We’re not saying we have a beef with regular old jerky. We’re just saying our relationship has gotten a little, well, dry. Plus, nitrates, which are added to many meat jerkies, are getting a worse and worse rap due to correlations with colorectal cancer and now manic episodes for people with bipolar disorder.
Sure, you can buy nitrate-free jerky, but you could also try something completely new: alt jerky.
As the ever-shifting diet pendulum has swung from paleo to vegan, the jerky market has followed. (Check out this fun Google Trends graph mapping the two eating styles over the past five years.) Of course, you can still find “primal style” dried-meat strips and bars, but jerkies made from mushrooms, bugs, seaweed, and even coconut are also in the mix.
Are these even really jerky? We say yes.
The term jerky comes from the Quechua word ch’arki, which originally referred to dried meat—most likely alpaca. The livestock industry may take issue with us expanding the definition to include other dehydrated options the way it reacted to nut milks branding themselves as milk. But these products are shelf-stable, savory, nutritious, and give us something to chew methodically as we march down the trail. That ticks all the jerky boxes in our field guide.
We tried the new options and picked the best for every jerky enthusiast, from the veggie curious to the hardcore vegan. Here are our favorites.
Best For: Pescatarians
Fishpeople Lemon Zest and Herb Salmon Jerky
It’s impossible to make a fish jerky that isn’t, well, fishy. So we’re going to suggest you have something potent—gum, toothpaste, a few wild mint leaves—to wipe the fish flavor from your mouth after the fact. That being said, Fishpeople’s lemon zest and herb flavor tastes less like French kissing a merman than other iterations we’ve tried. It has a nice toothsome texture but is more tender than a traditional slab of dried beef flesh. Like all Fishpeople products, you can trace exactly where your wild-caught salmon came from by typing in a code on your package, a nice feature that keeps sustainable seafood companies honest. $8 per bag, available here.
Best For: Keto Hikers
Cocoburg Coconut Jerky
When you take your first bite, you will decry this being included in a jerky roundup: the texture is too firm—it’s almost more like a firm cracker than a slice of dried meat. But stay with it. As you chew, the coconut flesh goes from hard to pliable. We promise you’ll see why this totally counts as jerky. Even though I think of coconut as leaning toward the sweet side of things, the three flavors offered by Cocoburg live in the savory realm. This was the only product I tried where I liked the original flavor the best, though the ginger-teriyaki and chili-lime ones are pretty darn good, too. I had to put the bag in another room to stop myself from devouring all of it while I typed this up. $17 for a three-pack sampler, available here.
Best For: Sustainable Eaters
Akua Kelp Jerky
In case you haven’t yet heard, kelp is the new kale: it’s high in vitamins and minerals and has a negligible ecological footprint, requiring no feed, fertilizer, or fresh water. However, the downside is that kelp tastes remarkably like licking a barnacle. Fortunately, Akua has solved this problem by flavoring its kelp strips with seasonings that have enough backbone to stand up to that saltwater flavor. The maple and BBQ offering was my favorite, and while it doesn’t completely mask the vegetal taste, it definitely helps. $20 for a three-bag sampler, available here.
Best For: Plant-Based Eaters
It’s Jerky Y’all Prickly Pear Chipotle
Made from non-GMO soy, this had the best texture of the three soy jerkies I tried. Each serving has seven grams of plant-based protein, and a portion of every sale supports Rowdy Girl Sanctuary, a refuge for cattle run by vegans in Texas. All three flavors—black pepper and sea salt, prickly pear–teriyaki, and prickly pear–chipotle—are good, but my favorite was the sweet and smoky combo of prickly pear and chipotle. $21 for a three-pack sampler, available here.
Best For: The Jerky Adventurer
EntoLife Chirpy Jerky Original Roasted Cricket Jerky
To be fair, even though this is billed as a jerky, it’s more of a crispy protein bark than anything else. Still, I’m including it because it’s delicious and, with crickets in it, unique. A pemmican-style jerky, the recipe follows the Native American tradition of mixing protein and dried fruit together to make one nutrient-packed power food. It’s nutty and sweet, and if no one ever told you otherwise, you’d never guess there were bugs in it. $6, available here.
Best For: The Apprehensive Yet Veggie Curious
Shrooms Splits Filet Mignon and Portabella Mushroom Jerky
Maybe you’re not ready to dive fist first into a bag full of mushroom jerky. That’s fine. (But if you are, Shrooms makes that, too.) This will meet you where you’re at. A mix of soft beef slivers and dried mushrooms, it delivers tons of umami flavor. If you grab a handful at a time without looking closely, it can be hard to tell what’s meat and what’s ’shroom. Pretty soon you may find yourself graduating to nothing but a bag of fungi—like the company’s teriyaki-mushroom-jerky offering. $7, available on Amazon.