Chew On This – Brief Article

Sean O’Neill

FOOD | America’s first snack, BEEF JERKY, returns to the menu in all its gourmet glory.

CONSIDER how far jerky has come. It used to be the foodstuff reserved for when nothing fresh was left to shoot, forage for or plunder. But in the past six years, U.S. sales of jerky have risen 280%, to more than $480 million a year.

Jerky’s rise is credited mainly to its high-protein, low-carbohydrate virtues that meet the requirements of the Atkins diet, which since 1997 has regained popularity. Says Atkins Center spokeswoman Colette Heimowitz: “Jerky is better for you than a bagel.”

Well, that’s one opinion, anyway. Judith Wylieth-Rofett, spokeswoman for the American Heart Association, says: “Jerky is worse than a bagel. Jerky is high in salt, which raises blood pressure and strains the heart. Try fruits and nuts instead.”

The nutritional debate notwithstanding, jerky has come a long way in taste and quality since Lewis and Clark gnawed through herds of it on their way across the country. The best of it, gourmet natural jerky, costs about $25 a pound and is several food groups removed from such better-known meat snacks as the plastic-entombed Slim Jim.

If you go on a quest for the El Dorado of jerky, you’ll find that beef dominates the market, although buffalo, turkey, ostrich and salmon jerky are also sold. The most popular flavors, says Jim Davis, president of Boulder, Colo.-based Distinctive Brands, maker of Wild Ride jerky, are hickory-smoked, black pepper and sweet teriyaki.

Like a fine wine, great jerky takes your senses on a gastronomic journey. The texture, not the taste, is the first leg, followed by subtle flavors as the juices in your mouth free the salt and marinade hidden in the gnarly gaps. As it’s chewed, the smoky meat flavor starts to spread–ranging from mild to powerful to downright obnoxious if the jerky has been overly smoked or seasoned. And as with wine, the finish is important: If you get a bitter aftertaste, nitrates used as artificial tenderizers may be lingering on your tongue, which indicates that cheap meat has been used.

A tender texture is also important, notes Joe Chesney, a jerky maker from Thorndale, Pa. “If you have to gnaw like a dog, you’re eating the wrong kind.” How thick the meat slices are and how the jerky is dried determine how moist it is. For the fragile-toothed, Chesney offers Big Joe’s shredded-beef jerky ($1.49 for a half-ounce; 800-735-3759).

About 35 outfits make the good stuff. A typical operation is the one run by Linford Lapp and Jesse Bawell of Gettysburg, Pa., which makes The General’s beef jerky (the product salutes both Union and Confederate generals). Superlean top round is delivered from nearby Lancaster County farmers. Bawell whips up the marinade from a secret recipe, slices the beef by hand, and lets the slices soak in the chilled marinade for about 48 hours. The staff then hangs the strips on metal racks, which roll inside a smokehouse that looks like a bank vault. Hickory chips smolder while the jerky cooks for about three hours, after which it is removed to dry.

Eating a fresh strip is like having essence of barbecue brisket dissolve in your mouth, as Kiplinger’s learned during a visit to the smokehouse. A dark piece of The General’s ($2.79 for 2 ounces; 717-334-4116) breaks into a satisfying but not squishy chewiness.

Another Lancaster County producer, T.W. Kiefer ($28 a pound; 717-872-7913), sells a beef jerky at his delicatessen that in its smokiness, saltiness and spicy aftertaste has no peer. You don’t bite into this jerky; instead, you tear thin strips from the two-inch pieces and chew each little piece for what seems like minutes. Kiefer’s equally unique turkey jerky comes in huge, moist, peppery pieces, whose aftertaste lingers on and on.

Trader Joe’s, a specialty grocery with 131 stores in ten states, sells its own brand of buffalo jerky that had us coming back for more, time after time. We score it A + for the marinade and the firm, chewy texture. Do you like it really hot? Trader Joe’s also sells SnackMasters Hot n’ Spicy beef jerky (about $3 for 2.5 ounces; 800-597-9770) with an excellent taste–and peppers that will have you hopping around the room on one foot.

On that same score, Wild Ride Gallopin’ Pepper beef jerky ($1.99 for 1.25 ounces; www.wildridejerky.com) was favored by our testers who prefer a soft, crumbly texture with savory seasonings and no MSG or preservatives. If you want a steady supply of nongourmet jerky and meat snacks, Link’s Jerky of the Month Club may be for you. ($19.95 a month plus $4.95 shipping and handling; 877-932-5375).

–Reporter: COURTNEY MCGRATH

COPYRIGHT 2001 The Kiplinger Washington Editors, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group