We eat very little meat these days. This shift has come about for a number of reasons, primarily concerns about our own health and that of the planet’s – truthfully, the best thing you can do for the world (besides avoiding disposable straws at all times) is to reduce or eliminate your meat consumption. We also went vegetarian for our round-the-world adventure last year, and when we returned home it was easy just to carry on eating plant-based.
What meat we do eat comes from sources we know and trust, primarily wild-hunted game and animals raised on friends’ farms and ranches. We know how these animals lived and also how they died, and that matters. A lot.
Tools of the trade.
As we prepare to move from our first house, we’re not only downsizing books and furniture and knickknacks – we’re also downsizing a fairly impressive pantry. I’ve always kept a lot of food on hand; this habit stems from our time on the boats, where we traveled to some pretty remote places; often, we didn’t know when we’d be able to provision, or what would be available when we got there, so I tended to stockpile. I’m focused right now on cooking with what we have, and part of that plan involves using up the remainder of a bull elk hunted by a former client of ours.
You can tell this is wild game by the almost total lack of fat in the meat.
Ready for the grinder.
When you’re accustomed to cooking with standard American feedlot beef and pork, wild game – most commonly deer and elk in these parts – takes some getting used to. As a general rule, you either slice it thin and cook it super-fast and hot, such as for a stir-fry, or you cook it low and slow, as in a stew or braise, to tenderize the tough fibers. Because we’re not really eating meat as the centerpiece of our meals any longer, I think the highest and best use of lean game such as this elk is making it into jerky, and thankfully N agrees. Once it’s made into jerky we can keep it indefinitely, and it’s great to have along for road trips and other adventures.
Let’s make jerky!
Seasonings ready for blending.
Our artisanal jerky operation is entirely credited to our good friend Jim who introduced us to the magic of the Jerky Blaster (of course it comes from Cabela’s). It’s basically a food-safe caulking gun, and it allows you to make jerky and Slim Jim-style snack sticks from ground meat, rather than tediously slicing the meat thinly enough to dry properly. It’s a game-changer, to be sure, and Santa Claus kindly brought N a Jerky Blaster a couple of years ago. We haven’t looked back.
The elk is ground fresh using the standing mixer’s grinder attachment.
The ground meat is combined with the seasonings, then loaded into the Jerky Blaster.
I get all the praise for cooking in this house, but jerky production is entirely N’s domain. He has tested and retested and adjusted the recipes over the years; there have been batches made with teriyaki, curry powder and spicy Aleppo pepper, but right now, he favors a sharp, punchy black pepper version. We’ve used store-bought grass-fed ground beef, too, but standard beef has quite a bit more fat – even at 90% – and can leave a greasy aftertaste. N definitely prefers the mouthfeel of the elk.
The advantage here, as with preparing any food at home, is that we control what we’re eating. Packaged jerky contains numerous sketchy ingredients, including “natural flavorings” that are anything but natural. Plus, even cheap jerky costs a fortune! Making it at home takes some time, but the results are worth it.
Different tips allow for traditional flat jerky strips or round snack sticks.
Into the dehydrator it goes.
Once the meat is throughly blended with the seasoning, strips are piped onto dehydrator trays. We have a nine-tray Excalibur dehydrator, which we use for fruit leather, homemade yogurt and lots of other food preservation. N dries the jerky at 145°; the trays are shifted and rotated throughout the dehydrating process, which takes a couple of hours of minimal supervision. It’s easy to have a batch of jerky going while doing other things around the house.
The before-and-after pictorial.
Once the jerky is dry, it cools on the trays and then is stored in airtight bags in the fridge. It would last indefinitely, but it pairs so well with beer that its shelf life is rather short in our household.
Happy hour is our favorite hour!
P.S. You can make your own beef jerky without all this fancy equipment – good flank steak and a low oven will still yield pretty good results. Go here for more!