At first glance, you might mistake an order of Sam Barbieri and Ralph Yedinak’s beef jerky for a bag of magic mushrooms, especially if you come across one after a few pints at Waterfront Ale House in Cobble Hill where the stuff is made. A closer look into the clear sandwich baggie, however, reveals its dried contents are not psychedelics, but tantalizing strips of beef, the consumption of which provides its own magical experience.
Waterfront Ale House has been around for more than two decades, since long before craft beer bars became trendy. And it’s served jerky for years, providing drinkers an almost transcendental jerky experience: chewy but tender enough to bite through without great effort, the beef yields requisite smokey umami laced with a spicy barbecue taste characterizes much of Waterfront’s barbecue-themed menu.
Before it becomes jerky, the beef is frozen for workability, trimmed of excess fat, and then sliced into thin strips. But because Waterfront uses a quality piece of Angus beef, some inseparable marbleized fat and muscle is left to dry with the batch, creating delightful pieces: The cured beef fat holds a lot of flavor, and these bits are nearly impossible to break through, so eating them is almost like chewing gum.
Barbieri says he and chef and co-owner Yedinak try to maintain the right balance between fat to beef, but it’s tricky because the jerky recipe, which they’ve honed over the years, doesn’t call for any preservatives; fat tends to lock in moisture, so it’s crucial there isn’t too much of it–because it will be the first thing that starts to mold. That temporal essence, though, is exactly what sets it apart from the sort of jerky you’d pick up at a gas station, which is engineered to last for ages.
A key ingredient in the jerky recipe is something the Waterfront partners call “gunpowder”–a pleasingly painful blend of habañero and scotch bonnet peppers dried and crushed in-house. (The gunpowder is also a constituent in the house brand hot sauce present at all the tables.) It goes into a marinade that combines barbecue, soy, and Worcestershire sauces; a sugar-laced rib rub; curing salt; a bit of water; and some house dry rub. The beef slices are soaked for about 14 hours and then placed on the racks of the kitchen’s Southern Pride meat smoker. A log of hickory goes in the smoker’s wood chamber, infusing the meat with flavor as it rotates on racks inside the smoker like cars on a Ferris wheel. After an hour, the smoker’s convection oven is shut off, and the 10-hour curing process begins; the well-insulated smoker retains the initial heat, evaporating about 80 percent of the moisture.
“It’s really not being cooked, it’s being dried,” says Barbieri. The final product, replete with marbled fat, leaves an oily sheen behind on the fingers. The partners say they’ve had complaints that it’s too soft, and its tenderness keeps it from truly being jerky. “I don’t disagree,” Yedinak says, “but this is our vision.”
Barbieri stands in resolution with his partner, confident in the quality of the product. “The Old West was settled with a Winchester and beef jerky,” he says, smiling wryly.
Barbieri (left) and Yedinak get the materials ready in the kitchen of Waterfront Ale House in Cobble Hill. The Southern Pride meat smoker in the background is where the magic happens.
The small cup contains a curing salt dyed pink to distinguish it from regular salt. Other marinade ingredients are water, barbecue sauce, soy sauce, rib rub, Worcestershire sauce, meat rub, and something special called “gunpowder.”
Waterfront uses Angus beef for the jerky. Most of the fat is trimmed away, but the bits that remain are part of what makes the final product so delicious.
The beef is frozen for workability before being sliced into thin strips.
Barbieri mixes the meat into the marinade. He says he decided to try perfecting beef jerky after trying a recipe and finding the results were not to his liking.
The beef sits in the marinade overnight, allowing it to incorporate the spicy, salty, sweet, and savory flavors.
The next day, the beef slices are laid out on racks and placed in the smoker. Just a bit of hickory wood is burned, and the heat is on for only an hour. The meat stays in the smoker for 10 hours, a process that dries out about 80 percent of the moisture and imparts flavor.
The whole process takes a number of steps over the course of three days, but the end result is worth the wait.
At $5 a bag, the Waterfront Ale House jerky bests anything sold at a gas station.