The Incredible History of Beef Jerky

The Incredible History of Beef Jerky

Everyone knows that hombres love beef jerky. Whether regular cut or stick form, beef jerky is the perfect snack. But who was the first to enjoy this delicious meaty treat? Let’s dive in to the history of jerky and find out just where it came from.


The Creation of Jerky

To start, the process of drying meat involves adding salt as the preservative. Salt is used to prevent bacteria from growing on the meat while it is drying out. Once the meat was dried, it was then stored for longer periods of time than fresh meat could be. Most of the fat must be cut off of the meat in order to dry properly, as fat is too moist and does not dry.


The Origin Story

While the exact origins of beef jerky are practically untraceable, it is believed that beef jerky was discovered by accident as a form of preserving meat. According to, “drying meat is one of the oldest methods of preservations known to humankind”.

The word “jerky” comes from an Incan term that dates back to as early as 1550. The South American tribe called the Quechua called this dried meat “ch’arki”. This word literally translates to “dried meat”. suggests that after “several dialectical changes”, (including Spanish, English and Quechan) the term “jerky” we use today was born. The Quechan’s used meat from Alpaca and Llama to make their jerky.

There is an incredibly popular and easy to follow recipe called charquekan that can be found in places like Chile, Argentina and Peru. This ancient recipe calls for traditional Ch’arki, however check out this post that shows you how to use real, old-school jerky in this delicious South American stew.

An interesting point of view taken by jerkyfaq reports that jerky was mass produced by the Egyptians, as dried meat did not  receive the same insect infestation that fresh meat did.


When in Rome... eat Jerky?

The Romans did much more than just establish democracy as we know it, they also created their own version of jerky! “Coppiette” is the italian form of jerky that was typically consumed by poor farmers who did not have access to the same food storage alternatives that those who were well off did.

It should come as no surprise that Italian jerky is marinated in red wine, but that’s not all. Other ingredients you need includes salt, coriander, fennel and chilli powder. In order to create the jerky, it is first tied in twos, which is where it gets its' name “coppiette”, which means “little couples”.

Taverns began to sell Coppiette once they notices that its salty flavor made people buy more wine. It is still a popular tavern food, and is typically made from pork, however if you want some more exotic flavors - you’ll need to go to some small towns outside of Rome.


Native Americans and Jerky

While the Native American’s created a similar product to jerky called pemmican, it was slightly different due to the extra ingredients they used. First, the Native American tribes used meat from Buffalo and Bison. According to, pemmican was jerky meat that was added to dried fruits like cranberries and saskatoon berries. The Native Americans originally taught the European settlers how to cut their meat in to long thin strips, and later showed them the “entire jerky-making process”.

This process involved cutting the meat in to thin slices and then drying it either in a fire or even in the sun. There were an unlimited variations of pemmican that could be made, as the Natives used any seasonings and fruits that they could find. They would then shred the meat by pounding it with rocks or sticks, and then store it in their rawhide bags.


Europeans, Settlers and Cowboys

Once the Europeans knew how to make jerky, they consumed it in large quantities. suggests that the first usage of the term “jerky” actually comes from the pioneer John Smith. It was in 1612 that Smith wrote “as dried as their jerkin beefe in the West Indies.”

Jerky became a fast hit amongst the settlers, who saw it as a “portable meal”. In fact, Jerky reached its height in popularity in 1845. This would have been in the midst of the “manifest destiny”. These pioneers ventured into the western territory and saw the significance of a dried meat, which became a valuable sustenance. 

Don Reeves, an anthropologist and McCasland Chair of Cowboy Culture at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, explains that the cowboys of the 1820s would carry jerky or salted meat while they were moving cattle. They would first slaughter the animal – cattle, bison, deer, elk, or antelope – and strip or jerk the meat, then lay it in the sun to dry out.

It was also during this time that the settlers became experimental with their jerky choices. We see deer jerky, elk jerky, as well as turkey and goose jerky rise in popularity, as these animals could be easily hunted in the area.


The Industrial Revolution and Jerky

Not even Jerky could escape American Industrialism. Beginning in 1760, factories quickly developed ways to mass produce goods. One such commodity was the packaging and distribution of food products.

Fun fact for you: While the FDA (Food and Drug ADministration) is usually responsible for the oversight of food in the US, it is actually the the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) that regulates jerky. Wikipedia details all USDA rules, including that “poultry jerky must be heated to an internal temperature of 160 °F for uncured poultry or 155 °F for cured poultry”. Factories are also required to have regular inspections and create a sanitation plan.


Jerky and the Military

Beef Jerky even finds itself a spot in the United States Military history. During World War 1, the United States created what was called the reserve ration. This ration includes the packages of food that was prepared to feed members of the military. The idea is that everything in this ration was quick, and easy to eat out in the field. They also need to have a long shelf life so that they do not spoil.

For this reason it was during WW1 that the U.S updated the ration to include beef jerky, which is an excellent source of protein while also having a large shelf life. An article written in Wired Magazine in 2014 reported that the Army even began to infuse things like applesauce and jerky with caffeine in order to give the soldiers a pick-me up while in the field.


Have You Heard of Biltong?

This trip around the world in Jerky history would not be complete without first mentioning the developments of Jerky in Africa. There are two different forms of Jerky that can be found in the history of Jerky in Africa.

The first derived in Ethiopia in west Africa. Here, the Jerky was called “Quant’a”. While this jerky was also seasoned with salt, it also included a popular Ethiopian spice called Berbere. This is a spice mix which includes chili peppers, ginger, garlic, basil and fenugreek.

Biltong is the jerky found in South Africa. Biltong is actually devised of two terms from the dutch, including “bil” which means rump and “tong” which means strip. Biltong was typically hung during the winter months, which made it cold enough to keep the meat from spoiling. Rather than being coated in salt, biltong was typically soaked in vinegar to preserve it.

Fun fact: some people in South Africa use biltong as a teething aid for babies


Final Thoughts

As you can tell, jerky has a deep and rich history. While today it has risen in popularity and is a delicious snack product, it was originally created due to necessity. The most interesting thing about beef jerky is that it can be found all over the world, and most of it originates at the same time.

It is no surprise that jerky became a quick hit however. Jerky is high in protein while being low in carbohydrates. It is also low in fat and calories, while still being a filling treat. It is hard to deny that Jerky was an important invention, and is still an important staple to an hombre’s diet.

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