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The pursuit of Jerkyology

In the pursuit of Jerkyology it is often asked, “What makes good jerky?”.  To be sure, the answer isn’t a simple one.  Good jerky is a truly personal thing and while many Jerkyologists may agree that a given jerky is a thing of greatness they’re likely to disagree on why.  Ask folks why they like a jerky and some will say the magic is in it’s texture, others focus on the taste.  Still others marvel at the quality of the meat while there are those that simply speak to its lingering impression well after the bites are done.  While each person should enjoy their jerky in whatever way brings them joy these are only the merest of beginnings for delving into Jerkyology.

Jerkyology, as a refined endeavor, has basic tenets that guide a Jerkyologist through a thoughtful and deliberate appreciation of jerky by exploring each of its key characteristics, with the four applicable senses in turn, and then taking them all in to decide on the overall jerky experience.  Across the veritable cornucopia of snack meats there are key attributes that ultimately describe its jerky worth.

What makes good jerky?

The core attributes that a Jerkyologist must consider to properly assess the goodness of meaty treats are taste, texture,smell, appearance, and consistency.  Each of these aspects of a given jerky help to define its quality and eating experience.  In general, here’s what describes good jerky in each of these traits:

Taste:  The jerky should have an enjoyable flavor that matches the label.  If the jerky is ‘spicy’ then you should taste spice.  If the label is ‘smoky’ then it should taste smoky.  Beyond that its a matter of effect.  Jerky can be bold, complex,  subtle, and often at its best when the flavors are balanced in just the right way.

Texture:  Jerky can be tender and moist or dry and tough, but it can all be good.  The key is that the jerky be edible.  It’s not wrong to have to work for it – this is jerky, after all – but you shouldn’t chip a tooth trying to tear off a bite.  Generally, a good jerky will be easy to eat (that doesn’t mean effortless) and will provide a substantive chew.  It won’t be overly stringy, etc. and the jerky will feel good in your mouth.

Smell:  The scent of a jerky is closely associated with its taste so ideally a jerky’s scent will foretell of the great jerky taste about to follow.  The scent doesn’t have to be overwhelming, but it should be strong enough to be noticed.

Appearance:  We eat with our eyes well before we eat with our mouths.  What size are the pieces?  What color and texture are they?  Does the jerky look like it was prepared with skill and care or hastily tossed into a bag and shipped?  Jerky should look appetizing and suggest attention to quality.

Consistency:  To be a good jerky it has to be good all the time, not just now and again.  It takes real skill to take something as variable as meat and prepare jerky that delivers a predictable look, feel, and taste.  This is, in many respects, the measure of how good a jerky maker really is.  It’s one thing to make a tasty bite of jerky, it’s another to make an entire bag of tasty jerky.  Consistency means the jerky maker executed their art well.

How do you rate something like jerky?

Making jerky… particularly great jerky… is an art.  And like any patron of the arts the measure of how ‘good’ jerky is is a profoundly subjective thing.  Since the eventual impression of jerky isn’t about scores and averages but rather how it all hangs together in the end we know that it all boils down to answering that simple question, “How good is it?”.  This is where the Overall rating for jerky comes in.  Clearly we look at the ratings for each of the core jerky attributes to help suggest the comparative appeal of a jerky.  But truly, we know that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and sometimes the parts just don’t add up.  This is where the experience, discipline, and doggedly persnickety nature of the dedicated Jerkyologist really shine through.

The Rating Scale

Given that reading a jerky review is far, far removed from actually sampling the meaty goodness we’ve settled on good ol’ fashioned letter grades to help quickly convey how good a jerky really is.  Again, it’s all relative, so let’s describe the ratings in terms of the sort of reaction each of the rated jerkies might elicit:

A+:  WOW.  This stuff is like edible joy. I can’t believe my great fortune in having a mouth into which I can insert this amazingly fantastic food!  Are those angles singing through my taste buds?  Where have you been all my life?!  I would absolutely detour far, far out of my way to stock up on this exceptional treat!

A:  We’re talking some seriously good jerky here.  Every time I take a bite I am reminded how awesome it is to be an omnivore.  This jerky is so good I would easily consider eating it instead of a regular meat at a meal.  I would definitely make a special trip along the way to pick up some of this outstandingly good jerky.

A-:  A fine, fine example of what great jerky can be.  It’s tasty, subtle, and full of meaty goodness.  When I eat new jerky this is how good I always hope it’ll be.  I would easily talk myself into a bit of a side trip to buy some of this really delicious meat.

B+:  This is a great jerky.  Tasty, good quality, and really satisfying.  I’m glad that I can enjoy a treat this good.  I know where I can buy this jerky and I go out of my way to frequent those places so I can keep some around.

B:  This is a good jerky.  Tasty, meaty in the right way, and I like it.  It’s not particularly special, per se, but I enjoy it when I get it.  As I look through the racks, if I see this jerky I pick it first without worry.

B-:  I like this jerky.  It does some things pretty well and hangs together nicely.  I don’t go out of my way to buy it, but I know that if I do I won’t be disappointed.

C+:  This is a pretty decent jerky.  It’s tasty and it scratches that jerky itch I have in a comfortable way.  It’s not the good stuff, but it’s good enough.  If this is what I have available, it’s all good.

C:  This jerky is okay.  Nothing special, just adequate.  It’s tasty enough… and it’s made of meat… that’s always good.  I look around to see if there’s anything better on hand, but if I end up with this one I don’t fret much.

C-:  This jerky will do, but I’m not particularly enthusiastic about it.  I’m hungry, and it’s passable stuff, so there we go.  I eat this jerky, but I imagine better jerky.  I’m really tempted to just eat some mixed nuts or Doritos.

D+:  This is jerky.  I know it is.  I can tell by the… meat, I guess.  There was a definite attempt made here, but it just didn’t work out.  I may eat this stuff, but I’m not going to like it.  I wouldn’t really even consider this stuff but all the good snacks were sold out.

D:  They call this jerky, but somebody is taking some liberties with the language.  Just because you kill it and dry it doesn’t mean it counts as jerky.  This stuff just isn’t any good at all.  Yuck.  Why did I even bother with a second bite?

D-:  This isn’t jerky, it’s just dried-out dead critter.  They put some pepper or something on it… or maybe just near it… but whatever they did it didn’t work out.  I use this stuff to prank my buddies and torment my enemies.  I can’t believe this actually made it into a store…

F:  You said this was Jerky.  You said you loved me and would always be there for me.  Lies!  All LIES!!!  I can’t believe I gave you a chance.  My faith is all I have left, so deep are the wounds you have left o’ nasty jerky.  How can I begin to heal the wounds inside?  How can I live down the shame of our association?  I can’t believe I was seen in public with you.

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