The word "jerky" derives from the Quechua word ch'arki which means "dried, salted meat". All that is needed to produce basic "jerky" is a low-temperature drying method, and salt to inhibit bacterial growth. Jerky is lean trimmed meat that has been cut into strips and dried (dehydrated) to prevent spoilage.
Traditionally, this drying was carried out as a preservation method in many cultures around the world before refrigeration was available. However, modern manufactured jerky is also dried for reasons of flavor and convenience.
Jerky is ready-to-eat and needs no additional preparation. It can be stored for months without refrigeration so long as it is kept away from moisture and oxygen. The word "jerky" has entered the English language as a noun (a piece of jerky), a verb (to tear into jerky), and an adjective (all-natural jerky).
Historically, the word "jerky" was also used about the meat of an animal killed in hunting or battle. This is reflected in the name of a traditional European dish, jugged hare, where the medieval recipe calls for the animal's flesh to be dried and smoked by hanging it in the chimney of a close house ("jug" was derived from "joghurt", meaning "jerked meat").
However, modern commercial jerky production commonly uses much faster drying methods. The common method of drying is to use a commercial dehydrator which works by blowing hot, dry air over the meat for several hours. Dehydrators or "jerky guns" usually have an adjustable thermostat and a motor-driven, fast spinning auger that pushes the warmed meat through the oven into the fire. This process has been made by commercial producers into a largely automated process that produces a finished product with a moisture content of less than 10%.
The resulting jerky from the above methods is very different from traditional versions in its taste and consistency, but still has the basic ingredients of meat and salt. The underlying concept of jerky being dried meat is so closely associated with the word that it is used in English-speaking countries to refer to non-meat products such as dried breakfast cereal and dried fruit, for example.
Most modern jerky is based on a meat cure of salt and other seasonings that allow the meat to be preserved, but may also include additional ingredients such as fruit or sugar if flavors such as sweet, sour, or spicy are preferred by the consumer. Like other cured meats, jerky can be considered a shelf-stable food if it is stored below 40°F (5°C).