Jerky has been around as a food element for centuries. When animals proved too large to be eaten at one meal, preserving the meat by drying it was discovered. Drying meat of various domestic and wild animals was a life-saving skill used by many cultures, and took many forms.
Using a Cure
Curing salt is not required to make homemade jerky, but is often recommended because it can stabilize and improve the color of meat. It also contributes to the flavor. In addition, it is believed to inhibit spoilage and the growth of harmful bacteria. Some commercial cures contain sodium nitrite as a preservative, lengthening the shelf life of jerky. Jerky cures also bring flavor to the meat and open up a wide range of seasonings, including various peppers, both mild and hot, honey, brown sugar, soy sauce and other dry and liquid seasonings.
What is Jerky?
Jerky is meat that has been lightened in weight by drying, which also makes the meat nutrient-dense. One lb. of meat weighs around 4 oz. after being converted to jerky. Removing the moisture makes the jerky stable so it can be stored without refrigeration. Jerky as a food has been known from ancient times. North American Indians mixed ground dried meat with dried fruit, or suet, to make pemmican. The word "jerky" came from the Spanish word "charque."
Drying food is the world's oldest method of preservation. It supersedes canning and freezing, which became practical only in the last century, when electricity became widely available. Drying meat is simple and available to most of the world. When food is dried, moisture is removed, meaning enzymes cannot easily contact or react with the food, thereby forestalling any reactions which might render the food inedible.
The Importance of Heat
Salmonella and E. coli can result from improperly treated food. The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline recommends heating meat to 160 degrees and poultry to 165 degrees Fahrenheit before the dehydrating process, assuring the destruction of any bacteria present. Be aware that most dehydrator instructions do not include this step and, the USDA cautions, a dehydrator may not reach temperatures high enough to heat meat to 160. After heating, maintain a constant dehydrator temperature of 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit because the process must be fast enough to dry food before it spoils; it must remove enough water that microorganisms are unable to grow.
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