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Beef Jerky

Beef Jerky
Jazz Guy via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
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Beef Jerky

Maybe it's a guy thing: it's late afternoon and you'd love to have a snack, but a cookie or two doesn't appeal. You start thinking and then the image of a handful of beef jerky pops into your head and you gotta have it. As Chef Jerry Pellegrino has told me, if you had planned ahead you could have easily whipped up a mess of beef jerky all by yourself.

These tasty dried, salted and flavored strips of meat are as old as time. If your cave dwelling tribe went out and brought down a mastodon, you could only eat but so much that first wonderful week. Rather than watch the meat spoil, they figured out that if you cut it into thin strips and dried it out over a low slow fire you'd have a supply of very flavorful meat that could last a long time.

Ancient Egyptians did it. Mongols on the plains of Eurasia did it. Native Americans loved buffalo jerky. And no self-respecting cowpoke would hit the trail without a saddlebag full of the stuff. And astronauts, we are told, are mad for the stuff.

What I like about beef jerky is that it's so darned easy to make. An hour for prepping, a full day for marinating, and five hours for that low slow bake.

Let's talk first about the meat. It is beef and more specifically, it's round steak. Now, round steak is not my favorite steak. It's sort of tough and fibrous and awfully chewy. But the pronounced grain of the fibers is a good thing for jerky.

Trim all the fat, cut across the grain, and make thin strips (about 1/4" is perfect) that soak up a marinade, bake gently so that your jerky will remain pliable and easy to eat.

The marinades are totally up to you, but I think Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce (particularly Soy Vey), barbecue sauce, stir fry sauce, honey, vinegar, that old devil Liquid Smoke, and seasonings like black pepper, paprika, red pepper flakes, garlic salt and brown sugar are all great choices. Also, you have possibilities for extra flavor with things like orange juice, pineapple juice, ginger, and red wine.

The 2 pound round steak that I cut up yielded about 50 strips, which I put in a big plastic zip-lock bag. I poured in my marinade of Soy Vey, Worcestershire and stir-fry sauce, seasoned with black pepper, garlic salt and lots of red pepper flakes. Into the fridge it went.

Twenty four hours later, I preheated my oven to its lowest setting, 170°. (Go lower if your stove will permit.) I lined a couple cookie sheets with tinfoil, put cooling racks on top and laid out my jerky strips. Into the oven it went and 5 hours later it was all good.

You want to be careful not to undercook it (some recipes call for 3 hours which barely gets it done in my opinion) nor to overcook it. Leave it in too long and you get very stiff, hard to eat jerky that will give your jaws a workout. What you want is dark color and a somewhat soft pliable texture, which takes about 5 hours at 170°. And because you cut the beef strips across the grain, it's super-easy to tear off a chaw with your teeth.

I stored half my jerky in a loosely closed plastic bag, and I froze the rest. Because the jerky is cooked thoroughly and has no fat on it, it will resist spoilage for some time. If you can keep it in an air-tight container, it can last up to 2 months. In the fridge, about 2 weeks. My plastic bag will keep it for at least 7 days.

And if anyone argues with you about your choice of snack, just mention that it is low-calorie, fat-free, and high in nutritious protein; a very healthy indulgence, after all. Just don't forget the dental floss.

Al's Beef Jerky

2lb. round steak

1/3 cup Worcestershire Sauce

1/3 cup Soy Vey Brand soy sauce

1/3 cup stir fry sauce

1 tsp black pepper

1 tsp red chili flakes

1. Trim all visible fat from the steak. Option: you can freeze the steak and then half-way thaw it out for easier slicing.

2. With a very sharp knife, cut across the grain creating 1/4" slices.

3. Place the slices in a large zip-lock plastic bag.

4. In a bowl blend all the other ingredients, stirring well.

5. Pour the marinade into the bag, shake thoroughly to evenly coat the beef strips. Put bag in the refrigerator overnight.

6. Pre-heat oven to its lowest setting, about 170°.

7. Line two baking sheets with tin foil, and place a cooling rack on each.

8. Lay the strips of beef on the cooling racks, then place into the oven.

9. Bake for 5 hours. The jerky should be dark yet pliable.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.