Among gas station road trip fare — icy Slushees, tangy bags of Takis, greasy 7-Eleven taquitos — jerky is easily the most gourmet. It ranks among the least processed foods at a rest stop, an accolade it shares with umlaut-decked pints of Häagen Daas and speckled bananas. And it derives much of its utility from the fact that it won’t spoil during a five-hour drive, something that couldn’t be said of a Quarter Pounder getting warm on the dashboard. Jerky is quintessential U.S. roadside charcuterie. Whether gas stations will continue to be at the forefront of the American jerky experience is a different matter, however.
Scores of cultures boast dried-meat traditions that hark back to a pre-Frigidaire era. Biltong is still popular in South Africa; the Spanish have savory tuna mojama at tapas bars; the Ethiopians spice their quwanta with awaze, and the Nigerians lace kilishi with cayenne. In Bolivia, I had some of the best dried meat of my life at a restaurant called Gustu, where the chefs served me a pile of shredded, dried llama meat and paired it with fried trout roe. The excellent quality of that jerky, high in the Andes, felt somewhat appropriate given that the English word “jerky” comes from the Quechua word ch’arki.
Little of that dried-meat diversity, alas, is normally on display at American car and truck stops, the places where one could, at least until recent history, find some of the sturdiest supplies of jerky throughout the states. The unsurprising irony of the gas station dried meat experience is that it takes one of the world’s most diverse culinary traditions and delivers it in a manner that feels mass-produced and thoughtless. It is commodity beef in a bag, for a country that has traditionally enjoyed commodity beef on its dinner plates.
Consumer tastes are changing, however. The ascendancy of high-protein diets, combined with trucker and non-trucker customers who increasingly value gourmet foods from humanely raised animals — or even vegan options — has helped push a larger cottage industry of jerky producers into high-profile shelf spaces at chic grocers, drug stores, and other retailers. And since the jerky space has a reasonably low barrier to entry — it’s easier to make, store, and ship than, say, steaks or foie gras — one can find literally hundreds of small-scale jerky producers on Etsy and other e-commerce sites.
What follows is a broad survey of packaged jerkies. In the interest of diversity and accessibility, we expanded our scope beyond beef to include bison, turkey, chicken, pork, trout, tuna, seaweed, and mushrooms. The only brand listed more than twice is the Wisconsin-based Jack Link’s, which unfortunately is the most ubiquitous, in spite of its below-average quality. We also listed a number of options that many will find more easily in a Whole Foods or via Amazon delivery, an inclusion as much practical as it is culinary. That is to say, even though jerky unquestionably remains vital gas station food, motorists might be better served purchasing that product online these days, to get a higher-quality version that’s tailored specifically for their tastes.
Thinking culinarily and taxonomically about jerky
Some jerkies are unquestionably better than others, but what’s more important is knowing precisely what you want from these products — heat, salt, chew, sugar — and whether jerky is even the right product for your particular road trip.
In most cured meat products, fats play a key role in contributing complex flavors and textures. If you’ve ever enjoyed the floral, nutty overtones in a slice of Iberico ham, you can thank the acon diet of the pigs and the ample intramuscular fat. Thick white streaks of fat also explain why your paper-thin slices of prosciutto almost seem to melt at room temperature. In an air-conditioned car, a package of ham should easily hold up for a few hours — the better part of a ride from New York to Boston — after opening.
With animal jerkies, however, producers look for leaner cuts, since the object is a longer shelf stability. In other words, wagyu gentrification has not infected the jerky world to any great extent. Jerky isn’t about appreciating the distinctions among oily hanger steak, iron-y heart, or blue cheesy aged ribeyes. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While driving, there’s something nice about the aridity of dried meat; you can stick your hand into the bag and eat it blind. You won’t have to worry about, say, accidentally massaging mortadella fat or Cheetos dust into the leather of your steering wheel afterward.
The leanness of jerky often means its flavor is somewhat neutral on its own. The nuances are more a product of textures that can range from cowhide-leathery, to bouncy, like Taiwanese boba, in the case of turkey jerky at least. The beauty of a jerky also derives from added ingredients like garlic or chiles. That last point is worth meditating upon for a moment. Even if you’re not the type of person to ask for a $65 restaurant steak with a teriyaki sauce, you might consider doing just that here, as an “original” flavored jerky — which might nonetheless contain brown sugar, smoke, or soy — can come across as a touch bland, or even a hint musky in a dank, “let’s air out this beach house at the beginning of a season” type of way.
That said, for a more terroir-y jerky that expresses the flavors of the undried product it was forged from, I tend to look toward non-beef products. Certain fish jerkies retain their oil and oceanic oomph with breathtaking clarity, while mushroom and seaweed jerkies can really convey a punch of distinctive earthiness. Some might disagree with the inclusion of fungi and kelp here. The USDA references poultry, venison, beef, bear, and even whales in its broad discussion of jerky and food safety; it does not mention vegetables, which don’t necessarily spoil as quickly as raw game or chicken flesh. But since we culinarily consider oat milks and rice milks to be high-quality analogs to the milks procured from the mammary glands of cows and goats, it would be remiss to exclude, say, dried shiitakes from jerky consideration, especially in a world where more and more folks are looking to eat fewer animal products.
The two best jerkies:
Urban Cowboy vegan jerky: This Austin-based company puts out some of the country’s finest jerky in any category, and this is my favorite American jerky at the moment. It’s perhaps amusing that this stunner of a meat-free product is from Texas, the state that houses the bulk of the nation’s beef cattle. But the dried mushrooms flaunt the ropy, toothsome mouthfeel of good Cuban vaca frita, and for the sriracha flavor, the ’shrooms pack a balance of heat and acidity while emitting a hint of smoke. The salty black pepper variety, by contrast, lets a faint mushroom flavor come through with more clarity. (For those who like something even chewier, the packaging recommends leaving the jerky out in a dark, dry place to tighten up the texture and create a more leathery mouthfeel.) Silicon Valley fake meat factories will always have a tough time engineering faux hamburgers that taste like real hamburgers, but this particular brand should serve as proof that high-quality mushrooms dried with care can exhibit eons more nuance than most commodity sirloins. Available via Amazon, or Whole Foods locations in the Austin area.
Buc-ee’s mesquite beef jerky: One of America’s best jerkies from the quintessential Texas road-trip destination; Eater Dallas & Houston’s Amy McCarthy calls Buc-ee’s the greatest convenience store of all time. The medium chew gives your jaw a nice workout, while the fat slabs of beef, as thick as silver dollars, exude a musk that recalls fire-torched cumin, cleanly aged beef, and hardwood smoke. I can’t speak to how these animals were raised; I know we should all be eating more vegetables and fewer cows. But after trying so many mediocre jerkies, it was a relief to sample one that actually tasted like the animal that produced it, and that channeled the wonderful fare of a smoky Hill Country barbecue spot almost as much as it did of a proper Southwest steakhouse. This type of beef, enjoyed in moderation, in a car, has a better and brighter future, I reckon, than a place where dinner means stuffing oneself with giant porterhouses for two. Available at Buc-ee’s stores in Texas, or via Amazon.
The middle finishers, most of which are quite good:
Pan’s vegan mushroom jerky: Shiitake mushroom jerky that distinctly tastes and looks like mushrooms. The so-called Thai-flavored fungi have no discernible Southeast Asian flavor profile, which is fine by me because they’re fantastic in their own right. Each bite is packed with sweet, earthy flavor, and a squirt of mushroomy grease. They’re shiitakes pretending to be prunes.
Texas Best Smokehouse bison peppered jerky: Among the chewiest and most leathery of the jerkies. The bison is cut thin, like good Spanish or Italian hams; it gives off a nice, salami-like scent. But the true draw here is the long finish, which is both iron-y and peppery. The spices leave a buzzing sensation on the tongue that’s not too far off from the mala sensation of Sichuan peppercorns. Available at the original Texas Best Smokehouse location in Tyler, Texas, or via mail order.
Old Trapper peppered jerky: This excellent Oregon-based brand packs a medium chew with ample sugars, but the salts keep the sweetness in check. Fat peppercorns stud most pieces, which impart both a gentle sting and a bright, lemony scent. This might be the top mass-market brand available at gas stations and rest stops; consider this particular variety over Jack Link’s.
Good Jerky habanero trout: Powerfully oceanic. The aroma hits you right when opening the bag. The soft flesh pulls apart easily and coats the tongue with luxurious and luscious oils. Note the ultra-low sodium levels; add a bit of soy or salt to help the flavors pop. Without question the most perfumed of all the jerkies I sampled; those who don’t like the scent of clean fish won’t appreciate the intense high-tide aroma. Available via Amazon.
Stryve Biltong: This South African delicacy is distinct from American jerkies in that it’s air-dried instead of slowly dehydrated in an oven. The Stryve brand packs a mouthfeel that’s simultaneously dry, yet soft and chewy. If you like Italian bresaola, you’ll dig this for sure. The neutral meat doesn’t have much flavor of its own; this is about the strong aroma of cloves, followed by an exhilarating chile sting that lasts for minutes. This is also the least sweet of all the jerkies.
Kaimana teriyaki tuna jerky: For those who don’t like oily fish jerky, such as the trout variety listed above. A delicate maritime scent rises up from the bag, while the flesh is soft, with a sweetness that almost borders on cloying before the restrained salts and tuna-like savoriness bring everything back into balance. Available via Amazon.
Perky Jerky’s turkey jerky: The bounciest of all the jerkies. It sports a supple QQ texture just slightly softer than a gum drop. As for the taste, it is sweet — perhaps too sweet for some — with a restrained saltiness and noticeable pepper kick. This is quite good if you can handle the sugars.
Alaska Smokehouse king salmon jerky: For those craving fish jerky with the same chewiness and heft as beef varieties, but who also like the round, woodsy notes of smoked salmon. There’s almost no oil or fish funk here, and it’s aggressively salty. Available via Amazon.
Jack Link’s sweet & hot jerky: A whisper of iron, followed by a moderate level of smoke, then an intense kick of heat. The level of sweetness is not subtle, but neither is the chile-based pain, which lasts for minutes. The level of chew is just a grade or two tougher than tender. For a thicker bite with a touch more heft, try the teriyaki “tender bites.” Both are distinctly average, reasonably tasty, middle-of-the-road jerkies. These are the least worst Jack Link’s options.
Jack Link’s original: Essentially sugar-and-smoke flavored cardboard that melts into mush. Ranks with Chef’s Cut as the worst of the widely available jerkies.
Chef’s Cut Korean barbecue chicken jerky: Chicken breast that’s been treated in such a way that it seems to transform the natural product into a gritty paste on one’s tongue. Korean barbecue, incidentally, usually exalts pork and beef, and doesn’t necessarily have a specific flavor profile at restaurants, so hopefully this mix of generic heat and cloying sugars won’t give anyone the wrong idea about how majestic this style of grilling can be.
Chef’s Cut Asian-style beef teriyaki: You don’t need to try this travesty of dried meat. The beef, cut as thick as tree bark, sometimes sports a nice heft, but it quickly dissipates into what I’ll call wet sludge. It’s the textural equivalent of cotton candy mixed with chicken liver pate.
Slant Shack classic: This grass-fed jerky brand, founded by a Columbia University grad and supposedly perfected by “nine friends in an apartment,” was apparently quite tasty in its early days, a coworker tells me. The brand has since been acquired, however, by the Great American Turkey Co., and a recent sampling produced some of the most horrific dried meat I’ve ever sampled. The beef is sweet and powdery. It’s as if an evil cow drank from the wrong grail cup in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and disintegrated into a dusty skeleton that was reconstituted into a meat block decades later. This is nasty stuff.
Naya-Cheyenne is a Miami-raised, Brooklyn-based multimedia illustrator and designer.