Sales of dried-meats snacks (“jerky”) are on an upswing, perhaps due, at least in part, to America’s growing passion for protein. There’s now even a National Jerky Day. But what has been trending is not just the old-style highly processed beef-stick kind from the gas station.
Rather, these are jerkies for 21st-century foodies, generally free of additives (like MSG, hydrolyzed corn protein, textured soy flour, and nitrates) and containing such ingredients as elk, ostrich, buffalo, alligator, venison, lamb, turkey, salmon, trout, and ahi tuna. And if they are made from beef, it’s beef with an array of epicurean flavors, from curry and sweet teriyaki to kung pao and jalapeño carne asada; the beef may even be organic and from grass-fed cattle.
These upscale jerkies—which tend to carry upscale price tags, too—can be a tasty and convenient snack. But don’t assume that they are a healthful way to nosh, even with their modified ingredients and “all-natural” claims.
On the one hand, an ounce of jerky, the standard serving size, provides a substantial amount of protein (about 10 to 15 grams), which can be satiating. And the products tend to be low in fat (about 2 grams per ounce) and calories (most under 100); a few are surprisingly low in sodium (less than 140 milligrams). Compare that to the original Slim Jim meat stick, for instance, which has 11 grams of fat (4 saturated), 480 milligrams of sodium, and 140 calories per ounce.
On the other hand, most Americans don’t need to supplement their diets with more protein since they generally get more than enough in their regular meals. Moreover, many of the new-age jerkies have just as much sodium as the mass-market originals (or even more), and nearly all have added sugar (as much as 8 grams, or two teaspoons, per ounce).
Keep in mind also that an ounce of jerky is a pretty paltry portion; you may be tempted to eat more than that, in which case the sodium, fat, and calories add up. If you have a hankering for jerky on occasion, compare labels (especially for sodium) to find the most healthful ones. You don’t need the ones with the most protein—lower amounts are fine.
If you’re motivated to make your own jerky, it’s pretty simple and cost-saving, plus you can control what goes into it: Cut lean meat (like sirloin, flank steak, or top round) into thin strips and marinate in a low-sodium sauce or apply a low-sodium rub; then leave it for up to a day in the refrigerator. Bake at low heat (200°F or below, if possible) until dry. This will take anywhere from about 45 minutes to several hours, depending on the thickness of the strips.
You can also use a food dehydrator (for how to do this safely, see this tip sheet from food scientists at the University of Wisconsin).