Jerky is one of the oldest foods on the planet—the practice of drying and salting meat slabs dates to the beginning of human history. While beef and pork varieties have been convenience-store staples in America for decades (who can forget Macho Man Randy Savage hawking Slim Jims in the 1990s?), more unusual artisan jerkies have hit the market in recent years, fueled by Paleo and other primal-diet trends. These include elk, bison, venison, lamb, and chicken, often enhanced with citrus, fruit, spices, and vinegar and smoked over various hardwoods.
Salumist Elias Cairo, founder of Olympia Provisions in Portland, Ore., has been curing pepperette pork sticks modeled after traditional European landjäger since 2009. Unlike salamis, some of which require refrigeration, “jerky or pepperoni sticks—ground meat stuffed inside a casing and smoked—are absolutely shelf stable,” Cairo says. High in protein and fat, jerky provides a quick hit of energy—tuck one in your bag or glovebox to keep hunger at bay. “It’s hiking, climbing, or hunting food,” Cairo adds. “If you have a sugar crash [or are] starving for something salty, two bites and you’re set.”
Not all jerky is created equal, though. Some companies infuse products with nitrates and faux flavorings, including artificial liquid smoke, which emits a chemical pungency despite being condensed from real fire. Pros recommend jerkies made from high-quality meat—along with real smoke and light seasoning, it’s the foundation of a great product, Cairo says.
Around the world, jerky comes from creatures galore: kangaroo, wild boar, ostrich, alligator, even camel and earthworm. Fish jerky (salmon, tuna, trout), long popular in Far East Asian countries, is gaining traction in the United States. Perhaps closest to American style is air-dried South African biltong, made from beef and pork as well as kudu, gazelle, and zebra.
Whatever you call it, dried meat’s concentrated flavor and chewy texture speaks to our most basic carnivorous desires. Need to dial up your snack’s intensity? Just add cheese.
Game Meat Jerky
“Blue cheese has a beefy quality as it ages,” says Avalanche Cheese Company cheesemaker Kevin McCullen, who suggests matching wild game jerky with cheese crafted from more pungent milks—goat, sheep, or buffalo. For Colorado-made elk jerky, Avalanche goat cheddar is a solid pick—or try Fruition Farms Shepherd’s Halo, a rich, creamy sheep’s milk cheese that washes over the peppery, briny meat. Or pair intense Blu di Bufala with bison jerky: The cheese’s lush, milky mouthfeel balances the jerky’s chewiness; its tangy blue bite matches bison meat’s intensity.
Caseificio Quattro Portoni Blu di Bufala + bison jerky
Tender and naturally sweet, poultry-based varieties are good gateway jerkies. EPIC boosts its chicken bites with currants and sesame—a heavenly match with Jasper Hill Farm’s spruce-wrapped Harbison. The wheel’s mushroom essence matches the jerky’s Asian influences, while “the sweetness of chicken and currants brings out the blueberry [notes in Harbison],” says Elisa Orcajada, market manager at Meat & Cheese Farmshop in Aspen, Colo. Sharp, almost crumbly Isle of Mull, a Scottish cheddar style, is a pleasing counterpoint to subtle nectar notes in soy-sauced turkey Perky Jerky.
Think of these as extradry miniature sausages—or jerky in stick form. Let the classic Spanish match of chorizo and sheep’s milk Manchego inspire your choices here. Smoky rope-style sausages go wonderfully with Croatian paški sir: The cheese—firm and flaky with distinctive ewe notes—has a subtle sweetness that tempers the rich sausage. Or try pairing hardy Alpine styles, such as nutty Basque Ossau-Iraty, with a garlicky pork stick for a savory, portable combo.