Jerky 101

What is Jerky?

Jerky is a type of meat that has been trimmed of fat, cut into strips, and then dried to prevent spoilage. The result is a lightweight, dry, and often savory snack that is rich in protein. Because most of the moisture is removed, it is shelf stable and can be stored without refrigeration making it a handy food for backpackers and others who don’t have access to refrigerators.

What Types of Meat Can Be Used to Make Jerky?

  • Beef: Popular and traditional, ideal for jerky due to its rich flavor. opt for lean cuts like sirloin or top round.
  • Venison: Offers a unique, gamey flavor; naturally lean and a great choice for a different jerky taste.
  • Turkey: A healthier, lean option. Turkey breast works well for a lighter jerky with the ability to absorb various flavors.
  • Chicken: Similar to turkey, chicken breast is lean and flavorsome, suitable for a healthier jerky option.
  • Bison: Leaner than beef with a slightly sweeter taste, providing a unique twist on traditional jerky.
  • Salmon: Rich in omega-3s, offering a distinct fish option with a different texture and flavor.
  • Pork: Less common, but lean cuts like pork loin or tenderloin can make delicious jerky.

 How Should the Meat Be Prepared Before Dehydrating?

Whole Meat Jerky: To make it easier to slice, freeze the meat in moisture-proof paper or plastic till it’s firm but not solid. Use a sharp knife. While the meat is still firm, slice it into long, thin strips about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick, 1 to 1.5 inches wide, and 4 to 10 inches long. For chewy jerky, slice along the grain. For tender, slice across the grain.

Ground Meat Jerky: Ground meat jerky is typically made by mixing the meat with salt and other spices and flavorings. The salt helps to bind the strips together. A jerky gun helps shape the jerky into thin strips. You can also press the meat into a metal or glass loaf pan and cut it into thin strips about ¼ inch thick.

What Are the Best Methods for Dehydrating Meat into Jerky?

Dehydrating meat into jerky can be done using several methods, each with its advantages. The best method often depends on the equipment you have available and your personal preferences. Here are some of the most popular methods:

Food Dehydrator: A food dehydrator is one of the most efficient and consistent ways to make jerky. Dehydrators provide controlled, even heat and airflow, which is ideal for evenly drying meat. You can set specific temperatures and times, which reduces the risk of under or over-drying.

Oven Drying: If you don’t have a dehydrator, an oven can be a good alternative. Set the oven to the lowest temperature (usually between 150°F to 170°F or 65°C to 75°C), and place the meat on a wire rack over a baking sheet to allow air circulation. Keep the oven door slightly open to let moisture escape. This method can take several hours.

Smoking: Smoking jerky adds a distinctive flavor. You can use a smoker set at a low temperature, around 150°F to 160°F (65°C to 70°C). The process can take several hours, depending on the thickness of the meat and the desired level of dryness. This method imparts a smoky flavor to the jerky.

Air Drying: This is a traditional method where meat is dried in the open air, often in a sunny, well-ventilated area. It’s the most time-consuming and is highly dependent on your climate and weather conditions. This method is less common today due to concerns over food safety and inconsistent drying.

Sun Drying: Similar to air drying, sun drying uses the heat of the sun to dehydrate the meat. This method is also dependent on climate and can be risky in terms of food safety.

Regardless of the method chosen, it’s crucial to ensure the meat reaches a safe internal temperature to kill any harmful bacteria. This typically means heating the meat to an internal temperature of 160°F (71°C) for beef or 165°F (74°C) for poultry.

How Thin Should the Meat Slices Be for Optimal Jerky?

When it comes to slicing the meat, you can either slice the strips with the grain or against the grain. The choice is completely a personal preference. If you like a tender bite you will want to slice against the grain, and if you prefer a chewier bite you will want to slice with the grain.

The thickness of the slice shouldn’t be too big. I like a 1/4-inch (6mm) slice but you can go a little bigger or smaller if you prefer. Just make sure your slices are around the same size so that they can dry evenly.

What Are Common Seasonings and Marinades Used in Jerky Recipes?

Jerky recipes often feature a variety of seasonings and marinades to enhance flavor. Common ingredients include:

  • Salt: Essential for flavor and preservation.
  • Soy Sauce or Worcestershire Sauce: Adds umami and depth.
  • Black Pepper: Provides a spicy kick.
  • Garlic Powder: Offers a robust flavor.
  • Onion Powder: Adds a subtle sweetness and aroma.
  • Brown Sugar or Honey: For a touch of sweetness.
  • Liquid Smoke: Imparts a smoky flavor, especially when not using a smoker.
  • Red Pepper Flakes or Cayenne Pepper: For spicy variants.
  • Paprika: Adds color and mild spice.
  • Teriyaki Sauce: For a sweet and tangy Asian-inspired flavor.
  • Vinegar or Lemon Juice: Adds acidity and tenderizes the meat.
  • Various Herbs: Like thyme, rosemary, or oregano for distinct flavors.

Is It Necessary to Cure Meat for Jerky, and If so, why?

Curing meat for jerky is not strictly necessary, but it is highly recommended for both safety and flavor reasons. Here’s why curing is an important step in the jerky-making process:

Food Safety: The primary reason to cure meat when making jerky is to inhibit the growth of bacteria, including pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. Curing salts, which typically contain sodium nitrite, act as a preservative to prevent bacterial growth during the drying process, which is especially important since jerky is often stored at room temperature.

Longevity: Cured jerky has a longer shelf life. The preservatives in the curing mix help prevent spoilage, making the jerky safe to eat for a longer period.

Flavor: Curing can enhance the flavor of the jerky. The salts and seasonings used in the curing process contribute to the distinctive savory taste that many people associate with jerky.

Texture: The curing process can also impact the texture of the jerky, helping to maintain a desirable level of moisture and tenderness in the finished product.

If you choose not to use curing salts, it’s crucial to handle and store the jerky properly to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. This includes dehydrating the meat at a high enough temperature to kill bacteria, storing the jerky in a refrigerator or freezer, and consuming it in a shorter timeframe.

For those who prefer to avoid chemical preservatives, there are natural alternatives like celery powder, which contains naturally occurring nitrates and can be used as a curing agent. However, it’s important to note that the effectiveness of natural alternatives can vary, and they might not provide the same level of protection as traditional curing salts.

How Can I Tell When Jerky Is Properly Dehydrated and Safe to Eat?

Checking for Doneness: The description of jerky being dry and pliable, bending like a green branch without snapping, is a perfect way to determine if it’s done. Jerky should not be brittle; rather, it should have some flexibility indicating that it’s dried sufficiently but still retains a bit of moisture for texture and taste.

Monitoring: The suggestion to monitor the jerky every 30 minutes if it’s not yet done is important. This helps avoid over-drying, which can ruin the texture and taste of the jerky.

Pasteurization Process: The step of pasteurizing the jerky in an oven preheated to 275°F (135°C) for 10 minutes is crucial for food safety. Even if the drying process kills most bacteria, this additional step helps ensure that any remaining pathogens are eliminated. This is especially important if you didn’t use curing salts during the preparation.

 What Are the Safe Storage Practices for Homemade Jerky?

Proper packaging and storage are crucial. Once you have determined the jerky is properly dried, package it immediately for storage. It protects your food from oxygen, moisture, light, microorganisms, and pests.

An ideal container for dried food is clean, dry, non-toxic, lightweight, moisture resistant, airtight, protective against light, easily opened and closed, durable, and Low-cost. Use glass, plastic (non-BPA), metal (never galvanized steel), food-grade plastic, or re-closable mylar bags.

Jerky should be packaged with the least amount of trapped air possible. Too much air causes “off” flavors and rancidity. Vacuum packaging is a good option for long-term storage.

For effective jerky storage, keep it in single-use quantities to avoid moisture and mold exposure. Store in a cool, dark, and dry place; refrigeration or freezing extends its shelf life. Regularly check for mold, especially if stored at room temperature or in the fridge, and discard any jerky with mold growth.

What Are Some Common Mistakes to Avoid When Making Jerky?

Here are some important ones to avoid:

Using the Wrong Cut of Meat: Choosing a cut of meat with too much fat can lead to rancid jerky, as fat does not dehydrate well. Lean cuts are best for making jerky.

Inconsistent Thickness: Not slicing the meat to a uniform thickness can result in uneven drying. Some pieces may become too dry, while others may not dry sufficiently, leading to potential spoilage.

Over or Under Marinating: Over-marinating can make the meat too salty or overpower the natural flavors while under-marinating can result in bland jerky. Typically, marinating for 12-24 hours is sufficient.

Incorrect Drying Temperature: Dehydrating jerky at too low a temperature can allow bacteria to grow, while too high a temperature can cook the meat rather than dehydrate it, resulting in a hard and brittle texture.

Rushing the Drying Process: Trying to speed up the drying process can result in unevenly dried jerky. It’s important to allow enough time for the jerky to dry properly.

Not Testing for Doneness Properly: Jerky is done when it bends and cracks but does not break. Testing it properly ensures that it is neither under nor over-dried.

Neglecting Food Safety Practices: Skipping steps like using curing salts (especially if not heating the meat to a safe temperature initially) or pasteurizing the jerky after drying can pose health risks.

Improper Storage: Not storing jerky in airtight containers or at the right temperature can lead to spoilage or bacterial growth.

Not Cooling Jerky Before Storing: Placing warm jerky in storage containers can cause condensation, leading to mold growth. Always cool jerky to room temperature before storing.

Ignoring Personal Taste Preferences: Not adjusting recipes to personal taste (like sweetness, spiciness, or smokiness) can result in jerky that’s not enjoyable for you or your family.

Using Poor Quality Meat: The quality of the meat is crucial in jerky making. Poor quality or old meat can negatively affect both taste and safety.