One of my absolute favoritest-est-est food memories of all time is when my parents came to my grade school class at Pauline Memorial School, where I attended the 4th and 5th grades. (Wearing, I might add, the ugliest plaid jumper uniform in the history of ugly school uniforms.) No, they did not come to humiliate me in front of my peers (though my Daddy was not above standing up and flailing his arms in the audience of all of my ballet performances ever…..), but rather to enrich our studies of Native American culture by teaching us all how to make beef jerky and pemmican. I loved that they were willing to participate in my education like that, and I especially loved that they were the cool parents that came to teach everyone how to make awesome snacks.
I didn’t realize it then, but this was probably my first real exposure to charcuterie technique, a facet of the culinary world that I am very much interested in to this day. I can remember, back then, being fascinated by my parents’ explanations to my class that making things like jerky and pemmican were absolutely essential for getting various tribes through the winter months, when most mammals (an obviously substantial part of the protein supply), were hibernating. It was incredible to me then, and still is, that such ingenuity arose from such dire necessity, and it really fit with the idea that so many Native American tribes quite passionately, and even religiously in the most literal sense of the word, used the entire animal from snout to tail if they were going to bother to kill it in the first place. Animals are considered precious, divine gifts in so many facets of Native American life. I’ve always thought it was a lovely way of looking at things, and I’m very grateful that my parents taught this to me at such a young age. If you get close enough to Native American culture, it has a magical way of sneaking into your soul and inspiring you at the deepest of levels, and for that I am also very grateful that my parents chose to live in Colorado and expose me to so much of it.
I’ve been wanting to honor my parents with a recipe for beef jerky for the longest time. I attempted it once for a culinary school project, but even though it looked pretty, it was pretty bad. Far too salty, too thickly cut, and crazily over-dried. For that attempt, I had worked from this recipe from Michael Ruhlman, who is actually an extremely acclaimed expert in charcuterie, and even wrote a book called “Charcuterie,” which I own and absolutely love. Go figure. It was hugely time-consuming (though not difficult), and included a lengthy curing process before drying. Not to mention that the entire endeavour was thoroughly unsuccessful (sorry Mike). This time, I worked pretty faithfully from a recipe from Brooklyn-based jerky princess and Iris Café owner Rachel Graville, who was featured in -ahem- “The Gastronaut Files” in Food & Wine magazine. Yeah, I think I pretty much found my recipe source here.
Her approach was completely different, and made much more sense to me. While Ruhlman’s technique starts with a dry salt cure, hers starts with a deeply flavorful (and easily adaptable) liquid marinade, where the salt content comes exclusively from soy sauce. The marinade time is only 6-8 hours compared to Ruhlman’s cure period of 24 hours, and she calls for a drying period of 4 hours in a 200ºF oven, while Ruhlman calls for a drying period of 16-20 hours at 90ºF. Most ovens don’t even go that low, so I had to prop my oven door open with a towel, as he suggested. But the real victory-clencher in Graville’s favor here are, quite simply, the results. Now THIS is beef jerky people, and it’s a beautiful thing. Perfect, deep flavor, perfect texture, and a simple, stream-lined technique. Thanks Rachel!
2 lbs. worth of top round beef, approximately 1 1/2″ thick
3 cups beer (preferably an amber ale or lager)
2 cups soy sauce
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
4 tbsp. freshly ground black pepper (preferably a medium-coarse grind, if possible)
1. Trim the beef of all excess fat, sinew, and silver skin. Place the meat in the freezer for about 30 minutes or so, allowing the meat to firm up a bit and make it easier to slice. Using a sharp meat slicer/carving knife or chef’s knife (there is a lovely guide to basic kitchen knives here), carefully slice the steak as thinly as possible, working against the grain of the meat. After the meat is sliced, keep it cold in the refrigerator while you prepare the marinade.
2. In a large non-reactive bowl, combine the beer, soy sauce, Worcestershire, and 2 tbsp. of the black pepper. Add the sliced meat to the marinade a little bit at a time, making sure all of the surfaces have been coated with the marinade liquid. Cover the bowl of meat and marinade with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 6 but no more than 8 hours. (It will get waaaaay too salty otherwise.)
3. When the marinating period is close to completion, preheat the oven to 200ºF. Set a wire rack over a sheet pan so that air can circulate all the way around the meat. (NOTE: You might need several racks and several sheet pans, depending on their sizes…..a set or 2 like this is wonderful to have at home.) Remove the beef from the marinade and pat dry with a few sheets of paper towel. Carefully lay out each slice of meat in a single layer on the rack so that there are no overlaps. (The meat will shrink significantly in the oven, but overlaps will cause uneven, unsuccessful drying. Same thing as when we made Kale Chips before, remember?) Sprinkle the meat with the rest of the black pepper.
4. When the oven is ready to rock, place the racked meat/sheet pans in the oven, and let it go for 4 full hours, or until the meat is nearly void of moisture but still retains a little bit of chewiness. Remove from oven and allow to cool completely. Store in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for up to 6 weeks.
Yield: Well, the bad news is that you start with 2 lbs. of steak, then you get rid of all the fat and stuff, and then you get rid of all the moisture too. By the time you do all that, you’re left with about 3/4 lb. of steak. Bummer, man. But the good news? It lasts for a full 6 weeks. (Beat that, pre-jerkified top round steak!) Make sure you share – don’t be a jerky! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)Printer Friendly