Jerky—is there a more primal food? After all, dried meat has been around since Og and Thog stumbled out of their caves and discovered that by curing their freshly killed mastodon flesh, they could make it last for eons. Step one: Add salt to raw meat. Salt acts as a preservative and keeps the meat bacteria-free. Step two: Add sugar and seasonings. Smoking is optional. Step three: Dry (see recipe). That’s it. What you’re left with is some of the leanest, healthiest protein around, favored by Romans, Mongols, Spanish conquistadors, polar explorers, and overworked chefs alike. To test the best America has to offer, we sat down with the toughest crew of experts we could rustle up: the bearded, scarred, tattooed, and badly hung over gourmands from the empire of Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio, at his newest restaurant, Colicchio & Sons, in New York. The team—Tom, Shane McBride (chef at Colicchio & Sons), Lauren Hirschberg (chef de cuisine at Craftbar), James Tracey (chef de cuisine at Craft), and Marco Canora (former Craft chef, now at Hearth)—was wrecked from celebrating the previous night’s stellar New York Times review. Tom’s son, Dante, rounded out the demographic. Welcome to the Great American Jerk-off!
ALLIGATOR BOB'S CAJUN ALLIGATOR JERKY WITH PORK
If you think gators belong in swamps, zoos, and on the collared shirts of Chad and Muffy, meet Robert “Alligator Bob” Young. As a Florida trapper tasked with gator removal, Young’s payment came in the form of meat. “I figured if a tourist was going home with a bag of oranges, he should at least have a fistful of gator in the other hand,” says Young. With its lean, porky flavor, this Cajun-spiced snack should be treated as a healthy protein source and not a scaly beast with webbed feet.
Chefs say: “Very smoky, kind of like a Slim Jim.”—Dante Colicchio
GERALD JERKY SWEET & SPICY
Made from grass-fed top-and bottom-round beef sourced from small-scale farms, Rachel Graville’s jerky is marinated in a mixture of fish sauce, lime, garlic-chili paste, and coffee soda. It was Graville’s father, Gerald, who got her hooked as a kid. “I used to watch football games just for an excuse to eat the jerky,” she says. What started as a homemade holiday gift for friends quickly grew into a successful enterprise. Merry Jerkmas!
Chefs say: “This has a nice chew and a good balance of sweetness, spice, and salt.”—James Tracey
GRANDE PREMIUM MEATS BUFFALO PEPPER STEAK STRIP JERKY
Ah, the noble buffalo. Roaming the plains, trampling everything in its path, being processed into portable meat sticks. GPM’s jerky is cut into thick ropes, so you can gnaw on it like a carrot or savor it like a cigar. The buffalo flavor has a distinctive tang and comes crusted with gobs of black pepper. Works well for Oregon Trail role-playing games, if that’s your thing, and for general chewing purposes if not.
Chefs say: “I like the texture good and toothsome. My number one pick.”—Lauren Hirschberg
JEDIDIAH'S BEEF JERKY PRIVATE RESERVE SWEET & SPICY
Sweet and spicy is no mean feat. Delivering on one flavor promise is tough enough; delivering on two is best left to the pros. For 20-plus years Jedidiah has seasoned his brisket in brown sugar and a secret blend of spices. After marinating for 24 hours, the result is velvety soft and insanely addictive.
Chefs say: “Nice Asian flavors with a lot of soy and a mild, subtle heat. My favorite.”—Marco Canora
MOUNTAIN AMERICA SPICY TURKEY JERKY
Poor turkey jerky—constantly having to justify itself for not being beef. Luckily, this hickory-smoked version is tender, lean, glistening with sweet glaze, and topped with a shake of black pepper. No liquid smoke, MSG, or nitrates are added—just meat, brown sugar, and seasonings. It’s like a Thanksgiving feast, and you won’t even need a nap!
Chefs say: “Paprika and cayenne flavors are good, but the turkey does produce a drier jerky.”—Lauren Hirschberg
PERKY JERKY INVIGORATING JERKY
As with that old chicken-and-egg riddle, we can’t help but wonder whether the name or the idea for Perky Jerky came first. Invented by two ski bums seeking a treat that would fuse nutrition and pep into a pocket-size snack, each pack contains the energy equivalent of two Red Bulls. Performance-enhancing properties aside, the teriyaki-flavored beefy treat is the moistest jerky we tasted. Like, feed-it-to-a-parched-hobo moist.
Chefs say: “However they came up with this idea, I can only assume marijuana was involved.”—Tom Colicchio
REMINGTON TRAIL STEAKS SMOKED VENISON
Of course, Remington is best known for making the guns that shoot the deer that make the meat, but its jerky comes in thick chunks that look and taste like mini rib eyes. Flavored with brown sugar and garlic, it tastes like a leaner, gamier version of beef. It’s so meaty, in fact, that the whole operation could be subtitled “Honey, I Shrunk the Steak.”
Chefs say: “Nice bite, great balance. Bambi tastes good!”—Lauren Hirschberg
SLANTSHACK ORIGINAL BEEF JERKY WITH JERK MCGURK'S RUBDOWN
As with bikes, stereos, and mail-order brides, customization is sometimes the way to go. SlantShack, based in New Jersey and launched by a bunch of recent college grads, makes its jerky to order: Choose the beef type and marinade, add a rub or a glaze, and finish it off with the topping of your choice. This Jamaican version is perfect for the munchies.
Chefs say: “Good texture, nice bite, and spicy, mon!”—Shane McBride
TRADER JOE'S NATURAL BEEF JERKY
Whether it’s jerky or prime rib, there are two dimensions upon which to judge your favorite meaty treat: texture first, flavor second. Texture first? Indeed—if you can’t bite into it, you can’t taste it. Trader Joe’s beefy number scores high on the biteability and flavor scale. And at only a gram of fat per serving, you can eat, like, a dozen bags at a time…guilt-free!
Chefs say: “Strong texture and pull, with good beef flavor.”—Shane McBride
WESTERN SKY'S BEEF JERKY
Western Sky’s jerky is conducive to drooling in the way few things in life are. Given that owner Michael Horman got his start as a gourmet chef, his jerky’s droolability may be due to the garlicky-sweet glaze. But more likely it’s the über-meaty taste, like getting punched in the mouth with a beef fist.
Chefs say: “This one’s for purists: It’s pure sweetness and salt.”—Tom Colicchio
JERKING AT HOME
Chef Shane McBride’s Homemade Jerky
5 lbs. meat (brisket or top round)
8 Tbs. your favorite barbecue spice rub
6 cups marinade (2 cups soy sauce, 2 cups Worcestershire sauce, 1 cup dark brown sugar,
1 cup molasses, 2 Tbs. spice rub)
3 Tbs. ground black pepper
1. Freeze the meat. (This makes it easier to slice.)
2. Slice into 3-inch long ¼-inch thick strips.
3. Marinate overnight—24 hours is optimal.
4. Stick the meat into a smoker or oven at 180°F for 4–6 hours. (Remove it when the meat is dried but a bit flexible. You don’t want it to be brittle, because the meat will keep drying after you take it out.)
5. Sprinkle the jerky with black pepper and the remaining barbecue spice rub. Enjoy!