"Gourmet" jerky sounds like an oxymoron to those familiar with gas station beef jerky. Jerky is commonly perceived as cowboy junk food, a close cousin to the Slim Jim. It's been charged with tasting like shoe leather and of being soaked with enough chemicals and preservatives to ensure a shelf life stretching into the next millennium.
Despite its bad rap, jerky is, in fact, one of America's oldest, most venerable foods, dating back to the days when Native Americans and European settlers dried strips of buffalo meat in the sun to preserve it for the trail. Good jerky is low in fat and high in protein-a rejuvenating snack for tired muscles after a hard day on the hill.
Handmade jerky from prime cuts of beef is well worth sinking your teeth into. The best varieties are exotically marinated, carefully smoked and bear little relation to the 7-Eleven sort-we're talking reputation-changing jerky. If you look around, you can find plenty of it online from family-owned, small-town smokehouses as well as a few larger butchers and steak purveyors throughout the West. Gourmet jerky is made in small batches from private recipes. It's distinctively flavored, decidedly delicious and perfectly suited for your parka pocket.
First place in our taste test goes to Fesperman's Beef Jerky, hailing from Twin Hills, Okla. The charmingly amateurish label says it all: "This is homemade jerky, marinated in everything from soy to Worcestershire to anchovies." The Original variety is both tangy and sweet, with a savory richness that runs all the way through. Bellicose Butcher of Omaha, Neb., offers a straightforward recipe of steak, pepper and wood smoke. The texture is thinner, and it's lighter in weight and easier on the teeth. Even more delicate is Omaha Steaks' beef jerky, a relatively new endeavor for a company long known for its mail-order steak- and prepared-food catalog. The Original Bold version tastes like a thick, juicy cut of fine sirloin. Then there's Monty Nuss Smoked Meats of Lone Tree, Colo. Monty Nuss makes all-natural jerky in a range of colorfully named varieties: Tenderfoot, Red Hot Sweety, Red Devil and Salty Dog. But its Kick Ass Jerky might be the best in the company's line: thick strips of beef, pungent with sinus-clearing black pepper.
Those who think red meat is for cavemen should try salmon jerky from Cap'n Mike's Holy Smoke of Rohnert Park, Calif. Every quarter-pound strip began its life as a pound of fresh salmon and then was cured, dried and smoked over four days. It's peppery, savory and delicious-and very unlikely to be available at a gas station near you.
Fesperman's Beef Jerky
Bellicose Butcher Jerky
Cap'n Mike's Holy Smoke