What Is Beef Jerky and Why Is It So Expensive?

Howdy, partners! Toss on your boots and throw on your hats because we’re hitting the trails with some beef jerky, the favorite snack of the Old West and gas stations. But have you ever stopped to ask, what is beef jerky? What is beef jerky made of? How is beef jerky made? And most importantly, why is beef jerky so expensive? Let’s chew on some answers. 

What is beef jerky? 

Beef jerky is beef, trimmed into strips and dehydrated. Producers add salt to prevent bacteria from growing. Jerky has been around for quite a long time. Despite the association that jerky has with cowboys and the American frontier, it’s said that jerky began in Peru. The word “jerky” is thought to come from the indigenous Quechua word, “ch’arki” meaning “dried, salted meat.” 

What is beef jerky made out of?

Beef, baby! But just about any protein can be jerkied. All you really need to make jerky is a low temperature drying method and some salt, but that’s definitely not all that goes into making all those varieties that line the shelves of modern convenience stores. Most packaged jerky also uses some kind of cure packed full of spices and additional flavors. And most commercial jerky contains sodium nitrate, which helps preserve the jerky and balance its color. Other things commonly added are soy sauce, brown sugar, paprika, lemon juice,onion powder, MSG, garlic powder, worcestershire sauce, black pepper, red pepper, jalapeno, and teriyaki sauce. Often, the jerky is smoked or producers add liquid smoke for flavor. Jerky also usually contains sugar, unless it’s biltong, a South African version of jerky.

Why is beef jerky so expensive? 

Because beef is expensive. That stuff costs more than the corn or potatoes that go into chips. But to really get into why this snack is so pricey, we need to understand how it’s made. 

How is beef jerky made? 

To make beef jerky, you slice lean cuts of beef into strips, marinate them in a cure, then lay them out to dry and cook very slowly at a very, very low temperature. Almost every step in that process is costly. Lean beef is used because fat can cause spoilage. Lean beef is more expensive than fatty beef. The slicing and laying out is usually done by hand. That’s right, this is not a mechanized process, it’s people doing this and those people deserve to be paid. Then the stuff has to cook. Now it’s not the old school route of just drying in the sun, but it still has to remain at a low temp for a long time to dehydrate properly. That means it’s not a fast turnaround. It takes a while to make a bag of jerky. And you know what happens to that beef while it cooks? It shrinks. So that two and a half pounds of expensive lean beef comes out as one pound of sellable jerky. All of this goes into the price. For me, though, the high price of jerky is actually a good thing. It’s the only thing that keeps me from eating it for every meal.

best beef jerky brands

Best Beef Jerky

Now that you know all about beef jerky, find out what the best beef jerky is that you can buy at the grocery store.

About the Author

Will Morgan

Will Morgan, a freelance contributor to Sporked, is an L.A. based writer, actor, and sketch comedy guy. Originally from Houston, TX, he strongly believes in the superiority of breakfast tacos to breakfast burritos. Will traveled the world as one of those people that did yoyo shows at elementary school assemblies, always making a point to find local and regional foods to explore in whatever place he was, even in rinky-dink towns like Tilsonberg, ON. Will spends his birthdays at Benihana’s. Let him know if can make it.

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  • I always thought it was called jerky because when you bite and rip a piece off, it jerks your head back.