For thousands of years, people have been making and eating jerky, primarily as a way of preserving meat for the future, or as something to take on a journey.
Jerky appears all the way back to Ancient Egypt, long before the refrigerator was invented, but likely its history goes much further into the past. Closer to home, in North America, many indigenous groups across the continent utilized smoked fish and bison in their various culinary traditions. Later, early cowboys in the 1820s made and carried jerky with them as a nutritious, filling, and handy snack that could be eaten when out herding cattle.
Fast forward to today and the popularity of the snack has never been greater. This has been a boon for Alberta’s local beef jerky industry that knows how to make a healthier version of the snack - lower in sugar and sodium than many of the more commercial offerings, and lower in chemical preservatives. Business has been booming.
“This is not your common, toothsome hunk of salty beef,” says Tara Seitz, owner of Uptown Jerky in Vulcan, who only adds aromatic vegetables and spices to her jerky. Seitz decided she’d start her company while eating her own homemade jerky, and jokes her product is like if Brad Pitt and charcuterie had a baby.
She and many local entrepreneurs, like Greg Pahl, owner of Medicine Hat Meat Traders, use locally sourced, simple ingredients for their jerky. He says Alberta’s lucky to have such an amazing supply of great beef to begin with. Pahl’s business started out as a family-owned, full-service head-to-tail butcher shop. At first, he used only cattle from his ranch for his jerky, but when sales took off, he began sourcing beef from other Albertan ranchers.
Medicine Hat Meat Traders’ uniqueness comes from using beef that’s ground, as opposed to being sliced. Formed to create a softer, more flavourful tasting experience, it’s available in eight flavours—original, black pepper, dill pickle, smoky maple, honey garlic, chipotle lime, and habanero. Pahl also invented Caesar Sticks, a beef jerky garnish for Canada’s national cocktail, which are just what they sound like — long, narrow sticks of ground beef, smoked dry. They offer three flavours: classic, dill pickle, and hot. At only 110 calories a serving, some people skip the Caesar and enjoy them as a tasty snack.
Owning the trademark for Caesar Sticks, Pahl hopes to market them nationwide this summer, although they’re already a best seller. Some days, Pahl says it’s hard to keep up, as demand for jerky has risen over the last several years. Speculating that it’s not only the popularity of low-carb diets that have increased consumption, it’s also because even during the pandemic, people aren’t sitting down for meals as often, but still looking for foods with high nutritional value and convenience.
This may be why, closer to home, Greg Hamel, owner of Alberta Jerky in Cold Lake, says he’s seen his sales take off over the last few years. In 2020, he tripled his online sales from the previous year, and in 2021, he saw a 25 percent jump in growth.
Alberta Jerky takes orders from all over Canada. Hamel even once got a request for his jerky from NASA after former Governor General Julie Payette went through Cold Lake and tried Alberta Jerky. When she later became an astronaut, she had NASA put in an order, which is how Hamel’s jerky ended up aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor. Hamel sent the astronauts different flavors of jerky to see which ones they liked best before they launched. It turns out they preferred Sweet and Spicy best, so that’s the flavour they took on the mission. Since jerky travels so well, it’s also a popular snack choice for those going on a hike or a road trip, on the golf course, and to other sporting events.
In Edmonton, Heidi Mirander and her neighbour went into business together, creating Andy’s Beef Jerky, after Mirander discovered the neighbour made the best beef jerky she ever tasted. “It was so soft,” she says. When making their jerky, as many Canadian ingredients as possible are used: the maple syrup used in several flavours is sourced from Ontario, and even the packaging is local. Mirander tries to cater to her customer’s needs, even creating halal jerky upon request, using meat that’s produced in accordance with Islamic practices.
Alberta Jerky, Medicine Hat Meat Traders, and Andy’s Beef Jerky all have online storefronts, while Uptown Jerky is sold at various stores across the province.
Those feeling ambitious at home can try their hand at making their own jerky, even without a dehydrator.
Jerky can be cooked in the oven at a very low temperature, between 170° F to 200° F, on a cooling rack atop a cookie sheet for three to four hours. Almost any cut of beef can be used, but it should be cut with the grain and be between 3 mm to 6 mm thick. Recipes, flavours, and seasoning suggestions are widely available, and easy marinades include barbecue or teriyaki sauce. The meat should marinate for at least six hours in the fridge before placing it in the oven.