Flavorful fish jerky starts with lean-fleshed swimmers such as crappie, bass, or pike. Fillet your catch by carefully cutting the meat from the bones.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/DAVE WILLMAN
The next time you find yourself with a king-sized mess of fish, why not dry up a batch of seafood jerky? This old-time edible makes an inexpensive, nutritious snack all by itself — and can serve as an important ingredient in your homemade soups and chowders, too.
Like other dried foods, the tough and tasty strips are lightweight, compact and easy to keep. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, you'll find that fish jerky is an ideal trail snack. Also — when properly processed and stored — the chewy morsels are a valuable survival food.
Best of all, you can easily produce the victuals right at home in a dehydrator, kitchen oven, or smokehouse, or with the help of a hot summer sun.
How to Make Fish Jerky at Home
Fish with a low fat content (bass, pike, and crappie, for example) are the best candidates for jerky. Oily species such as catfish should be avoided for this use, because they're more likely to become rancid.
Once your catch is in hand, the first step is to fillet and skin the finny critters. When that's accomplished, cut the meat into convenient 1-by-6-by-as-thin-as-possible strips. (With very small fish — such as smelt — just clean out the innards and remove the heads. The small bones can be eaten.) Then move on to the next step: seasoning your snacks. A little added flavor before drying will make the jerky even more toothsome and can also aid in its preservation. Just soak the strips for a few minutes in soy sauce and drain or blot off the excess moisture.
How to Dry Out Fish Jerky
As I noted above, fish can be dried in a number of ways. Smokehouses and cabinet dehydrators will, of course, do a fine job. But, lacking those contrivances, you'll probably find the oven most convenient. Simply place the fish (close together, but not touching) directly on the oven rack, or — if that grate's spaces are too wide — cover the rack with a nongalvanized mesh or screen (galvanized metal may give off toxic fumes). Wipe the metal surfaces with a thin coat of cooking oil to keep your fish from sticking, and put aluminum foil or cookie sheets down below to catch any drippings.
Since jerky dried with low heat will be tastier and contain more nutrients, keep your oven somewhere around 110 degrees Fahrenheit and never over 150 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to leave the oven door open a crack so moisture can escape.
The time it takes your fish to dry will depend upon the temperature used, the thickness of the strips, and the amount of moisture in the slices. After about an hour — when the mini-fillets start to harden — turn them over and let them cook for another hour or so to assure thorough drying. If you want to try some right away, take the jerky from the oven while it's still bendable. The strips must be quite brittle, however, if you want to store them for longer periods.
In order to save energy, you can let the hot sun do your drying. Flies and other insects can be a problem with this method, so be sure to cover your fish with cheesecloth, screen mesh or similar material. Or, you could start a small fire underneath your racks and let the smoke repel the bugs.
Fish Jerky: Food For Now, Food For Later
Fish jerky is usually chewed in its raw form, but it can also be cooked and used in a variety of soups and chowders. For these dishes, the finger food should be soaked in water first, until it's fairly soft. (Cooking is recommended, since it's sure to destroy any harmful microorganisms that might be present . . . and drying only stops bacterial growth. An alternative might be to cook the fish before you dry it.)
Like other types of jerky, dried fish keeps best in tightly closed jars stored in a cool, dry location. If all moisture and mischievous bugs are banished, it will stay "fresh" for long periods . . . even years! And — in these days of possible power outages, canning supply shortages, and spiraling supermarket prices — it's nice to know that fish jerky and other dehydrated edibles are delicious foods you can depend on!