Drying is the oldest and simplest form of food preservation.
Ancient man discovered early that meat could be dried and preserved for eating later.
The discovery of salt improved the texture and made the meat taste better.
Jerky has always been used as a travelling food, commonly by nomads but also by sedentary groups for migrations, hunting expeditions and for surviving long winters in colder climate.
Today people eat jerky as an adventure food, a healthy snack or a muscle building supplement but also just because it tastes great.
Drying is the oldest and simplest form of food preservation, and dried meat is one of the oldest forms of dried food.
Ancient man discovered early that meat could be dried and preserved for eating sometime later. Used by virtually every ancient culture on every continent, dried meat was probably, like many of mankind's most useful discoveries, learned by accident. Meat left by the fire would have dried and picked up an earthy, smokey flavour. They wouldn’t have known it but tannins in the smoke actually contributed to the preservation of the meat but they found that if they hung their meat in the smoke of their fire, not only did the meat take on a pleasant flavour, they didn't have to dry it out as much yet it was still preserved.
Salt was soon discovered to not only help preserve the meat allowing more moisture to be left in which improved the texture but it also made the meat taste better. The next major improvement was when the ancients found that sugar or honey really enhanced the flavour and also helped with preservation, so now you could have ‘soft’ jerky. Other refinements soon appeared, mainly combinations of herbs and spices for flavour while others had a practical purpose. Black pepper for example, was used to deter birds from stealing the jerky as it dried in the sun. Today there are many, many differing recipes using countless variations of ingredients to improve the flavour, texture and appearance of jerky.
Jerky has always been used as a travelling food, used commonly by nomads but also by sedentary groups for migrations, hunting expeditions and for surviving long winters in colder climates.
It was only natural that when Europeans set out on their great voyages of discovery that dried meat always travelled with them. In fact, the Spanish often stocked uninhabited islands with goats as a potential food source on later voyages. When they would call, they would feast on the fresh meat, then dry more meat in the rigging of the ship to take with them. It was the Spanish who picked up the Quechuan word(from South America) for dried meat, ‘Charqui’, later as the conquistadores pushed up through North America the local Indians started using the Spanish term but mispronounced it as ‘Jerky’. By the time the English arrived in the new world, jerky was the term commonly used by all for dried meat. Of course, jerky ended up becoming synonymous with cowboys who were often seen in Hollywood movies slouching in the saddle and chewing on some jerky out of their saddlebags. It still is a strong symbol in modern cowboy culture.
It seems that wherever the Americans had military bases after WW2 their style of jerky became very popular and common snack. Cultures who usually already had their own traditions of dried meat in their diet added Americanized jerky to their snack food regime. Japan and South Korea in particular eat a lot of jerky.
In Asia, fish were predominantly what was dried, Europe generally dried Beef and Pork. In South America it was mainly Llama, Alpaca and Beef and in North America, among others, it was Deer, Elk, Moose, Bison and Beef.
Africa was blessed with a huge variety of game, all of which could be jerked (yes, that’s the verb) I have put together a table showing the some of the different cultures, styles and names for dried meat and will include it at the end.
I guess the one style of dried meat I should give some time to here is Biltong, The term the Dutch Boers used for their style of dried meat, from the Dutch Bil (buttock) and Tong (tongue or strip). It achieved cultural significance when the Voortrekkers used it on their Great Trek northward into Africa. Biltong can be made from most of the large range of herbivores found in Africa, it is usually dried at a low temperature(around 35°C) and flavouring is usually restricted to Black pepper, Coriander, Salt and Vinegar. Sometimes saltpeter or cloves are included but it is rare to find much more than that added. My guess is that with the large variety of game meats available, each with its distinctive flavour, care was taken not to overwhelm that natural taste.
It’s usually prepared by rubbing the strips of meat in a mixture of salt, black pepper, coriander and Bi Carb Soda. This is then dipped into vinegar and water that is boiling. The temperature and pH shock kill any existing bacteria, the Acidic film left on the outside keep it protected from further bacterial attack. Coriander has also been shown to have antimicrobial properties. The strips of meat are then hung up to dry. Biltong is eaten right through the drying process, from soft (almost raw) medium or dry(hard as hobbs). Another feature of biltong is that often a large cap of fat is left on the drying strip of meat.
Some South Africans can be a little bit parochial and snobbish about their biltong but it really is just another form of dried meat, no better or worse than other variety. They all taste great if you ask me.
Conversely, as the English gained dominance as a superpower on the seas, they opted away from dried meat and mainly used salted meat. This was usually pork or beef packed into wooden barrels surrounded by salt. This is effective for preservation, but it needs to be rinsed several times before you can eat it. It is also heavy, wet and difficult to transport.
Australian pioneers had the luxury of plenty of kangaroos for fresh meat but whenever they carried meat, they tended to follow English tradition and went with the salt beef as well for their explorations and migrations. Even our early explorers carried salt beef. The notable exception being Ludwig Leichardt who did use jerky on his explorations. Leichardt and his party famously disappeared in 1848 trying to cross Australia from Brisbane to the Swan River in Western Australia. Their fate still remains a mystery I’m sure it had nothing to do with the jerky though.
I think the reason Australian Aboriginals never developed a tradition of dried meat came about for two reasons.
Australia didn’t have large mammals, kangaroos were the biggest. This meant that when an animal was killed it could be totally consumed in one sitting.
Even through aboriginal clans tended to be nomadic in the sense that they moved around their territories regularly, through their management of animal populations, they always had a ready supply of fresh meat and didn’t need to preserve it for lean times.
The modern world really is a small one and international travel is commonplace for many people. Of course, these travelers pick up and leave behind snippets of culture wherever they go. One of these travelling snippets has been jerky and now most western countries it is easy to find packaged jerky in many flavours and styles being sold as a snack food.
Health and fitness have now become a priority for people in western economies. Our affluence has led to many health issues and diet is now a major concern for most. For decades we descended into thoughtless eating where convenience took precedence over quality and our diet deteriorated to where many mass produced, highly processed items made it into our food chain. Snack foods particularly, tended to be high calorie, low nutrition foods, (empty carbs) that enhanced their flavour and appearance with chemicals and manufacturing aids. A new food awareness, along with the well-established gym culture looking for muscle building protein, has seen an increase in interest and demand for jerky as an important inclusion in our modern diet.
Our increased interest in what we eat has led to the rise of specific food movements such as Paleo and Ketonic, both of which focus on reducing Carbohydrates and increasing Protein in the diet. Whatever the diet focus, modern regimes generally promote foods that are not highly processed so you can avoid the chemical additives and high concentrations of salts and sugars. One comment I saw that illustrates this thinking is, “If your grandparents wouldn’t recognize it, don’t eat it”
It's ironic that jerky started as a survival food 40,000 years ago in a world where starvation was a real possibility and it was needed to help mankind maintain their health during lean times. Today it can still be considered a survival food but now it’s in the world where our biggest health threats are obesity, highly processed foods and chemical additives that we need to replace with wholesome, real foods like jerky, to maintain our health.
Today people eat jerky as an adventure food, a healthy snack or a muscle building supplement but I suspect most just eat it simply because it tastes great.