Dried beef. Water. Vinegar. Sugar. Sugar. Spices.
Beef jerky, once a lightweight survival necessity for Native Americans and settlers heading west, has become so much more: a beloved snack, a traveler’s meal, backpacking fare, a gourmet treat, a protein boost after a workout. Obviously, it’s a perfect addition to our Month of Beef bonanza.
What’s changed? Not much. So why the continued appeal? Why that small, significant grin at the sight of it, the salivation at the dry rattle of its packaging, the pleasure at the strange jaw-working texture that scrapes your throat as it goes down? Meat philosophizing types might cite its close connection to the pure beef experience — we rarely eat our steers raw; jerky, dried down to the barest form possible, is meat compacted, intensified, amplified, even. Maybe it’s about what comes along with the meat — camaraderie, traveling, nature; they all seem inherently juxtaposed with the treat.
Discuss as you will. Meanwhile, we’re on to trying a wide range of brands to give you the low-down on what’s good, what’s cheap, and what’s chew-heaven. Grab a big glass of water and read our reviews after the break.
In Brief: Oberto, like Jack Links, can be found in any old gas station. Compared to some of the “gourmet” jerkies we tried, it’s a nice price cut — but certainly at a bit of a deduction in quality. Case in point: “All natural” has a prominent asterisk on the packaging.
Chewin’ It: One of the thickest jerkies of the bunch. Heavy smoke flavor — too much, actually. The chomp test: 47 chews.
Buy Now: $13.67 (four pack)
365 Organic Teriyaki
In Brief: This Whole Foods brand is entirely organic (surprise!). It does have natural smoke flavoring added, though, which may scare away health-food nazis. It does have one of the lowest sodium servings of any of the jerkies (11% daily value), a big upside for those looking for a healthy snack. Find it at your local Whole Foods market.
Chewin’ It: It’s a mild, non-polarizing and easy to munch. Good for the dentured crowd — it’s very chewy.
Buy Now: Whole Foods
Field All Natural Original No. 3
In Brief: This artisanal jerky is made of top round cuts with no preservatives, msg or nitrates. Eyebrow-raising ingredient? Pineapple juice.
Chewin’ It: No doubt about smoky hickory flavor. The lean-ness comes out in its consistency, and the meat tastes good.
Buy Now: $30 (five pack)
SnackMasters All Natural Original
In Brief: SnackMaster’s huge sheaths of beef are the most impressively sized cuts we saw all day. They add hickory smoked flavor, but no preservatives.
Chewin’ It: Prevalent Worcestershire flavor, along with sweet brown sugar and molasses. It’s on the drier side.
Buy Now: $47.26 (eight pack)
Naughty Knight Original
In Brief: We’d never seen this brand before, but the randy Knight on the packaging caught our eye. Otherwise, the brand is a bit of a mystery, besides being “MSG Free!” and “Hormone Free!”
Chewin’ It: This has an interesting look to it, very clear and pinkish. There’s something inherently Asian in the taste. It easily has one of the more subtle flavors.
Buy Now: $8.99
Kings County Jerky Co. Grass-fed Original
In Brief: This New York company sources local grass-fed, bottom-round cuts only. Once you break the packaging’s seal, you their meat will only keep for two weeks — but we’re not worried. It’ll be gone in a day. Try their Korean BBQ flavor for a delicious kick in the mouth.
Chewin’ It: Total absence of sweetness, which comes across as very dry. Black pepper, but a lot more — the taste of clove without the pungency. Don’t eat this one without a glass of water nearby. Powerful but tasty. This is our pick for jerky traditionalists.
Buy Now: $10
Krave Sweet Chipotle
In Brief: Krave’s wide steak-style cuts are extremely appealing, even if the jerky is a bit less healthy than some other gourmand types on our list. Still, there’s no nitrates, and it’s low fat. Compared to potato chips, it’s essentially a salad.
Chewin’ It: The “sweet” title doesn’t lie — but there’s also a heavy Asian chipotle flavor. We’re left with a little kick at the end. It has a very soft texture and consistency, nearly melting in our mouths.
Buy Now: $7
In Brief: This New York area jerky company produces their product in northern Vermont using only grass-fed beef and natural ingredients. If you’re feeling adventurous, try their Hot & Smoky flavor, or even craft your own style on their website.
Chewin’ It: Worcestershire-infused garlic, but very tame. The texture is brittle but not too dry. This is a very tasty, well-balanced jerky.
Buy Now: $8
Five Star Original
In Brief: This wet-style jerky is made of beef brisket with no artificial ingredients. Get ready to have greasy fingers.
Chewin’ It: Tastes like a sweeter Korean bulgogi, with a very gooey, wet consistency. It grows on you as you chew. Definitely for soy sauce lovers. We voted this as the most pleasant surprise, as it looks greasy and a bit nasty, but tastes delicious.
Buy Now: $8
Jack Links Original
In Brief: Like Oberto, Jack Links is a household name in jerky. Unfortunately, that means a steep price for a mass-produced product that doesn’t tout grass-fed beef or organic products like quite a few other brands. Even so, you can’t deny the tenacious toughness of the product; it’s great for long chewing on the road.
Chewin’ It: One of the toughest of the lot; it tastes the most artificial. You have to gnaw on it for a while — it’s a jaw killer, to be sure.
Slim Jim Original
In Brief: Technically, Slim Jims include mechanically processed chicken (gross). But we had to snap in to one.
Chewin’ It: Everything you’ve come to expect in the old cylindrical meat stick. It’s like dried tube steak with an artificial spicy slap. Oh, and don’t forget about the gullet-destroying heartburn.
Buy Now: $24.65 (100 pack)
We chose a variety of 10 beef jerky brands. Our criteria included a mix of public availability (online or in stores), critical praise, and price. This is jerky though so seriously, exactly how scientific do you expect us to be? We limited our roundup selections to “original” flavors whenever we could — though we’ll admit to having devoured far more — in order to keep a “jerky” control as much as possible. Blind taste of each jerky by 3 writers each, notes, then results. Yep, that’s about it.