If you’re someone who likes to experiment in the kitchen, you know that inspiration can strike in unexpected ways. The latest spark for me was a trip to Mexico, where a Canadian chef persuaded this American to try her hand at making beef jerky. I like to think of the result as my own little gastronomic North American Free Trade Agreement.
In January, I traveled to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, to attend a five-day culinary event at the El Dorado Royale resort on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Sponsored by a Canadian beef association, the recurring series features a different Canuck toque each month, and January’s presenter was chef Louis Charest, who is at the helm of two restaurants in Ottawa, Canada — Big Easy’s Seafood & Steakhouse and Rosie’s Southern Kitchen. In addition to sharing tips and techniques for buying and cooking beef, Charest also prepared a slew of beef-centered dishes for us to taste, including a rich short-rib ravioli that he served up with a strip of jerky on the side. While the ravioli were delicious, it was the concentrated flavor of that small garnish that was a revelation.
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Although I enjoy a good burger, steak or bolognese sauce from time to time, I don’t eat a great deal of beef, but I do remain a fan of well-made charcuterie. Long tarred by its image as truck-stop mystery grub, beef jerky rarely gets invited to the high-end cured-meat party, but sampling Charest’s version made me realize the good kind can more than hold its own with other salted and dried gourmet products like salumi. One of the best ways to ensure quality — and avoid consuming unpronounceable preservatives or the byproducts of an Upton Sinclair–esque meat-processing facility — is to make your own at home.
Although the name is believed to derive from the Incan word for dried meat, jerky was also a popular staple for Native Americans and, later, the early colonists. Back in the days before refrigeration, the technique helped preserve meat for long periods of time, and the end result was sustenance that was easy for trappers and settlers to transport on long journeys.
As anyone who’s ever eaten the stuff can attest, jerky is not the most attractive food, but what it lacks in beauty, it more than makes up for in taste. The possible seasoning combinations are nearly infinite, but the basic building blocks are salt and air-drying, which serve to draw out the meat’s moisture, thereby preventing spoilage. Not surprisingly, the resulting food is fairly high in sodium, but unless you’re on a salt-restricted diet, this shouldn’t pose a major problem. The best jerky has a very concentrated flavor, and it’s not meant for gorging. A little goes a long way.
Let your tastes guide your beef jerky marinade
Standing in one of the resort’s working kitchens, Charest talked me through his jerky recipe. It features many of the seasonings he employs at his two New Orleans-inspired restaurants, where he draws from Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole culinary traditions as well as their French and Canadian influences. His final jerky spice blend includes elements like cayenne-celery salt, paprika and ground seaweed, but he was adamant that home cooks should feel free to deviate from this recipe and others. “Don’t be afraid to swap out one ingredient for another,” he says. “If you don’t have or like a certain spice, replace it with something else. Go with the flavors you enjoy.”
In this spirit, I set about adapting his recipe to match my own palate, while still relying on his overall technique. In Mexico, he used meat from the shoulder clod, but if you can’t find that particular cut, a blade or flank steak works just as well. Like moisture, fat also promotes spoilage, so it’s important to use lean meat and take the time to trim it thoroughly.
In addition to using generous amounts of salt, you’ll also want to slice the meat as thinly as possible, to facilitate the drying process. In my research, I came across several recipes that recommended freezing the meat for an hour or so to firm it up, making it easier to cut, but you can also follow Charest’s approach of pounding your slices with the flat edge of a chef’s knife or meat tenderizer.
For the marinade, any permutation of soy sauce, alcohol (such as bourbon, mirin, tequila, etc.), teriyaki sauce, vinegar or citrus will do nicely, but if you opt for a base that’s salted, like soy sauce, remember to adjust the overall salt content to fit your taste. (I used low-sodium tamari, because that’s what I keep at home, so I made sure to include enough extra salt.) It’s also a good idea to add a sweet element, like sugar or honey, for balance. And taste the mixture before adding the raw meat, to ensure you like the flavor.
Quality beef is not the world’s cheapest ingredient, which is why my recipe calls for a relatively small amount of meat. The idea is to experiment with different spice combinations first until you hit upon one you really like; once you do, simply scale up the ingredient quantities.
As its earliest proponents knew, beef jerky is an eminently adaptable recipe, so let your imagination — and taste buds — be your guide.
Smoked Paprika and Lime Beef Jerky
If you don’t have a dehydrator, your oven will do fine. Set it as close to 170 F as possible. Because you want the beef to dry out without burning, it’s also helpful to leave the oven door cracked open a bit and check on the meat periodically. Cooking times will vary according to oven and room temperature, ambient humidity and the thickness of your meat slices. Just be sure to leave the beef in the oven until it has dried completely.
4 to 4½ tablespoons fresh-squeezed lime juice (about 2 limes)
3 tablespoons low-sodium tamari
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon sweet smoked paprika
1 teaspoon cayenne powder
½ pound thinly sliced fat-trimmed beef
1. Combine lime juice, tamari, rice vinegar and sherry vinegar in a large bowl. Add sugar, salt, garlic powder, onion powder, smoked paprika and cayenne powder, and stir well to combine the marinade.
2. Slice meat into ⅛- to ¼-inch-thin strips. As you slice around the gaps where you have trimmed fat, you will likely get slices that are no longer uniform in shape. This will not affect the recipe.
3. Place the meat into the marinade. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator overnight.
4. The next day, preheat your oven to 170 F. (If you have a dehydrator, follow the manufacturer’s instructions.)
5. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil to catch the marinade drippings and place a rack atop the sheet. Lay the meat strips on the rack, making sure to leave space among them to allow air to circulate.
6. Place the rack in the oven and leave the door open a bit. (If you choose not to do this, be sure to check the meat occasionally to ensure it does not burn.) Leave the rack in the oven until the meat is completely dry. The time will vary. In my oven, it took 3½ hours.
Top photo: Beef jerky. Credit: Sofia Perez