Although drying as a means of preserving food has been around since the Pharaohs, jerky (from the Spanish charqui meaning “dried meat”) is a Native American invention of necessity. Slaughtering game in anticipation of winter, Indians used a combination of sun and wind to dehydrate their bounty. There were no geographical limitations to jerked meat: It had excellent keeping qualities, was light enough to carry on the trail, and (best of all) could be eaten without tell-tale signs of a campfire, which is vital when traveling through dangerous territory. As the frontier colonized, settlers gave more flavors to jerky by incorporating spice rubs that reflected their individual ethnic culinary traditions, creating an infinite variety of homespun jerky recipes.
When American foods enjoy a long culinary heritage, they are usually available in the present day on two levels: mass-produced (with broad-spectrum appeal), and smaller, custom production (resulting in more particularized styles). This is especially true for jerky. The biggest factories churn out a chopped and formed version that produces a leathery bark-like jerky, while custom production is done mostly with full-muscle meat (from whole cuts), creating a tender, more fully flavored jerky.
If you have never had premium jerky, you cannot fully understand its appeal: the complex claret color (like a bruise), redolent smokiness and tenderness, so supple you can practically tie a strip into a knot. There is also a hypnotic quality to eating good jerky; the longer you chew, the more buttery it becomes, while you grow mesmerized by the repetitive rhythm of chewing and chewing and chewing (like good tobacco), until eventually your jaw is on automatic and your brain is set free to wander.
1 1/2 lb flank steak
1 bottle (16oz) Pure Black
3/4 cup maple syrup
1 teaspoon habanero chili powder
1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke (strong stuff: from a manufacturing process of smoking wet chips and then distilling that smoke to a liquid)
3 tablespoons soy sauce
Holding a slicing knife at a 45-degree angle to a cutting board, slice the flank steak thinly (approximately 1/8″) against the grain of the meat to yield long and wide, even pieces (practically the same technique as for slicing a side of smoked salmon).
Combine marinade ingredients, mixing well to ensure that all of the maple syrup is incorporated. One-by-one, add the strips of meat to the marinade, making sure that all surfaces are covered. Cover and refrigerate overnight or up to 24 hours.
The next day, drain the meat, and then lay the pieces out on paper towel. Cover with another layer of paper towel to blot dry.
You can use a dehydrator to transform the raw meat into jerky if you have one available. We use our oven set to a very low temperature, below 200, and leave the door cracked open to let the humidity escape as well as keep the temperature inside from getting too hot and cooking the meat.
Lightly oil a few baking racks, and lay out the meat evenly. Place the racks in the middle of the preheated oven. The drying process can take anywhere from 5-8 hours, rotating the racks every 2 hours or so.
The meat should be just to the point where it can be torn apart, but still be pliable. Remove the racks from the oven, and set on a countertop for a few hours to let the remaining moisture inside the meat equalize.
Store in sealed plastic bags.