We Tried 10 Different Pouches of Beef Jerky — and There Was One Clear Winner
As a total word nerd — or a total nerd, period — I’ve been known to get pretty pumped any time Merriam Webster adds words to its online dictionary. Every few months, it refreshes its collection of definitions, and if you spend as much time scrolling through its online pages as I do, you’ll know that the really interesting parts are the word origins, etymologies, and first-known uses.
The same thing goes for food-related terms. I like knowing some of the stories behind what we see on supermarket shelves and ingredient lists and restaurant menus. Because there’s no limit to how uncool I let myself get, before I did an all-jerky taste test for Kitchn, I looked into the origin of that word too.
The trusty Webster site merely has this for jerk: “To preserve (meat) in long sun-dried slices.” So I kept digging. According to ThoughtCo, the word jerky itself is believed to come from “ch’arki,” a Quechua word that early people in the Peruvian Andes used to describe dried, flattened, and salted strips of meat. At that time ch’arki referred to dried llama and alpaca, and there are some suggestions that it has been produced in the region for 8,000 years.
The first written reference to ch’arki was scribbled in 1653 by Spanish writer Bernabé Cobo, who’d watched Peruvians make ch’arki by slicing it into thin strips, icing them, and then pounding them flat. Although it’s hard to find dried llama at Kroger, the concept is pretty similar to what you might shake out of a bag of Jack Links.
SO ANYWAY, I recently taste tested 10 different brands of jerky, and despite my curiosity about everything Cobo saw in the 17th century, I stuck to basic all-beef products that didn’t have any seasonings other than salt, pepper, and whatever assorted flavors might be added during the production process. These jerkies were all purchased at a supermarket, a big-box retailer, and a specialty grocer. (I don’t know how often you wander through the jerky section, but man, there are so many different brands, cuts, and flavors of jerky right now. Thanks, everyone who went Paleo, like, two years ago.) I didn’t do any online shopping because, well, I’d probably be unboxing and testing jerky well into 2020 if I included small, artisanal shops.
Make your own: Spicy Maple-Sriracha Beef Jerky
ANYWAY, AGAIN, each jerky brand was rated based on its overall flavor — a couple of these were honestly like trying to chew and swallow a pair of Timberlands — and the simplicity of its ingredient list. I admittedly gave an approving nod to the brands that didn’t rely on a long list of preservatives or unpronounceable chemicals.
When it came to the most satisfying flavor, Lorissa’s Kitchen Original Tender Beef Steak Strips were hard to beat. Lorissa’s uses 100 percent grass-fed beef, and the robust taste of steak really comes through in every bite.
The Whole Foods exclusive 365 Organic Grass-Fed Beef Jerky lists pineapple juice concentrate on its ingredient list, and I personally liked the contrast between that mild-but-noticeable fruitiness and the more prominent smokiness.
But my all-around favorite was the Tillamook Country Smoker Sea Salt & Cracked Pepper Beef Jerky. The consistency was just right, the smoke was strong without being overpowering, and the pepper gave each bite an enjoyable kick. I also appreciated that it only had a handful of ingredients, including brown sugar, beef broth, and apple cider vinegar. (It didn’t define “natural flavorings,” but its packaging did specify that it didn’t include anything artificial, including the Liquid Smoke that a number of these other jerkies rely on.)
After tasting all 10 contenders, I still liked the Tillamook enough to polish off the rest of the bag, which I’m not sure has ever happened, with any product, in any taste test I’ve ever done for Kitchn (and I’ve done a lot!). It is currently available in four other flavors, all made with 100 percent premium beef. There’s no llama or alpaca, but I’d guess these guys could pull that off, too.
Do you have a favorite beef jerky? Tell us about it in the comments below!