One of America’s favorite snacks, Beef jerky is amazing to taste and goes with just about anything. It has become a staple in many household pantries and road trip bags. But did you know that beef jerky started from humble origins? In this article we are going to delve into the history of beef jerky and also bring to light some interesting facts.
What Is Beef Jerky?
Beef jerky is a relatively thin cut of meat that is drier than most cuts of meat. It’s dryness is a defining characteristic and is very important. Drying and dehydrating the meat keeps it from spoiling. The drying process includes adding plenty of salt to the cut, as that keeps bacteria away from the meat.
Of course, that’s the most barebones way to prepare jerky – which is essentially dried salted meat. But most jerky has added spices and flavors to make for a flavorful snack that has grown in popularity over the years.
At the beginning of time, our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. The realities of weather and accessibility to water drove quarry from locale to locale, and as meat relocated so did the humans. Whether evolving from necessity or a fortunate serendipity, the preserving of meat by drying became an indispensable factor of survival, allowing people to journey long ways and bear times of security. Archeologists have identified dried meats that are more than 5,000 years old.
Jerky has long been a favored way to preserve and savor nutrient-dense food. Jerky is easily portable and has been a core food for many populations. Almost any meat can be made into jerky.
The History of Beef Jerky
The oldest confirmation of jerky has been found in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians believed that life on Earth is just a fragment of our complete being, death is a mere interlude, and an individual’s ultimate fate is a perfect field of reeds where sadness, sickness, and death are expelled forever.
The Egyptians believed that the soul would rejoin the body. Accordingly, it would be necessary to preserve the body (mummification). When the soul and body were reunited, the newly re-alive would have wants: furniture, clothing, and food to name a few. Tombs erected as far back as 3200 B.C. have been probed and searched, and in those searches archeologists have found remains of beer, wine, grain, produce, and dried meat. Meat in jerky form is not subject to decay or insect infestation for ages, especially in a sealed tomb.
Coppiette is an Italian style of jerky. It is a dried meat stick that was once made of horse or donkey and eaten by poor farmers. The meat was seasoned with salt, fennel, and red pepper flakes. The sticks were tied in twos (which is where copiette gets its name, “little couple”) and dried in front of a hearth or fireplace for 60 days. For this reason it was usually made in the winter months. It is currently made with pork and has outgrown its humble beginnings.
Ethiopians have their own version of jerky called Quant’a. Meat strips are seasoned with salt, black pepper, and berbere (a spice mix which includes chili peppers, garlic, ginger, and basil).
Another type of jerky found in West Africa is called Kilishi. It is considered a treat in Nigeria, Ghana, Chad, Sudan, Gabon, Cameroon, and the Ivory Coast.
Kilishi is usually a jerky made from cow, but there are also versions made from sheep or goat. Thin sheet-like slices are allowed to dry in the sun then coated with a paste of ground peanuts, water, ground onions, and other spices. It is then left to dry and then finally roasted on a wire mesh.
The history of beef jerky also has roots in southern Africa (present day South Africa, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia). Native inhabitants of the area would preserve meat by slicing it into strips, curing it with salt, and hanging it up to dry outside for a period of about two weeks. Traditionally this jerky (called Biltong) was marinated in a vinegar solution for a few hours, then the liquid was removed and the meat seasoned with salt and spices. Spice mixes typically contained rock salt, coriander, black pepper, and brown sugar.
When European settlers moved into this region they tried to build up herds but that took years. They needed preserved meat to survive and picked up the process from the native population. The Europeans are the ones that coined the term, biltong, a Dutch combination of “bil” meaning rump and “tong” meaning tongue or strip.
Modern day biltong is usually made with beef. It is an everyday snack in southern Africa and can be found in butcher shops and grocery stores. A major difference from jerky is that biltong is never smoked. Biltong may be eaten by itself or chopped and added to stews, muffins, and breads.
Cold Climate Europe
In Norway, the Vikings were preparing fenalar (fen=mutton and lar=leg) a thousand years ago or more. Of all the Nordic countries, Norway is the top producer of sheep and even in the 21st century this cured meat made from salted and dried leg of lamb is extremely popular.
The people of Switzerland still make Bundnerfleisch, a beef cured with white wine, salt, onions, and herbs then hung and dried in a temperature controlled environment.
The word jerky has been derived from the Quechua language native to South America. The Incan empire had been making “Ch’arki ” (which means dried meat) for centuries in the Andean mountains. It was made from all sorts of meat including deboned and pounded meat, mostly extracted from the Llama and Alpaca. They would cut the meat into slices, pound them thin and eventually let them cook under the sun or over a fire after rubbing salt on them.
The invading Spanish conquistadors were impressed by this process as it allowed them to roam all over the New World and have a stable source of food.
In North America, the Cree Indians combined dried meat, fat, and dried berries to produce pemmican. Pemmican is a Cree word that comes from fat/grease, and this jerky-like food became a trading staple of many Native American tribes.
Pemmican was made out of whatever meat was available, which was usually bison, deer, elk or moose.
The process of making pemmican differs from the other jerky types. Meat was cut into thin slices then dried either in the sun or a slow burning fire until it was hard and brittle. Then the hard pieces were pounded with rocks until they became very small pieces or powder. Then the powdered meat was mixed with melted fat. Dried fruits were added, after also being pounded by stones. The result was a calorie dense mixture high in fat.
Ironically, the conquistadors who were conquering the southern and western parts of North America took up this idea of drying different meats which allowed them to travel great distances with a food supply and subjugate many Native Americans. The Native American process of drying meat, combining portability with longevity, was an instant hit with explorers, pioneers, and settlers all bent on driving the Native American from their lands.
What’s In a Name?
Most discussions concerning how dried strips of meat we call jerky got its name take the form of the wordlore. The most common (yet inaccurate) method is to look for linguistic clues in the word, which often leads to quite persuasive word origins that turn out to be wrong.
Since the word “jerk” already has a crystal clear meaning in English, this wordlore contends that beef jerky got its name because strips of dried beef are “jerked” off larger strips for consumption. Or because the procedure of preparing the dried beef must entail the beef being jerked (which makes no sense as nothing is jerked in the preparation). Or, in order to eat the crunchy, chewy meat you have to vigorously jerk a bite off. All of this makes plausible sense, but by no means is any of it accurate.
As we alluded to earlier, the name jerky comes from the Quechua language, which the Incas spoke. Their word for the process of drying meat was cchargini. The Spanish conquistadores adopted this word to create the Spanish word Ch’arki.
Our word jerky is purely an English rendition of the Spanish word which probably evolved over time. It has nothing to do with the word jerk, although this may have influenced the development of its pronunciation.
Is Beef Jerky Healthy?
Jerky is no doubt a delicious snack to grab as you’re running out the door or as a post workout protein hit. However, there are quite a few concerns some people have about consuming cured meats. People often think of beef jerky as another “junk food” that has no nutritional benefits. But guess what? Jerky brings more to the table than just a burst of flavor.
What Makes a Food Healthy?
What kind of food do you think of when you see the word “healthy?” Fruits? Vegetables? Most people will agree that a healthy diet consists of whole, unprocessed foods which provide your body with essential nutrients that it needs to keep your health, mood, and energy levels in check.
So, it’s really all about balance; making sure your body is fueled with nutrition from a variety of whole food sources. And nutritious snacks are part of the equation. That’s why asking “is beef jerky healthy?” is too simple of a question. Because while jerky is a snack food, it can be a great source of some key nutrients.
Jerky Is High in Protein
Jerky is a perfect high-protein snack. Each one-ounce serving of beef jerky contains between 10 and 16 grams of protein. It is important to eat enough protein because the macronutrient is necessary for many functions in your body including building muscles, bones, cartilage, blood, and skin.
Jerky is Low in Calories
With only 80 to 90 calories per ounce, beef jerky is lower in calories than most snack options out there. For example, protein bars can contain well over 300 calories per serving. Jerky allows you to eat almost as much protein as a protein bar without those extra calories.
Jerky is a great healthy snack for those who are watching their caloric intake since it satisfies appetites with fewer calories. This is because most of the calories in jerky are in the form of protein, which is filling, low in calories, and does not quickly transform into fat in the body.
Jerky is High in Iron, Zinc and Other Minerals
Jerky is typically made from beef, venison, elk, or buffalo, all of which are high in iron. One ounce of these types of jerky contain about 8 percent of the daily recommended intake of iron. Jerky is also high in zinc, magnesium, and potassium. Zinc supports the immune system, helping your body stay healthy by fighting off illness. Magnesium is necessary for healthy bones, heart, and blood. Potassium helps your muscles work and makes sure different systems in your body work.
Jerky is Low in Sugar
To make jerky, meat must be cured in either sugar, salt, or a mixture of both. Depending on the flavor of jerky, the curing solution may lean heavily in one direction or the other. However, jerky is typically low in sugar especially when compared to other protein-rich snack foods like protein bars. Flavors such as Teriyaki and Sweet and Spicy have the highest amounts of sugar to achieve a sweeter flavor, but most other flavors have only 3 grams of sugar per ounce, making them low-sugar healthy snack options.
Jerky is Low in Fat
When made with lean meat, jerky can be very low in fat, making it a perfect snack for a healthy diet. Much of the fat found in the meat is eliminated during the drying process leaving jerky with only a small amount of fat in each serving.
Jerky Is a Low-Carb Snack
One of the problems that people run into when following a low-carb diet is finding alternative sources of energy. Jerky is a healthy snack that is low in carbs but still offers a good amount of energy. Eating jerky can give you natural energy without the unpredictable spikes and crashes in insulin and energy levels resulting from carb-heavy snacks. Replacing high-carb snacks with high-protein snacks like jerky can actually promote fat loss and keep hunger away longer.
What About the Salt?
While too much sodium can be harmful to your health and body, you can also become sodium deficient if you cut it out completely. Again, it’s about balancing what you eat with what your body needs.
Unless you are eating jerky for every meal everyday, tossing a handful of beef jerky into your gym bag or kid’s lunch box can have more benefits than downsides. In our busy modern lifestyle it can be difficult to eat and snack right. That’s where jerky can be a great way to intake protein and iron on the go, helping to keep you focused and fuller longer while curbing your appetite for a bag of chips or a candy bar.
Here are some interesting facts about beef jerky:
Jerky Is a Favorite for Astronauts
Meals in space need to be selected carefully. They have to provide nutrients that are essential for general wellbeing, but they also must occupy little space, can’t require refrigeration, and must be able to be consumed in a zero gravity environment.
Easy to eat, occupies little space, and full of nutrients – no wonder astronauts love beef jerky!
Almost Any Meat Can Be Prepared as Jerky
Most of the jerky that people eat is beef jerky, but jerky can be made from just about any meat. If meat is dried, salted, and seasoned it becomes jerky. Besides beef, some of the most popular meats that are used for jerky include elk, buffalo, and venison, but jerky has also been made from game birds such as ducks and pheasants. Even fish, such as tuna and salmon, can be made into jerky. Jerky possibilities are endless.
Some Animals Make Jerky
Surprisingly, humans are not the only ones who make and eat jerky. Some animals have discovered the same process and use it to store food, too. Red squirrels set mushrooms on trees to dry them out so they can eat them later. Red fire ants have been observed leaving parts of meals to dry then going back to consume them at a later time.
Jerky Loses Substantial Weight During Dehydration
It takes a lot of meat to make one ounce of jerky. Since beef is 60 percent water, the dehydration process can reduce its weight in one half or even two thirds. To put it simply, three pounds of raw beef may shrink down to only one pound of beef jerky once dried. That’s a big weight loss. It’s this small yield that can make jerky fall a little more on the expensive side.
There Are Strict Regulations on Beef Jerky
You probably didn’t know that jerky faces strict regulations and restrictions on both its production and importation. The Food Safety and Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture has carefully laid out procedures for processing jerky, including treating the meat to make sure it’s safe for human consumption. Many countries also have very strict restrictions on jerky imports. Some countries completely prohibit it, while others require voluminous paperwork and inspection before it can enter the country.
Jerky Pairs Well With Wine
Jerky is usually associated with adventure and exercise. Yet jerky and wine are often paired. In Rome, pork and beef are carefully seasoned with fennel seeds, pepperoni peppers, and salt to make coppiette. The gourmet jerky is served with red wine in bars and restaurants throughout the city. A hot and spicy jerky pairs wonderfully with a sweet Reisling and a simple savory jerky goes well with a Cabernet Sauvignon.
Beef Jerky Is a Fast Growing Industry
In 2018 the beef jerky business became the fastest growing snack industry of the year and revenues are still growing. Current diet trends have emphasized the importance of protein and the innovative approach of jerky producers in promoting its health benefits have made this a popular option for consumers, second only to chips.
Jerky is one of the oldest (and arguably the tastiest) preserved meats available. While in the past jerky got a bad name as a high-sodium and highly processed food, recent years have seen a turn. Farms and food establishments have transformed jerky from a guilty pleasure into an energy- and flavor-packed powerhouse snack.
Hope you enjoyed our dive into beef jerky with its colorful history and fun facts. We leave you with this: every June 12 is National Beef Jerky Day, a day to celebrate the snack that so many enjoy all year.