Tuesday, April 13, 2010

How to Make Jerky

A few years ago, I got hooked on beef jerky. Not that I hadn't always liked it, mind you, but I just went through a phase where I could barely go a day without eating some, and it was costing me a small fortune. A coworker, who is heavily into hiking, told me that making it is a snap and I really should give it a shot. I was concerned about getting the thinly sliced meat required to make traditional jerky, as I didn't have a meat slicer at the time, and was a little hesitant to ask the butcher to shave it for me. In retrospect, that's the kind of stuff that butchers do all the time, but no matter.

Her method was to use ground meat for her jerky. I was VERY skeptical to say the least...ground jerky? It just seemed so wrong. How would it get the wonderful chewy texture I so craved? Wouldn't the consistency be all wrong? She just shrugged and said that everyone in her family prefers the ground jerky to traditional slices, but that I could do as I wished. I decided to give it a whirl - what did I have to lose? Ground beef is certainly cheaper than a roast. So I made it and it was brilliant and I have continued to make my jerky from ground meat to this day and never looked back. Not that the sliced stuff isn't grand, but it's a bit of a hassle, and when using ground meat is so easy, why wouldn't you want to try it? I've recently started making my jerky from ground deer meat, and have had many offers from people who say they will pay me good money to keep them in a steady supply of the stuff. My husband takes some with him wherever he goes (work, trips, etc) and shares it with people, and they always say that it's some of the best jerky they've ever had. I'll stop patting my own back...I'm just trying to get the point across that ground meat jerky is really, really good.

So how do you do it? Well, first you'll need some supplies. A dehydrator is super handy for this task. I currently have a pretty fancy model which has an adjustable thermostat. I can set it to 155 degrees, rotate the trays of jerky a couple of times, and really have very little to do with it. I even have a christmas light timer hooked up to it so I can put the jerky in before bedtime and just leave the timer set so that it doesn't get too dry (yes Virginia, you CAN over dry jerky- it turns out like a sort of cracker. Peculiar? yes- very. I don't recommend it. That was the fate of my first batch of jerky before I had the timer) I have used a dehydrator in the past that did not have an adjustable thermostat and it worked just fine, I would just recommend that you make the jerky during the day if you're using one of these, so you can keep an eye on it. If no dehydrator is available, then get yourself a broiler pan, or some baking racks, and set your oven to warm or 170 degrees (as close as you can get to 155 as possible). All methods work just dandy. Also, you'll need a means of forming the jerky. Personally, I hold no truck with the extruders. I've never tried one, but they look like a big messy hassle. The friend who turned me onto this method uses a sort of press, but when I couldn't find a press (I was trying to make jerky in the "off season" and they just weren't to be had), I decided to try my current favorite method- which is to press the seasoned meat into a 9x13 pan lined with foil, freeze, then run it through the meat slicer. Don't worry if you don't have a meat slicer- you can just cut it up with a knife. Aside from that, you'll just need some meat, some jerky cure or the goodies for the recipe of your choice.

First, put your meat in a large bowl. I use 2 lbs of ground deer- but any ground meat will do- beef, turkey, lamb, or any of various combinations of ground meats will yield lovely results. If using deer keep in mind that it tends to be exceptionally juicy, and may need to be drained first. If you want a larger batch, or smaller it will still work just fine, but I have found that using 2 lbs yields a large enough batch that it will satisfy all of the jerky lovers I know, and not so big that any goes to waste. Smaller batches seem to disappear too fast around here. If you are trying out a new recipe, or doing this for the first time, a smaller batch would probably be the way to go, as it's better for experimentation. When developing my current recipe I made a batch from 1 lb meat first, then tweaked it so that it would taste the way I wanted and started making the 2 lb batches.

Next, you'll need to assemble your curing and flavoring ingredients. The photo here is of the ingredients that I use in my "signature" recipe, but I'm not including the recipe as it has a LOT of ingredients and it seems to be very intimidating- when I give the recipe to seasoned (HA) jerky makers, their eyes get sort of wide with panic. I don't want to turn anyone off of making their own jerky. I'll happily share if requested to do so, and if you look on the internet or in a outdoorsy/wild game/hikers/campers cookbook there are oodles of recipes for jerky. You can find one that suits any taste- from sweet to spicy to savory, teriyaki, cajun, bbq- you name it. There are just as many premade jerky seasonings. I've never used a commercially prepared cure and would really recommend you make your own to suit your tastes, but my brother-in-law swears by them. The basic theory in making jerky cure/seasoning is to include sufficient salt to hinder spoilage but not make it taste too salty, and include the spices you enjoy. I like my jerky to be a combination of sweet and savory, with a little kick of heat at the end. This seems to be a pretty popular flavor combination.

Measure out your flavoring and cure into the meat. If you're making your own recipe, you'll probably just be using primarily salt to cure the meat. If you're using a commercially prepared seasoning, you will likely also be using a commercially prepared jerky cure. This is usually comprised of several different mineral salts (table salt is sodium chloride- these usually contain some potassium chloride or others), and perhaps another variety of preservative. If you desire, or if you are at all nervous about the ability of table salt to cure meat, you can use the commercial jerky cure in your recipe and just omit the salt. When you've measured the cure and seasonings and added them to the meat, mix it all together very thoroughly.

The meat will be much darker once seasoned than it was before. I'm not real sure why- perhaps the salt oxidizes it, perhaps it's because I use a lot of dark sauces (like soy and worchestershire) in my recipe, perhaps both. The point is, don't be alarmed when this happens.

If you're able to find a jerky press, then I should note here that they are MUCH easier to use if you cut a strip of heavy duty plastic to line the bottom, and then wrap over the top of the meat so that the meat doesn't stick to the press. This will save you a lot of frustration. Once you press the meat, then you can remove it from the press with the plastic, peel back the top layer, upend onto the drying rack, then peel off the backing. Easy peasy. If you are going to opt for the extrusion method, I have nothing to offer as I've never used one.

If you're wanting to use my method, which is the easiest method I've yet to encounter, then you've got a couple of extra steps. It is well worth the extra time and a couple more items in the dishwasher. First, line a 9x12 pan with foil. you don't need to be fussy, just get the bottom and the long sides lined. If you use wide enough foil that it will line the short sides too, then more power to you. This will prevent the meat from sticking when it's frozen.

Next, press the meat into the pan. 2 lbs will press to about 1 inch thickness in a 9x13 pan. If you're making a smaller batch, just press the meat evenly into about 1/2 of the pan. 1 inch thickness is perfect, as the final product will be 1 inch wide. Once it's pressed into the pan, pop it in the freezer for a few hours, or until its just set enough to be easily sliced.

When the meat comes out of the freezer, you'll have a sort of loaf. I prefer to cut the loaf in half lengthwise, which gives me two loaves measuring 9x 6 1/2". This gives me jerky pieces that measure 1x6 1/2 inches, which I think is ideal. It fits easily in standard sandwich bags. You can also slice it to be 13" long, 9" long or any length that divides into those. Now, 2 years ago at Thanksgiving, DH decided he just HAD to have a meat slicer. Nevermind the fact that his friend's meat slicer had been residing in our cabinet for several years- he had to have his own. Not seeing much use for it (we had only used his friend's slicer once), but being generally the indulgent type, I went and got him one. What the heck, it was on sale and was a pretty nice slicer. Well, now that purchase is really paying off for me, because it makes short work of slicing even pieces off of the frozen meat. It's brilliant. If you're going to be making a lot of jerky, I highly recommend you get one. However, it's not at all necessary. You can simply use a sharp knife to slice the meat. Try to get the slices to be about 1/8 inch thick- when dry the jerky will be about 1/16" thick.

Arrange the slices of jerky on your drying rack. This may be the trays of a dehydrator, or if you plan to use the oven, you can lay them out on a broiler pan, a wire baking rack (grid style is best), a foil lined baking sheet (last resort- ideally you'll put it on something that allows for air circulation around the jerky) or whatever you have that you think will work. You don't need to worry about any dripping, as the meat usually doesn't have a high enough fat content to cause that. Of course, you should arrange the meat slices in a single layer, and try to make sure they don't touch each other.

Every few hours you'll need to gently blot the jerky with a paper towel to remove excess grease that forms on the outside as it dries. If you do not do this, the jerky will be prone to faster spoiling, and really- who wants to eat extra fat that you can easily get rid of? Depending on how large of a batch you're making, how thick your slices are, what temperature you're drying it at, the atmospheric humidity, and how densely you've crowded them onto the racks, your drying time will vary. You should expect that it will take at least 8 hours. The 2lb batches I make will all fit into the 4 trays of my dehydrator, but they're pretty densely packed. I rotate the trays every few hours to make sure the strips all dry evenly, and it usually takes more like 12 hours to finish. You can tell when the jerky is done as it will be hard to tear yet still semi-flexible, and it will have shrunk by about 50% in width, and maybe about 30-40% in length. Leaving some moisture content is essential for flavor and a nice texture. It will be a very dark brown, almost black.

The finished jerky should be stored in an airtight bag or container. I keep it on the shelf at room temperature, and so far, my jerky only lasts about a month, and I've had no trouble at all with spoilage. I'd guess it would stay good for 3 months or longer at room temperature- if it lasts that long! If you're worried about it spoiling you can keep it in the fridge or in the freezer for longer life.

Ok, I'll admit it SOUNDS like a long and complicated process. But it's really not. I was just trying to be very thorough and complete with the instructions. It's well worth the slight effort and time you'll out into this project, and you'll save a lot of money over commercially produced jerky. I hope you'll try this, and enjoy the results!


  1. Dan is going to love this one!! There may be a meat slicer in our near future....

  2. I poo-poo'd DH when he wanted the slicer, but we really use it a lot! Also comes in handy for holiday parties to slice cheese and meat for crackers!

  3. Jerky recipes are always in great demand. From years jerky is considered a healthy diet and preferred by most of the people.

    Beef jerky