The Marmite jerky experiment

As I’ve explained in this space before, there are two main types of jerky. The first is sliced (a/k/a whole muscle) jerky, which starts with slices or little chunks of beef, such as you might cut from a roast. The second is ground meat jerky, which is self-explanatory; it’s made from ground meat.

I like both types. Each has its own good and bad points. Sliced jerky has a really traditional, chewy texture, although the texture varies a bit depending on whether you slice the meat it with or against the grain. For years, I’ve sliced my jerky with the grain, believing that was the tradtional way to do it. But I’ve lately been following a jerky maker and web personality named Keith Rainville. Keith’s videos and his recipe book (which you can buy online, and I highly recommend you do) call for cutting across the grain.

Sliced jerky is usually marinated. A good jerky marinade includes salty, sweet and acidic elements, all of which act as preservatives once most of the moisture has been removed and the remaining mixture is a thick, thick syrup. It’s a misunderstanding to say that jerky is completely dehydrated; you don’t want your jerky teeth-breakingly hard. It needs to be chewy. But so much of the moisture has been removed that microorganisms would have a hard time surviving in what’s left, especially because of the high concentrations of salt, sugar and acid.

My go-to jerky marinade in the past has been based on Alton Brown’s from the TV show “Good Eats” — a 50/50 mixture of Worcestershire sauce and soy sauce, providing both salt and acid (from the vinegar in the Worcestershire sauce), along with honey, onion powder, liquid smoke and pepper.

The marinating process allows room for experimentation and personal recipes. I’ve tried various variations on the Alton Brown marinade, and now I’m branching out a little with the help of Keith Rainville’s recipe book. I tried to make Keith’s habanero orange jerky last weekend, only to find that every supermarket in Shelbyville was out of habanero peppers. So I substituted a mix of three other hot peppers, and the jerky was still quite good. The orange flavor, which comes from marmalade, zest and extract, is a great partner to the normal beefy flavors in the jerky.

But one drawback of the sliced jerky process is that marinating takes time. Alton’s recipe calls for marinating 3 to 6 hours; Keith Rainville advises 48 hours in most of his recipes.

Ground meat jerky can be made much more quickly. Often, you can mix the seasonings into the ground meat and you’re ready to go. Ground meat jerky strips are generally thinner than sliced jerky, and they have their own unique texture and chew.

But ground meat is a little trickier, from a food safety standpoint, than whole meat. The grinding process mixes oxygen, and any oxygen-loving bacteria, from the surface into the interior of the meat. That’s why, in the past, I’ve always relied on commercial seasonings when making ground meat jerky. Those commercial seasonings include a tiny, tiny amount of sodium nitrite (usually cut with salt and sometimes sugar, to make it easier to measure) as a cure.

There are some good commercial jerky seasonings out there, especially the ones made by Hi Mountain Seasonings. Hi Mountain’s products are a lot better than the generic jerky seasoning that may have been included with your dehydrator or jerky gun.

Lately, though, I’ve gotten tired of using the commercial seasonings. A few weeks ago, I decided to make some ground meat jerky using steak sauce plus a little liquid smoke. I took the cure packet from one of those generic jerky seasonings, left over from my purchase of a new jerky gun a few months back.

The jerky tasted great, although the texture — as a result of all that steak sauce — made it a little tricky to extrude in neat strips. When you make ground meat jerky, you usually use a contraption called a jerky gun — it works like a caulking gun or a cookie press, whichever of those two devices you’re most familiar with — to extrude strips or sticks of jerky onto your dehydrator trays. There was so much liquid in the steak sauce that the strips didn’t hold together as well. It ultimately worked, and the jerky tasted great, however.

I started thinking about a ground meat jerky recipe that I could make that would be a little less messy. I have a jar of the love-it-or-hate-it British condiment Marmite, a thick, very salty, umami-rich spread that I use both for its original purpose (spread very, very thinly on buttered toast) and as an ingredient in recipes. I figured that Marmite might play the same role in a ground meat jerky recipe which soy sauce plays in a sliced jerky marinade, bringing both saltiness and meaty umami flavor. And since it’s much thicker and more concentrated than steak sauce, I thought it would be less of a problem in terms of making the strips.

So that was today’s experiment. In a big mixing bowl, I combined a little more than two tablespoons of Marmite, some liquid smoke, onion powder, garlic powder, hot sauce, honey and Kitchen Bouquet. Kitchen Bouquet is meant to be an additive to gravies and sauces, giving them more brown color and savory flavor. Keith Rainville often uses a competing product, Gravy Master, in his recipes, but the store where I did my shopping today only had Kitchen Bouquet.

I whisked the ingredients together so that I could use the hot sauce, liquid smoke and Kitchen Bouquet to loosen up the thick honey and the even-thicker Marmite. I also added some cure. I used up the last of those cure packets from my jerky gun, but I now have a supply of a jerky cure called Prague Powder #1 to use in my future experiments.

I used this to season two pounds of extra-lean ground beef. The mixture was so dark, as a result of the Marmite, that I was scared I had overdone it and the jerky would turn out to be too salty. But, as is my custom, I retrieved the last few bits of seasoned meat when cleaning out the jerky gun, rolled them into a grape-sized ball, and cooked it for 10 seconds in the microwave. It’s not the same flavor that the jerky will have, but you can at least tell if something is going to be too salty or too spicy.

The test ball from the microwave seemed OK. A half-hour later, I realized that I should have included some black pepper, a traditional jerky flavor. So I got out my pepper grinder, pulled out the trays one by one, and just sprinkled some pepper directly onto the strips.

The jerky is almost done now, and I pulled a piece just now to taste it. (You really are supposed to let it cool completely before checking the texture, but warm, straight-from-the-dehydrator jerky is such a treat that I don’t always wait.) It’s good — the Marmite gives it what I can only describe as an earthy flavor, but it’s very pleasant. It might pair well with some sort of mushroom flavor, if there’s a way to do that in a future batch. The next time, I might use a little more hot sauce — I don’t really get much of a kick, and the added vinegar might be good as well. But I don’t want to add too much, or I’m right back where I was with the steak sauce.

UPDATE: Lemon pepper! I think I may try adding lemon pepper next time.

If I can work out a good recipe next time, I’ll share it with you.