How a 4,000-Mile Road Trip Taught Me Everything I Know About Beef Jerky

updated May 24, 2019
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(Image credit: Aura Lewis)

In August of 2009, my boyfriend, our dog, and I loaded up my beat-up, two-door Chevy Blazer and set out for our first long-distance road trip together. What started out as a harebrained idea had, over the course of our then-fledgling relationship, solidified into a highlighted streak on the calendar, then a map, and finally a plan.

Before long, we found ourselves mapping out a 4,000-mile route that would lead us from Atlanta along the dusty remnants of Route 66 into New Mexico, up into Colorado and Wyoming, northeast to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and back down south. We’d pass through Woody Guthrie’s hometown, take pictures next to a larger-than-life Jolly Green Giant statue, visit the Hormel Spam Museum, and traverse back roads and country highways from the foothills of Appalachia to the Ozarks to the Rockies, all while soaking up as much roadside kitsch and natural beauty as we possibly could.

It would be the inaugural journey on a newfound shared tradition that would result in the three of us covering something like 20,000 miles (and counting) of zig-zagging up, down, and across America together.

That first trip took an entire summer’s worth of preparations — in part because of the sheer amount of logistics we’d need to cover, but also because it was all we could talk about. Lazing in bed or drinking beers on a patio, the conversation would inevitably turn to road trip planning: What sort of playlists should we construct? Who has a tent we can borrow? Do you suppose Coors Light is actually better when consumed at the Coors distillery?

But perhaps among the most important, second only to printing out a three-ring binder’s worth of maps, was our food strategy. Because if you’re going to be stuck in a car together for the better part of two weeks, you damn well better have some good snacks on hand.

(Image credit: Dane Sponberg)

Eager to test our road warrior mettle, we spent quite a bit of time brainstorming ideas for make-ahead snacks to have handy without having to make pit-stops for food every few hours. Our solution? Beef jerky, and lots of it. It’s high in protein, it’s relatively lean, and it’s delicious. It’s an easy food to snack on while driving; requires no refrigeration; and wouldn’t melt, spoil, or shrivel as we crossed over deserts and plains in the August heat. It is, perhaps, the perfect road trip snack. (Also, it has kind of a survivalist, backpacker-y edge to it that made us feel legit, even though we were mostly car-camping). We figured if we could whip up a big-enough batch ahead of the trip, we’d have enough sustenance to keep us sated for a while without stooping to Combos and other gas station delights. We were mostly right. (Personally, I can never say no to Combos).

That summer, as we strategized our packing plans, saved up our gas money, and daydreamed about conquering miles of open road, we also set out to become beef jerky experts. Initially intrigued by an Alton Brown setup involving box fans, bungee cords, and some air conditioning filters, we figured it’d be an easy-enough goal: Procure some meat, throw some salt and seasoning on it, and let oxygen do its thing. Perhaps it was the humidity or the low wattage of our budget box fans, but that technique took about two days longer than it should have. Fortunately, we started our tinkering early, because it took about four or five batches of trial-and-error to yield the results we’d hoped for, experimenting with everything from seasoning to dehydration time to the exact thickness of the strips.

Once we finally nailed our technique, it paid off: Our jerky, stowed in a plastic tub just behind the driver’s seat within easy reach of whoever was riding shotgun, hit the spot when the roadside convenience stores inevitably gave way to miles of endless Nebraska corn fields and Combos were no longer an option. And when paired with a cold six-pack of Coors and a campfire under the stars in the middle of nowhere, USA, it made for a pretty damn good midnight snack.

Here are a few of the tips we picked up along our journey toward becoming jerky scientists.

(Image credit: Dane Sponberg)

1. Expect a lot of trial and error — and save accordingly.

Here’s the thing about making your own jerky: It might take a few attempts to nail your own recipe, and that kind of experimentation isn’t exactly cheap. Each batch I made during my experimentation phase probably added up to three pounds of beef each — which, when you’re in your early 20s and scrimping to save for a big trip while also working a slightly-above-minimum-wage gig at a doggie daycare, can err on the cost-prohibitive side. Unfortunately, aside from nailing your recipe right out of the gate, there isn’t much you can do to avoid the price tag, but it’s good to know (and prepare accordingly) before you attempt full jerky mastery. It’s a delicious hobby, but it isn’t necessarily a cheap one.

2. Find the right type of beef, and buy more of it than you think you’ll need.

Ever feel amazed at how you can shrink a whole bag of spinach down to a small pile in cooking? Jerky is kind of similar: I was stunned at how much shrinkage we had to deal with. That’s thanks to the dehydration itself, but also because every last bit of fat has to be removed from the meat (as fat won’t dehydrate and thus can spoil quite quickly). After you trim the fat and fully dehydrate the meat, you can expect two to three pounds of fresh beef to yield roughly a pound of jerky. With that in mind, make sure you select a lean cut with little marbling, like a flank steak, top round, or rump roast, so you aren’t forced to throw away half of the mass before you even begin. As a general rule, just buy more meat than you think you’ll need. Trust me on this.

3. Either befriend your butcher or spring for an electric knife.

One thing I learned early on when making large volumes of jerky is that cutting the meat is probably the most labor-intensive part. Letting your beef sit in the freezer for 20 minutes or so can make it easier to cut, but still — trying to slice up five pounds of roast into what feels like a million uniform, 1/4- to 1/2-inch-wide strips can feel like a Sisyphean task. Two ways around this arduous-yet-requisite undertaking? Ask your butcher if they can do the cutting for you, or just go ahead and buy an electric knife. I picked up a basic electric carving blade that shaved (no pun intended) minutes off of my jerky-slicing time.

(Image credit: Sara Kate Gillingham)

4. Dry rub? Marinade? Experiment to your heart’s content.

This is what I found after spending a summer tinkering with flavors: It is actually quite hard to go wrong here, unless you’re trying. We tried both dry rubs and marinades; I preferred the juiciness of the marinade over the crumbly texture of the dry rub, but to each their own. Flavor-wise, the sky is the limit: I literally pulled a dozen condiments and sauces off the shelves at my local grocery, and tried each of them by marinating a batch of meat in a zip-top bag overnight and patting dry before dehydrating. I experimented with barbecue sauces both smoky and sweet, hot sauce, A1, and even a Sriracha-soy blend. One of my favorites was an ad-libbed raspberry chipotle sauce, which I spotted in the gourmet aisle and decided to replicate on my own. The combo of sweet, bright berries with smoky-hot peppers was way more interesting than any generic gas station jerky I’d tried. (I’m also a sucker for Buffalo wings, which meant we had to do a batch dumped in Frank’s Red Hot. It was delicious.)

5. DIY dehydrating methods abound, but maybe just buy a dehydrator.

That Alton Brown box fan setup I referenced earlier? We tried it and, well, it worked, but it also took a lot longer than expected — which can put your beef at risk for bacteria growth. And after purchasing two box fans and a few AC filters, it really didn’t save us any money at all. Methods for dehydrating at a low temperature in your oven exist, but I had the best results after just springing for a dehydrator from my local cooking supply store. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy or complicated; ours was about $30, with three heat settings and five racks we’d shuffle around halfway through the dehydration time. I’m not normally a big fan of buying such highly specific, one-trick pony kitchen appliances, but in this instance, it was totally worth it.

6. Practice your rationing skills, because this stuff is way too easy to snack on.

The thing with jerky is that it’s a pretty nutritionally dense snack: You aren’t really supposed to sit there and munch on it like you would with, say, those aforementioned pizza-flavored Combos. And therein is perhaps the toughest lesson we had to learn — even in large quantities, it is hard to ration out a big batch of homemade jerky over the span of nearly three weeks in the car.

Especially somewhere around mile 1,402, when you’re crossing the desolate Mars-like landscape of northern Texas and the only sight for miles is a giant pair of legs, or near mile 3,292, when the seemingly endless prairies of southern Minnesota make it feel as though you haven’t actually moved an inch in hours. It’s easy, during those stretches of time, to reach back behind the driver’s seat and mindlessly snack, just for something to do. Just remember: You didn’t saw up five pounds of rump roast with an electric knife just to distract yourself with boredom-induced eating. Try to exercise restraint. You’ll thank yourself later — hopefully while you’re next to a campfire, with a cold beer in one hand, a batch of perfect, smoky-sweet jerky in the other, and a ride-or-die traveling companion by your side.