are the original processes used by humans to prepare their meat (or other perishable foods) for long term storage. Collectively, the processes are known as jerking and the resultant products, jerky.
The object of these procedures is to dehydrate or remove most of the moisture (water, body fluids) from the food, in order to discourage and delay bacterial growth, the primary cause of decomposition (spoilage). These preservation methods reach back to the dawn of time and have been used by people of all cultures to prolong the storage life and vitality of their food supply.
To this day, many of my friends on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming maintain their traditional ways by stripping and hanging portions of their antelope, deer, elk, and buffalo over smoky fires to preserve the flesh for use during the winter. No refrigeration required, just package the prepared meat to keep it dry and store in a cool place.
My own family has taken the more leisurely approach of crafting our jerky in electric ovens and smokers, but guess what we’ll be hanging on drying racks over a smoldering fires if the power ever goes out for any length of time?
The true value or utility of jerky lies in the fact that it, if properly prepared and stored, will retain its food value for extended periods of time, without refrigeration. This makes the meat perfect for long term storage. A number of my friends routinely rotate jerky through their emergency food stores as an economical protein staple.
In my own home, we love to use our jerky as an economical eat-anytime high-protein snack. It’s perfect for ball games, long road trips, hiking, camping, fishing, hunting and, of course, when we’re gathered together on the couch watching the Utah Jazz.
We’re in the midst of the 2018-19 waterfowl season and since, like many of you, I convert all of my duck and goose meat to jerky, this will be our focus today. This basic processing procedure can, of course, be modified for use with any type of wild game or domestic meat. Most local sporting goods stores, some supermarket chains and lots of online suppliers carry excellent commercial jerky preparations. My personal favorites are the Hi Mountain Seasonings blends (himtnjerky.com) put together in my old stomping grounds of Riverton, Wyoming, at the base of the Wind River Mountains.
Not surprisingly, you’ll find that the internet is flush with many excellent and varied jerky recipes. I’ve found some real winners at jerkyfaq.com. Feel free to search some of these sites and don’t be shy about experimenting so that you can develop your own personalized ingredient list and mix proportions. It’s great fun!
OK, now let’s shift gears and get into the actual jerky prep steps.
I’ve just returned to my computer after removing the breast meat from seven plump mallards that have been aging in my cold-cold garage for several days since their harvest. Weather permitting, I prefer to use the European method of aging the uncleaned (gutted) birds for several days before removing the meat. NOTE: This method is not for everyone, and if the idea troubles you, just follow the standard procedure of cleaning your birds as soon as you get home or right away out in the field. CAUTION: if you butcher your game in the field, be sure that you know your state’s regulations regarding species/sex identification, so that you don’t inadvertently transport your game home or to a processor unlawfully. You could be subject to some very stiff fines and penalties.
Let’s begin: After separating the meat from the breast plate, carefully peel the flesh from the skin (much easier with cold, aged meat), place it on a cutting board and trim away any fat. Then, carefully go through the meat with your fingers to find any embedded steel shot. This is a very important step if you value your natural teeth or expensive dentures, friends!
Next, soak the dark flesh in a sinkful of cold, salty water to draw out any clotted blood and debris. This step is followed by a thorough rinsing with cold water and a final inspection to detect any previously missed molar-fracturing steel shot. Pat dry with a paper towel. Place the prepared meat in a plastic storage bag and store in your freezer until you have a sufficient supply to create a batch of jerky.
Lately, I’ve taken to grinding my duck/goose, but if you prefer to cut the meat into strips (my old method), stash the meat in the freezer until you are ready to process. Then, several hours before you plan to jerk it, lay the semi-frozen breasts out onto a cutting board and cut into 1 inch or wider strips. Believe me, the semi-frozen meat cuts much more neatly than room-temperature flesh.
Jerking the meat
It’s at this point that personal tastes and procedures really begin to diverge because this is where everyone gets to add their own individual touch. As I mentioned, I appreciate the ease of selecting commercial jerky preparations, but every member of our clan gets to create several batches with their own secret formulas. I love to add soy sauce to my Hi Mountain Mandarin Teriyaki marinade to give it a savory, rather than a sweet taste prefered by some of my kids. But, to each his own!
Follow tradition or package directions to create your marinade. Mix the ground or stripped meat and seasonings in a large non-metallic bowl. Add a 1/4 cup of ice water/per pound of meat. Cover and set in the fridge for a minimum of four hours, but preferably overnight to allow the flavors to blend and mature.
I place a sheet of parchment paper on a large cookie sheet, and use my jerky gun to lay down the strips of ground/seasoned jerky. Be sure to leave some space between the strips to facilitate the consistent drying of each strip. Next, place in your oven, smoker, or dehydrator and cure the meat for the prescribed time (depending on your tastes) and temperatures. And there you have it!
Vacuum sealing and proper storage will keep your tasty bits shelf stable for months. What better way to have your drake and eat it too?