What do you mean dried beef? You’re surely wondering. Don’t you mean beef jerky? No, friends, dried beef is much saltier and stranger than its deliciously tender counterpart. Found in a jar on grocery store shelves, these thinly sliced circles of meat have a history of military usage—and an expiration date that suggests they could outlive us all.
Lean, salted, pressed, and peculiar, dried beef served as fodder for military meals dating back to World War I, and became synonymous with the military experience. Chipped beef on toast, dubbed “S.O.S” (shit on a shingle) by soldiers, was a practical, matter-of-fact dish meant to do one thing: feed the masses. This canned, less-appetizing version of biscuits and gravy was served sometimes with biscuits, but more commonly on toast. It was made with canned evaporated milk, lard, flour, and dried beef, and was mass produced by the army as a filling and somewhat edible cafeteria meal for soldiers in the early 1900s.
As a kid, I remember seeing cans of dried, chipped beef in the cupboard where we kept the chicken bullion and cans of tuna. It seemed like something that my dad, a Navy veteran and National Guard member, must have kept around from his time in the service. So I called him to spark a conversation about dried beef and military rations in general:
“Oh yeah, you’d see [dried beef] in the Army or sometimes the Navy. We didn’t have it, though. We had a thing called sea rats (sea rations), it was canned food that lasted 30 or 40 years. Fruit cocktails, cakes, crackers, spaghetti and meatballs, ham and eggs for breakfast, sometimes they’d have like four cigarettes in them,” my dad said.
“I’m sorry, cigarettes?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, little packs of cigarettes. Like three or four cigarettes. This was way back in ‘74 or ‘75. We had them in the national guard, too, but they quit putting cigarettes in them,” he continued. “But dried beef, I only had it a few times. First time I had it was in boot camp in 1973. They served it over biscuits, like biscuits and gravy. Sometimes they would do toast, though. That’s the shingle part. The toast looks like shingles on a roof.”
The recipe in an old army manual calls for “Beef, Chipped (for 60 men),” but if not to serve a literal army of hungry soldiers, what is the modern purpose of dried beef? Is there one? Does it even have a place in the home pantry in this day and age? I argue yes—kind of.
I was probably eight or nine the first time I saw dried beef actually utilized. It was Christmas and my grandma made the supremely Midwestern dried beef cheese ball. It’s a terrifying, delightful, and health-defiant ball of cream cheese rolled in sodium-packed dried beef and surrounded by Ritz crackers. The dried beef serves a crucial purpose in this dish, adding an incredible amount of sodium to the creamy, fat-dense cream cheese. It injects salt and umami, and, when combined with thick cream cheese, creates a surprisingly balanced appetizer.
But I needed to do some actual experiments myself, as I am a self-described reckless, take-no-prisoners food scientist. I bought some Armour brand dried beef and decided to give it a taste. Armour advertises that its dried beef is “ground and formed.” “Mmmm, formed,” I didn’t say as I read the label. The beef itself comes in thin, neatly created circles that cascade in a small glass jar like meat ribbons. That might sound fancy, but dried, chipped beef is militant in every sense, including taste. It’s hardened, no-nonsense, and salty enough to make you forget what you might be eating.
The egregious amount of salt (one serving of dried beef contains 1,430mg of sodium, or 60% of your daily value) reminds me of canned anchovies. It’s the kind of sandwich food that desperately needs mayonnaise or some kind of fat to take the salty edge off. The meat itself doesn’t have much texture, and is quite thin, but I don’t think it makes a horrible sandwich filler. It needs help, texture-wise—some toasted bread and crunchy iceberg lettuce wouldn’t hurt. On its own, dried beef is a lot (there’s just so much damn salt). But, like with canned anchovies, you can add it to dishes or other meats in a sandwich to give them an added flavor boost.
I think dried beef is a great thing to hide in something like an Italian hoagie to inject some sharp, beefy flavor. Combine it with some ham, some capicola, or, heck, even some sliced chicken. Like in the army recipes and the cheese ball, though, it plays well with creaminess. So think about adding some mayonnaise or cream cheese if you’re going to eat it with bread. If you fancy yourself a cook, I would also think of it as an ingredient. Use it to doctor up some meat sauce, or throw it into a stew or casserole if you’re looking to add extra flavor.
My dad doesn’t eat dried beef anymore. He’s graduated to the finer things in life, like a lot of us. Still, I remain intrigued by dried beef; it’s a utilitarian marvel, a humble American invention, a remnant of an older time, for better or worse. And, hey, it costs less than three dollars a jar. Dried beef isn’t a pantry necessity, no, but if you’re curious about the past like I am, it may just beckon you. Now if only they put a few cigarettes in there.