Jerky is a classic camp and trail food, and by making it yourself, you can experiment with meats and seasonings to create your own custom campfire cuisine.
Jerky is any lean, red meat that has been lightly cured with a solution of salt and spices and then dried, either mechanically or naturally. The typical routine for pre-industrial hunters, whether of this age or in times past, was to gorge themselves with fresh meat at the place of the kill and dry the rest over slow, smoky fires. The drying process not only preserves meat by removing much of the water content (therefore making it unpalatable to bacteria); it also reduces the weight substantially. A pound of fresh meat ends up as about 4 ounces of jerky.
Jerky is dried — not cooked — meat. Simply and basically, one only has to apply slow heat, on the order of 100 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit, until the meat is dry. This process is made easier and tastier, however, by applying some sort of a salt cure beforehand.
Jerky can be made in camp, of course, but there’s no reason to do so outside of a survival situation. Make your jerky at home, where the process can be done efficiently and almost effortlessly, and use the finished product for trail meals, snacks or lunches while in camp.
To make jerky, take any lean meat — wild or tame — and cut it into 1/8- to 1/4-inch-wide strips, cutting against the grain if possible. Cutting with the grain will result in a little chewier product, but is not a big problem if the structure of the chunk of meat you’re cutting makes it expedient to cut it that way. Trim every piece of fat you possibly can from the meat. Remember, you are drying — not cooking — the meat, and fat left in quantity will turn rancid.
The next step is the salt cure. The simplest way is just to use a strong solution of salt and water. This can be improved with the addition of various spices, as you will see in the jerky recipe below. Leave the meat in the cure overnight under refrigeration. The salt will draw the juices, blood and some of the moisture from the meat strips, replacing them with salt and spices.
Finally, apply the heat. If you are making jerky in camp, you will have to construct or jury-rig some sort of frame to hold the meat away from the fire and to keep insects at bay and yet allow smoke to surround it. The fire must be tended constantly, and if you cover the fire with a canvas, for instance, you must be aware of the fire danger. Fine results in camp can be had by using the Coleman camp stove on top of a gasoline oven, but again, why? The price of fuel to run the stove that long is prohibitive, you have to stay in camp to supervise the drying process because you can’t leave a burning stove unattended for safety reasons, and the small capacity of the stove precludes drying any respectable quantity of meat. Outdoor jerky making in the humid months in the southeastern United States and parts of the midwest is a real chore. It can be done, but the effort required taxes the patience to a degree guaranteed to drive almost anyone inside the house to the kitchen oven.
Making jerky at home is much simpler. Cut sections of fence or window screen to cover your oven racks. This will pre-vent the strips of meat from falling through and save you the trouble of piercing each piece with a toothpick and hanging it from the racks in this manner as is recommended in many jerky recipes. Set an electric oven on its lowest setting, and check this with a thermometer. You may have to prop the oven door open a crack to maintain the 100 to 125 degrees Fahrenheit temperature range. Gas ovens usually work well with just the heat of the pilot light and shutting the oven door. But once again, check the temperature with a thermometer, as all ovens are different.
Overnight will probably be enough time to finish your jerky, but this depends on the humidity, oven temperature, thickness of the slices of meat, strength of the salt cure and just the general cussedness of cooking in which nothing ever works just the way a recipe says it will. Your jerky should be hard to bend with the fingers but not brittle to the point that it will snap in half. The strips will be dark, wooden-looking objects that don’t look a thing like something good to eat, but the looks are definitely deceiving. A bowl left on the counter in my house will be eaten like popcorn by the kids, and it’s just as popular in camp when it’s time to throw together a lunch before heading out in the morning or for munching while dinner is cooking.
For a really simple jerky — perhaps the first batch you make — just use Worcestershire sauce for your salt cure. Soak the meat overnight in enough Worcestershire to cover it, and then dry the strips in the oven. That’s it, and the results are just as good as any more complicated recipe.
For something a little fancier, try this one: Liquid smoke is just that — the distilled essence of wood ashes or smoke. It is available in many grocery stores, though you may have to ask to find where they are stocking it.
Making jerky provides a great opportunity to experiment with new recipes. The salt and spice mixture in the following recipe can be replaced with any of the steak sauces (some of the thicker ones will have to be watered down) found in the grocery store, teriyaki sauces from the same source, wines, and any herb or spice from your spice cabinet that sounds like it would go well with meat. Chili powder or ground cumin work very well if you can stand the heat.
Venison or other lean meat, cut in strips
1 cup red wine
1 cup water
1 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tbsp garlic powder, or 1 garlic clove
1 onion, sliced
3 tbsp liquid smoke
Mix the above ingredients, and soak the meat overnight. Dry the strips in the oven until they’re hard but not brittle.