Whether it comes from a filling station, truck stop or smokehouse market—whatever its style or regional identity—jerky is America’s real road food, a portable source of concentrated protein that makes power bars taste like nothing but candy.
Although drying as a means of preserving food has been around since the Pharaohs, jerky (from the Spanish charqui meaning “dried meat”) is a Native American invention of necessity. Slaughtering game in anticipation of winter, Indians used a combination of sun and wind to dehydrate their bounty. There were no geographical limitations to jerked meat: it had excellent keeping qualities, was light enough to carry on the trail, and, best of all, could be eaten without tell-tale signs of a campfire, vital when traveling through dangerous territory. As the frontier colonized, settlers gave more flavor to jerky by incorporating spice rubs that reflected their individual ethnic culinary traditions, creating an infinite variety of homespun jerky recipes.
While American foods enjoy a long culinary heritage, they are usually available in the present day on two levels: mass-produced (with broad-spectrum appeal), and smaller, custom production (resulting in more particularized styles). This is especially true for jerky. The biggest factories turn out a chopped and formed version that produces a leathery bark-like jerky, while custom production is done mostly with full-muscle meat (from whole cuts), creating a tender, more fully flavored jerky.
If you have never had premium jerky, you cannot fully understand its appeal: the complex claret color (like a bruise) and redolent smokiness; the tenderness of the meat, so supple you can practically tie a strip into a knot. There is also a hypnotic quality to eating good jerky; the longer you chew, the more buttery it becomes, while you grow mesmerized by the repetitive rhythm of chewing and chewing and chewing (like with good tobacco) until eventually your jaw is on automatic and your brain is set free to wander. But the oddest thing is how easily you can be haunted by a good piece of jerky (especially when the source is miles behind you in the dust). So do what I have learned to do on route: keep a jerky journal by saving a tiny piece of every variety I encounter in a separate airtight sandwich bag (labeled with the telephone number of the market source). Now I have a record of my road trip, complete with scratch and sniff.
Black Powder Jerky
3 flank steaks, approximately 2lbs. each
1 c Sorghum
1 ½ c Soy sauce
1 T Liquid smoke
¼ C Worcestershire
2 T Fine ground black pepper
1 T Garlic powder
1 T Onion powder
Combine all of the ingredients for the marinade making sure the sorghum is fully dissolved and doesn’t just sit at the bottom of the bowl. Set aside.
Slice the flank steaks ¼ inch thick widthwise, holding the blade at a 45-degree angle and slicing diagonally to make a “tranche” cut (as you would slice a side of smoked salmon, but at a much less exaggerated angle).
Whisk the marinade ingredients until well combined and pour about a quarter of it into a square sided container (like a Pyrex casserole). Layer the slices of meat in evenly, pouring more marinade over as needed to coat all pieces equally.
Cover and refrigerate for 24 hours.
To remove excess marinade, layer the slices of meat between paper towels.
Turn oven to lowest setting.
Lay the meat out onto lightly oiled baking racks, leaving a little space in between each piece without overlapping so the jerky dries evenly.
Place the baking racks directly on the oven racks, with no cookie sheet or anything to block the air and heat from circulating around the oven. Before doing so you will want to place a few sheets of aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven to protect against any drips.
Leave the oven door cracked open throughout the drying process, which will take around 8 hours. Half way through, check the progress, flipping the slices of meat and rotating the racks.
Let the jerky rest at room temperature for an hour or so after it comes out of the oven to let the moisture left inside the meat equalize with the drier outside surface. Transfer to airtight container and store.