Have you ever come across beef jerky that's really good and other times it's just not that good. Why is this? In order to answer this question we need to evaluate the processes for making the protein snack that we all do so enjoy.
Note:Keep in mind that every person has their own personal preference when it comes to enjoying the snack and what might be the best beef jerky in the world to one person may turn out to be the type of jerky that another person just doesn't prefer. With that, below are some general guidelines to follow when evaluating the savory dried meat snack.
First and foremost, in order to produce delicious jerky you need to use quality ingredients. There is absolutely no room for low grade ingrdients. Low quality ingredients deliver low quality jerky. Plain and simple. For example many people decide to use honey in their beef jerky recipe because it adds a nice sweetness to the meat. It's also hygroscopic(which we'll discuss that in another article). Now imagine this. You go to the store and buy the meat that your going to use, the soy sauce, the spices etc. and you decide to just use the honey that's been in your pantry for the last two years. Now chances are this is still going to be fine, but without realizing it, there is a lot more to that honey than you initially thought. Honey has different flavors and aromas. It has different grades of clarity. Is the honey filtered? Is it strained to remove all of the fine particles in it? You can view the different USDA grades and standards for honey on the USDA website. The point is tha all honey is not created equal. The same goes for all of the ingredients in the beef jerky.
Choosing the right ingredients
Along with using quality ingredients, incorporating the correct ones are equally important. Now everyone has their own tastes, but just imagine eating jerky that has brown sugar, soy sauce, orange juice for a hint of citrus and oyster sauce. Yuk. Right? I think you'd agree that this most likely is not a good combination of tastes all in one bite. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with oyster sauce. In fact it may even be pretty good in a different recipe, but with the orange citrus it's probably not going to be very tasty. Delicious beef jerky is all about the sweet, savory, salty and heat. Ingredient combinations should always have a perfect balance of all four of these tasteful temptations.
The correct proportions
Another important factor are the proportions. Having the perfect amount of each ingredient ensures that the flavor profile is perfect. Your taste buds are always happy when the perfect amount of sweet, salty, savory and heat is reached. Most people would not enjoy jerky(or any type of food that matter) that was all salt and nothing else or all heat with no salt or sweet. You get the point. It's the combination of all the taste bud senses that make it enjoyable. It's not rocket science, but it definitely is science.
To slice the meat with or against the grain.
Which one is it? What type of slice produces the best beef jerky? Let's take a look at each method and break it down so we can contrast and compare.
With the grain - When people think of the traditional style of beef jerky they think of the snack sliced with the grain. Our Teriyaki Beef Jerky is sliced with the grain. When sliced this way the jerky is tends to be a little bit tougher and it has a "tear" to it. Imagine holding the meat in your hand, and with your teeth basically tearing the jerky and ripping it lengthwise before you chew it up. While the jerky may be a little bit tougher at first when sliced with the grain, as you chew through the product you will notice that it chews down to nothing and easily swallowed. This may sounds strange, but it will make sense once you read the next paragraph.
Against the grain - More and more I am seeing companies slicing beef jerky against the grain which produces a more tender and stringy product. It falls apart easier than slicing with the grain and it produces more "finds". "Finds" are those little pieces of jerky that are left at the bottom of the bag after you 've eaten all of the big pieces. The downside of slicing it against the grain is that as you chew it up the jerky sometimes tends to turn into a gum like texture that's not easy to swallow. If you've ever eating a dry over cooked steak you know what I mean. I'm sure that there is a scientific reason for this, and I'm not saying that it's a bad thing. It's just what I've noticed from this method of slicing.
On a bias - Yet another way that I have seen the jerky sliced is on a 45 degree angle(or bias). Slicing it this way produces pretty much what you would expect. It's the best of both worlds. The snack has a medium tender bite and reduces as you chew with a minimum amount of "finds" left over in the bag.
Thickness of the slice
Beef Jerky comes in all shapes, sizes and thickness. Slicing it too thick it become more like dried steak than a jerky product. Slice it too thin and it doesn't hold enough moisture or flavor. Slicing it at just the just thickness produces the perfect bite. So what is it? After the beef is dried it should end up at approximately 3.5 millimeters in thickness or slightly more than 1/8 of an inch.
Ahh the marinade. The final combination of all your ingredients coming together in one wonderful way to deliver the final product. The marinade's whole existence is to penetrate the meat and deliver all of the flavors from the marinade into the beef so once the beef is dried you will still taste the marinade. The meat has all of the protein, but it's really just a vehicle to deliver the marinade flavor to the taste buds. In small kitchens and most large commercial kitchens a vacuum tumbler is used to infuse the marinade into the meat. The tumbler combines the meat and the marinade by pulling out all of the air and lowering the pressure inside the tumbler. This makes the marinade process much quicker as maximum absorption takes place in about 30 minutes as opposed to 12 to 24 hours. It also ensures that every pieces of meat is jam packet full of the flavorful marinade.
The Dehydration process
There are different ways to dehydrate the beef. Some people use actual smoke houses, some use commercials ovens and some use dehydrators. They all essentially do the same thing, but the end results vary slightly. Ultimately, the marinated meat need to have the water removed so that it can be stored for a long period of time. Smoke houses achieve this from smoking the meat over low heat. This produces some delicious beef jerky, but most products that you buy form the store use commercial size oven dehydrators and add liquid smoke to the marinade. This is because(lucky for us) the USDA is involved in the prodcution of meat products that are sold for human consumption and strict guidelines must be followed. If you're interested you can read more on the UDSA beef jerky preparation on their site.
There are different methods of packaging that affect the snack product, both in taste and texturally. Some types of jerky are sealed in plastic pouch bags that include an oxygen absorber. This packaging tends to produce a dryer product. This is by far the most popular form of packaging. There are also other types packaging that vacuum seal the product and this tends to make the snack not only moist, but downright sticky and messy to eat. This is because the vacuum sealer pulls the marinade back out of the jerky to the surface. Typically jerky packaged this way is by people making it home, but you can find it occasionally in convenient stores and gas stations here and there. The vacuum sealed jerky is also usually not as tender.
In Conclusion - Eating the Beef Jerky
To bring it all back around to where I started, everyone has there favorite flavor and style of Beef Jerky and there are many factors that affect these various flavors and styles. For the most part, it all comes down to preference. As long as you like it, then it's ok. I hope this article helps you understand some of the aspects that make this high protein, healthy and snack a delicious one. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.