Jerky and other meat snacks are gaining fans
Rich Sastre walks to the counter holding a huge slab of beef in a sheet of brown butcher paper. Known as top round, it is often prepared as a roast or cut into steaks. These days, it’s also being employed to make an increasingly popular snack.
“As you can see, it is a fairly large, lean cut,” says Sastre, manager at Fleishers Craft Butchery in Westport. “It’s not all that tender, but it has good flavor.”
It is one of several cuts of meat that when sliced thin, doused in rub, left to “marinate” in the refrigerator and then dried out — whether in a dehydrator or low-temp oven — become jerky, a centuries-old food that has broken free from its historical purpose of preserving meat to become a sought-after treat. In the meat-and-potatoes game, chewy is making a run on what’s crunchy.
Last year, Americans spent $33 billion on snacks, according to Nielsen, a global data analytics company that tracks consumer trends and markets. Among salty snacks, potato chips remained king at $7.2 billion ($2.8 billion for meat snacks), but sales growth for meat snacks — jerky and sticks — has been growing more rapidly than chip sales. American households spend $25.81 annually on meat snacks, which tend to be more expensive than other salty offerings.
Sastre attributes the rise in popularity to the growth of low-carb, high-protein diets. Still others are looking to drop their intake of overly processed foods and sugars. More small-batch producers, including Fleishers, listened, producing artisanal, minimally processed jerky in four flavors: maple pepper jerky, triple chile jerky, uncured pastrami and original. Fleishers took it one step further and began selling do-it-yourself jerky kits. It’s been about a year and a half since the company, which specializes in pasture-raised and grass-fed meat, began selling them in its retail shops in Greenwich and Westport.
“Many people came in looking for recipes to make their own jerky at home,” Sastre says. It made sense to create a reusable kit, which retails for $29.99.
With two silicone screens, two tins of spices — classic (salt, black pepper, sugar, onion, coriander and smoked and sweet paprika) and Mexican — a cork to prop open the oven door and a how-to guide, or “Jerky 101,” an aspiring snack maker just needs to get the fresh meat, something Fleishers is well-equipped to handle. In addition to top round, cuts such as bottom round, eye of round — lean cuts from the hind quarters — and flank steak are often used. Start with about a pound, says Sastre. If you pick top round that will set you back about $11.
The important thing to remember, he says, is that jerky out of beef (or pork or turkey, for that matter) is a process of evaporation, drawing the moisture out of it. Since there is no cooking or browning, it’s not the time to cheap out on the meat. It should be top quality.
“This fits in with the overall trend in the food industry of consumers looking for GMO- and hormone-free options, with premium sourcing of ingredients,” says David Walsh, vice president, membership and communications, SNAC International, the global trade association of the snack food industry, during a recent telephone interview. “There also has been a shifting lifestyle trend by consumers of fewer sit-down meals and more snacking. Meat snacks, as a whole, have benefited the most from that trend.”
Small-batch producers around the country are sourcing locally, creating jerky that spans the gamut from turkey to venison, buffalo to elk, such as Mountain America Jerky in Denver. Brooklyn Beef Jerky sticks to, well, beef, with flavors such as “drunk jerk,” a mix of bourbon, lager and peppercorn. Krave, which began producing artisanal-style meat and poultry snacks in 2009 in Sonoma, Calif., was bought by Hershey in 2015. It sells bars and sticks, in such flavors as black cherry, pink peppercorn, honey habanero and basil citrus.
“There are some really innovative, new flavors, too,” Walsh says. “Chardonnay, chili lime, cabernet sauvignon, blackberry, Peking duck and apple, to appeal to a younger consumer.”
The next generation of jerky tends to be a bit more tender than the tough, dry, leathery jerky consumed by past generations. It comes down to the meat, says Sastre, adding Fleishers packaged jerky is 100 percent grass-fed.
“You want a fairly lean cut, with not too much fat, because you will get an unpleasant texture,” he says. “It’s important to cut it across the grain, too, because you’ve got these long muscle fibers that will be chewy. If you cut it across the grain, you break up those fibers and it will be more tender.”
Once dried and with the moisture removed, jerky does not need refrigeration and is shelf stable, a boon for snackers on the go. One must be careful, however, not to let bacteria grow, since it is not cooked. The USDA and National Center for Home Food Preservation lists tips, as do several universities, on safe preparation, which can be found online. Fleishers recommends freezing the meat until ready for slicing and keeping the oven to 200 and 225 degrees. Once finished, it can remain in the refrigerator in an airtight container or zip-seal plastic bag for up to one month.
This is not necessarily the jerky of America’s explorers and traders during westward expansion, but it maintains the spirit of this portable, nutrient-rich snack. “Jerky has definitely made a comeback,” Sastre says.
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