Friday, December 3, 2010

Buffalo Jerky

Smoked jerky made from First Nature Farms bison eye of roundThere are two meat preparations that best represent southern Alberta. The first is a steak grilled mid-rare, a simple, robust dish that lets you enjoy the quality of the meat.

The second is jerky, partly because of its historical connection to the buffalo hunt and ranching, but also because it takes advantage of the arid landscape. Apparently, in dry regions jerky can safely be made on hot days, when the temperature is around 30°C, simply by leaving the sliced meat to hang outside.[1]

I've tried the completely passive jerky technique here in Edmonton, but my meat molded before it dried (it was an overcast day, and only about 20°C: I should have known better...) For consistent results, I've since used a heat source, like a low oven or my food dehydrator, though smoking is far and away my favourite method. The Plains Indians and Métis used smoke to dry and flavour their meat. Usually a hole was dug and a low fire kindled within. Scaffolding was erected over the hole, and strips of meat were hung until dry (crude drawing at right...)[2] I use my barbecue.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. You should use a very lean cut of meat, like eye of round. Remove any connective tissue. Slice into strips about 1/8" thick, which is a lot easier when the meat is partially frozen.

Combine the meat with seasonings. I love the evergreen-taste of juniper, so I usually use a handful of those berries, crushed, with salt and pepper. Cover the mixture and keep it in the fridge for a day or two.

To make jerky properly, it's important that you don't cook the meat. At first I was sceptical about whether I would be able to smoke the meat on my barbeque and maintain a low enough temperature, but with the hood propped open about a foot I was able to keep the temperature just under 40°C while letting the smoke linger around the meat.

Strictly speaking, the jerky isn't done until the meat is completely dry and very hard and brittle. At this point there is no moisture for microbes, and the meat can be kept safely at room temperature.

However. As the meat is drying, there's a stage when the outside is leathery while the inside is still raw. The flesh is luxurious and smooth and a bit chewy. I can't speak to how safe it is to eat this way, but it sure makes for a pleasurable eating experience.


1. Ruhlman, Michael. Charcuterie. ©2005 WW Norton and Company Inc, New York, NY. Page 65. He elaborates on jerky's connection to ranching, and its usefulness as a preservation technique, on his blog, in this post.
2. This set-up, and other interesting information on frontier life on the prairies, is from: Thomas, Dorine. Rubaboo. ©1981 Pemmican Publications, Winnipeg, MB.


  1. I'm just tending a fire as I read this, waiting for it to die down enough to put on a batch of cow elk jerky. It's one of those items one cannot make enough of, and it's a brilliant form of energy-free preservation.

    I find it key to pull it prior to the brittle stage, which in my opinion is too dried. My test is a tear test - try to rip strands apart, and it should tear along the grain of the meat, rather than break.

  2. You're right. Brittle is way too far and makes for difficult eating.

  3. I even like it a bit before the tear stage... it will continue to dry in storage. And, as it has been done for hundreds of years, if made in clean surroundings with a healthy animal cannot bear too much risk. Have you tried the Bison from First Nature Farms, Allan? Jerry Kitt sells at OSFM and is an ardent Slow Food farmer. He has been to Terra Madre and is one of the nicest men and careful farmers I have ever met!
    Great read. I love my Allan Suddaby Advent Calendar!