Buffalo Jerky

This post was originally published on December 3, 2010.  Re-posted today for Eat Alberta.  I chose buffalo jerky for this year’s Eat Alberta tasting board because of the significant role that similar preparations played in the history of this province.  Please read The Story of the Buffalo for more information.

Strips of bison jerkyJerky is my nominee for best representation of southern Alberta by a single food preparation.  This is partly because of its historical connection to the buffalo hunt and ranching, but also because it takes advantage of the arid landscape.  In dry regions jerky can safely be made on hot days, when the temperature is around 30°C, simply by leaving the sliced meat to hang outside.[1]

What Meat to Use.  Buffalo can be purchased at most farmers’ markets in Edmonton.  My preferred producers are First Nature Farms and Thundering Ground at the Strathcona Market, and Medicine Man at the City Centre Market.  

You should use a very lean cut of meat from the hip (butcher-speak for the hind leg).  The cuts from the hip are the inside round, eye of round, outside round, and sirloin tip.  I find that sirloin tip is the most commonly available.

Clean and Slice the Meat.  Silverskin, the lustrous sheet of connective tissue that surrounds individual muscles, is the enemy of tender jerky, so remove as much as you can.  Slice the lean meat across the grain into strips about 1/8″ thick.  It goes without saying that this task is best performed with a commercial meat slicer.  Whether you’re using a knife or a fancy slicer, you’ll get more even, consistent slices if the meat is partially frozen.

Lightly Cure the Meat.   It’s worth noting that the dried-meat made by Plains Indians before European contact was not salted.  Modern jerky is always salted before drying as it helps protect the surface of the meat from pathogens during the drying process.

I’ve included a very basic recipe below.  I think the evergreen flavours of juniper, rosemary, and Labrador tea go especially well with buffalo. Cover the mixture and keep it in the fridge for 24-48 hours.

Basic Jerky Cure

  • 100% lean buffalo meat, cut into 1/8″ slices
  • 2% kosher salt
  • 1% minced garlic
  • 0.5% crushed juniper
  • 0.5% chopped rosemary
  • 0.2% fresh cracked black pepper

Drying Techniques.  To make jerky properly, it’s important that you don’t cook the meat.  I’ve tried the completely passive jerky technique here in Edmonton, but my meat molded before it dried (it was an overcast day, and only about 20°C: I should have known better…) For consistent results, I’ve since used a heat source like a low oven, a food dehydrator, or a barbecue.  The barbecue is good because you can introduce a bit of smoke using this simple technique.  The Plains Indians and Métis often use smoke to flavour their dried meat. Traditionally a hole was dug and a low fire kindled within. Scaffolding was erected over the hole, and strips of meat were hung until dry (crude drawing at right…)[2] At first I was skeptical about whether I would be able to smoke the meat on my barbecue and maintain a low enough temperature, but with the hood propped open about a foot I was able to keep the temperature just under 40°C while letting the smoke linger around the meat.

Strictly speaking, the jerky isn’t done until the meat is completely dry and very hard and brittle. At this point there is no moisture for microbes, and the meat can be kept safely at room temperature.  That being said, if you can pull the meat just, just before it is entirely brittle, you’ll find that the flesh is luxurious and smooth and chewy.

Buffalo jerky

 

References

1. Ruhlman, Michael. Charcuterie. ©2005 WW Norton and Company Inc, New York, NY. Page 65. He elaborates on jerky’s connection to ranching, and its usefulness as a preservation technique, on his blog, in this post.
2. This set-up, and other interesting information on frontier life on the prairies, is from: Thomas, Dorine. Rubaboo. ©1981 Pemmican Publications, Winnipeg, MB.

Cold-Smoking Pickerel

Cold-smoking pickerel on the barbecueI recently picked up some pickerel from Rebekah’s Fish at the Strathcona Market and took my first stab at cold-smoking on my barbecue.

To hot-smoke on my barbecue I just remove the grate from the righthand side and put foil packets of wood chips directly onto the flames.  I put the meat on the left side, which remains off.  This way the meat isn’t over direct heat and will cook evenly.  With the right burner on a medium-low setting, the wood chips smolder and the average temperature inside the barbecue stays around 250°F.

The point of cold-smoking is to impart the flavour of the smoke without cooking the meat.  Examples of food that you might want to keep raw are cured fish, jerky, and certain types of cured meat like salami or speck.  To keep the meats from cooking the temperature has to stay below 100°F.  Barbecue burners are so large that no matter how low you set them, they will always produce enough heat to raise the temperature of the barbecue above 100°F.

The solution is simple enough.  I ignited my wood chips in a stainless steel pan on my stove top, then put the pan in the barbecue, where I usually rest the packets.  The barbecue remained off, and functioned only as a chamber to hold the smoke.

The major disadvantage of the pan method is that, without any active heat source, the chips only smoulder for about five minutes before they have to be re-ignited.

Properly curing cold-smoked meats is very important because they usually stay in the temperature “danger zone” for several hours.  The danger zone, between 39°F and 140°F, represents the temperatures at which microbes grow best.  Below this range they are inactive, and above this range they die.  In professional kitchens they say that any food that stays in the danger zone for more than two hours is unfit to serve.  When we cure meat we make the flesh inhospitable to microbes, and we can therefore keep it in the danger zone for extended periods.

Food safety aside, properly curing the fish makes the flesh firm, dense, and pleasantly salty.  Below is the recipe I used to cure my pickerel, though I have to caution that I’ve found fish-curing to be a fickle business.  I’ve tried the same recipe on different pieces of fish and had wildly different results.

Smoked Pickerel
adapted from Charcuterie

Ingredients

  • 850 g pickerel fillet in one piece, skin on, bones removed
  • 157 g kosher salt
  • 63 g dark brown sugar
  • 13 g crushed juniper berries
  • 20 mL whiskey

Procedure

  1. Mix the salt, sugar, and juniper. Spread half the dry cure in a container that will just fit the fish. Lay the fish, skin side down, on the cure. Pour the whiskey over the fish, then sprinkle the remaining cure over the fish. Try to get more cure on the thicker parts of the fillet.
  2. Cover with plastic wrap. Rest a flat board for pan on the fish, and top with a 500 g weight. Refrigerate for 20 hours.
  3. Rinse the cure from the fish. Pat dry with paper towel and let rest, uncovered, on a wire rack in the fridge for at least an hour.
  4. Cold-smoke with maple chips until desired flavour is achieved.
I served my smoked pickerel with green pea and wild rice crêpes, and celery root slaw with grainy mustard dressing.
Smoked Pickerel, wild rice and green pea crêpes, celery root slaw, grainy mustard dressing