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Dried beef is also known as beef jerky, which can be prepared in a range of ways — some laborious and others easy. With a dedicated dehydrator or even just a windy area and some patience, traditional jerky can be made in a half-dozen ethnic styles, from pioneer and Native American Pemmican to Italian and South African. Others prefer to let a dedicated manufacturer make their jerky, as well as another kind of intensely processed dried beef that comes in a jar, which is known as chipped beef. This latter protein forms the centerpiece of an infamous U.S. military-spawned dish called creamed beef over toast.
The jerky style of dried beef is made to last several months, if properly salted and stored with just the right amount of moisture. First, lean beef is cut thinly, lightly pounded, and flavored with a mixture of seasonings like garlic powder, onion powder, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, honey and pepper flakes. Before the seasoning, to kill all harmful bacteria, chefs also will drop the meat in a pot of boiling water for no more than 15 seconds — a process called blanching.
After the meat has spent a full day in the refrigerator marinating, it can become flavorful dried beef in a few ways. One way is to stack the slices onto the racks of a dehydrator, which can finish jerky in less than a day. Another modern method of obtaining traditional tasting jerky is to bake the pieces slowly in an oven set at its lowest temperature. The pieces are not placed on a sheet but instead hung from the top oven rack by toothpicks that are stuck through one end of the slices. To avoid actually cooking the meat instead of just drying it, celebrity chef Alton Brown recommends stacking the slices in rows of coffee filters and then attaching the stacks via bungee cord to the front of a running box fan. This will take longer to dry out the meat, but it will retain more flavor and texture.
Chipped beef is perhaps one of the more iconic types of dried beef. During World War II, these processed dried meat slices were used to feed troops a meal called creamed beef over toast. According to the USS Little Rock's Web site, the Navy recipe involves adding slices of dried beef to a simmering mixture of flour, milk, pepper, butter and Worcestershire sauce, which is then poured steaming hot over toast or an English muffin.
Though dried beef is the most customary, other proteins are regularly used to make these long-lasting treats. Venison, turkey, buffalo, elk, moose, bison and ostrich are common substitutions. Each produces a slightly different flavor and texture.
I saw a television cooking show episode where the host was making his own beef jerky. He sliced the meat very thin and marinated it in soy sauce and other seasonings. The step that surprised me involved an air conditioning filter. He placed the meat slices between the folds of a plain AC filter and left it out in the sun for several hours. The filter allowed air to flow around the meat and dry it evenly.
I think I would be more likely to use a food dehydrator if I ever wanted to make my own jerky, but apparently the marinade protects the meat from spoiling as it sits out in the open air.
I remember my dad used to buy beef jerky and store it in his tackle box whenever he went fishing. He would eat it as a snack while waiting for the fish to bite. I thought it tasted like shoe leather. It wasn't something you chewed, but more like something you were supposed to let melt in your mouth. I hated it.
I think someone in the beef jerky community realized the texture was a problem, since the modern meat jerkies I've tried have been relatively easy to chew, and have a lot more flavor. I've tried beef, venison, turkey and even bacon jerky, and they were all softer than I expected. I suspect the manufacturers don't allow the meat to reach the same level of dryness as they used to.
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