The hunt is over. No more chomping on stiff, bland, oversalted strips of leather masquerading as jerky. We gathered nearly 20 leading brands of 100 percent pure beef jerky and asked 14 discriminating testers to chew on them, all to bring you this: the top quartet of high-protein (about 13 grams per ounce), low-fat, guaranteed-to-satisfy meat snacks.
Mingua Brothers Beef Jerky (Mild)
Here's how to enjoy this all-natural jerky: tear off a bite, tuck it into your cheek, and savor a leisurely, super-juicy chew. "It's like eating a campfire steak," enthused one tester. Hand-cut and trimmed, the robust strips boast a surprisingly pleasant chocolate undertone, which prompted one tester to ask, "Can I have seconds?"
Weight: 4 oz.
Contact: (859) 987-9719; www.minguabeefjerky.com
Fesperman's Beef Jerky
This snack is a revelation: thick, small squares of intense beef flavor with the power to convert nonbelievers into jerky disciples. Marinated in the Fesperman family's secret spices for 12 hours, the beef is then hand-trimmed and sliced across the grain. The result: A long, slow chew that releases waves of deep, juicy flavor. Testers favored Original but would also pack Peppered and Hot.
Weight: 4 oz.
Contact: (918) 733-2076; www.fespermnsbeefjerky.com
Buffalo Bills Western Cut Teriyaki Beef Jerky
This ultra-chewy jerky is easily confused with fine prosciutto. "Just add cheese, olives, and bread," declared one tester. Made from high-quality top round, the bite-sized pieces are firm yet moist, ultra-thin yet not stringy. A pronounced teriyaki flavor balances saltiness with a satisfyingly sweet finish--a perfect appetizer to any camp meal.
Weight: 1.75 oz.
Contact: (800) 992-3933; www.bbjerky.com
Omaha Steaks Beef Jerky
Pack extra, because the salty tang of this stuff is addicting. "I could eat the whole bag," proclaimed one happy tester. Cut from the eye of round steak, the tender, peppery red squares resemble sliced corned beef and burst with a pure beef flavor that's consistent throughout. No wonder it's the jerky of choice of the U.S. Secret Service.
Weight: 8 oz.
Contact: (800) 960-8400; www.omahasteaks.com
The above brands (except Buffalo Bills) can also be ordered from The Beef Jerky Emporium (888-751-6275; www.tbje.com).
The Other Jerky
The fish fans on staff swear by salmon jerky. The top brand we tested was from Just Smoked Salmon; the company's fragrant, alder-smoked delicacy has no "fishy" aftertaste--just a rich, moist flavor. Try traditional, teriyaki, or our favorite, candy jerky-salmon infused with white and brown sugars, plus a touch of molasses and honey. $9.98 for two 4 oz. packages. (866) 716-2710; www.justsmokedsalmon.com