Homemade Jerky Done Right

With this guide, unlock the secrets of homemade jerky and buying prepackaged will be a thing of the past.

DIY Jerky

Making homemade jerky is great for meats that are more difficult to cook traditionally.

Photo courtesy Countryman Press

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Jerky Everything (Countryman Press, 2015) by Pamela Braun is an easy to understand book filled with thorough instructions on how to make your own homemade jerky. Recipes range from beef to poultry, fish to fruit and even several vegetables. Wild game is no exception. With an exhaustive list of instructions on how to properly prepare meats as well as a myriad of recipes to try; Braun details how anyone can make the perfect jerky in the comfort of their own kitchen.

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DIY Jerky

Old jerky is bad, just bad. I’m talking about old school jerky, the kind that our forefathers (let’s face it, the men may have started it ... but it was the women who actually ended up making it) gnawed on. It was created as something to help with survival as people made their way out west or went about their workday out in the fields and riding the range, so flavor wasn’t really much of a must-have when the process of jerky making was undertaken.

Fast-forward to a time when dried meat wasn’t a necessity to keep us alive, but more something to chew on to keep the hunger pangs at bay and to keep us from losing our mind to boredom while cruising across the country via a four-wheeled horse. Again, flavor was not of utmost importance, but the meat was expected to be at least a step above the flavor of the rubber wheels taking us to our destination.

The Egyptians took the time and effort to chisel the virtues of dried meat into stone walls, between the portraits of their beloved cats and ankhs. Seafarers pickled strips of meat, packed them in barrels, and nibbled on the strips as they crossed the vast oceans (and now you know why they were so aggressive ... all that meat consumption can bind a pirate up). African folklore has herders placing strips of meat under their horses’ saddles to help tenderize the meat, It is said that the sweat of the horse gave the meat the flavor it needed. (If it was so good, I’m wondering where that sweat spice blend is in today’s supermarket.)

From seafarers to cowboys, jerky has been a source of sustenance for centuries — a simple food source created out of the necessity for explorers to eat and a way to safely preserve food in the days prior to refrigeration.

While the consumption of jerky is the same no matter where or how it is made (open mouth, insert jerky, and chew), it’s the making of jerky that has varied by who was making it and where it was being made.

When the Europeans arrived in the New World, they discovered Native Americans making pemmican, which consisted of ground meat mixed with fat and dried berries (usually blueberries and/or cranberries).

The Dutch had their own version of jerky, which they called tassal. Not much has been written about tassal, and its recipes, beyond the fact that it was some pretty pungent stuff and was the basis for the South African jerky known as biltong. Biltong is a Dutch word that literally means “strip of ass,” and it closely resembles the North American jerky (slab or strip form). The biltong strips are thicker than what we’re used to in the United States and there is an additional curing agent, also not found in North American jerky recipes: vinegar. For the record, biltong is made from the same lean cuts of meat that we use to make jerky ... not pieces of ass.

Wondering how the word jerky came about? Ch’arki, an Incan word meaning “dried meat,” is where the term comes from.

Today’s jerky is being enjoyed by far more people than rugged explorers, cowboys, and truck drivers. Busy executives, health nuts (especially those following the Paleo way of eating), bar patrons, and arbiters of good taste are all enjoying the flavors of jerky. Today’s jerky goes well beyond sticks of beef or venison, too. If you can dry it, it seems you can jerky it: poultry, pork, bison, lamb, ostrich, alligator, salmon, tuna, tofu (yes, really), and vegetables are all available for your noshing pleasure. Combine these with the
flavorings of the world (through the various spices now available in virtually every supermarket) and you’ve got the makings of the newest gourmet treat.

Oh, and if you think jerky only comes in ground, strip or slab form, guess again. There is also a little thing called meat floss, a.k.a. jerky chew. While this isn’t anything your dentist is going to recommend as a tool for cleaning your teeth, you’ll probably find that some has worked its way between your teeth anyway. Meat floss is pretty much what it sounds like — dried and shredded meat. I wouldn’t say that it looks or eats like meat cotton candy, more like meat chewing tobacco ... minus the tobacco.

If you’re asking yourself why you should make your own jerky, when there are so many good jerkies out there, then you’ve never had homemade jerky.

Sure, buying jerky is a bit easier (only a bit), but do you know what’s in it? Do you like the limited ... cough ... teriyaki ... flavors that are available? Is it too salty? Too expensive? Making your own jerky remedies all of these problems.

Can you pronounce all of the ingredients in that package of jerky you bought at the store? If you can, great. Do you know what those ingredients are? Most of the really weird-sounding/looking words are preservatives that give the jerky its shelf life. While making your own jerky won’t allow it to have a six- to twelve-month shelf life, you will actually know each and every ingredient that goes into it. And how about the meat itself? My guess is that your package of jerky, the one that you bought at the store, just lists “beef” for the meat ingredient (presuming it’s beef jerky you bought). What cut of “beef” did they use to make it? When you make it yourself, you can choose your own cut of meat from whatever source you like to buy your meat from. I guess what I’m getting at here is better ingredients, better-tasting product, better for you.

One of the best things about making jerky at home is that you can use the flavors that you like. Like curry? Make a curry jerky. Like Cheddar cheese and beer? Make Cheddar ale jerky. The flavor combinations are virtually endless.

How about the salt content? While no one on a salt restricted diet should be eating jerky (salt is one of the main preservatives of the meat), you can greatly reduce the amount of salt when you make your own jerky. You can do this because you are controlling the ingredients, but you’re also making more manageable quantities so you don’t need the jerky to have such a long shelf life. And if you do need it to hang around a while longer, you can keep it in the refrigerator or pop it into the freezer for even longer storage.

Let’s take a look at that cost issue. Store-bought jerky is expensive. A bag of regular ol’ jerky (not the gourmet stuff) that you can buy at the drugstore costs almost $2 per ounce. That’s $32 per pound ... even filet mignon isn’t $32 per pound at the grocery store. Making your own jerky out of even the most prime cuts of meat is going to save you a lot of money.

So, as you can see, there are lots of benefits of making your own jerky.

The Subject Being Jerkied

Select Your Subject

You can turn many things into jerky: beef, turkey, pork, emu, alligator, bison, buffalo, wild boar, yak, kudu, tofu, mushrooms, fruit, and the list goes on and on. You can pretty much turn any meat, and some non-meats, into a delicious piece of jerky.

Regardless of what meats you intend to turn into jerky, make sure that you select the leanest cuts you can find. That means cuts of meat that you usually don’t want to buy because they often come out dry and tasteless when you cook them under normal circumstances. Those are the best cuts for making jerky. I find anything ending in loin, round, or broil is going to give the best results. For poultry, it’s going to be the breast meat; and for fish, it will be fillet or steak. You’re going to flavor these cuts with delicious marinade, and being lean, they’re going to dry really well and have a longer storage life because there isn’t any fat on them to go rancid.

Don’t be afraid to ask your butcher, or the men/women behind the meat counter, to slice your beef or pork for you. If they’re not busy, a lot of times they will. There’s not an extra charge for this and it will save you a whole lot of time if you can get your meat pre-sliced. I do it all the time.

Because jerky is dried, and most of the moisture has been removed, the flavors of the meat or vegetable and the marinade are highly concentrated. That means that you should use the best ingredients you can afford. If you use low-quality ingredients, your jerky won’t taste as good as it can. I’m not saying that you need to buy prime beef to make your jerky. What I’m saying is that if you know a particular store sells meat that always seems to taste great, buy your jerky meat there.

Prepare Your Subject

To prepare the meats for drying, you need to remove as much fat as possible. Fat is bad for jerky because it doesn’t dry out properly and turns rancid quickly. You also should remove any silver skin that might be on your meat. Silver skin is that tough membrane that you sometimes find on red meat or pork, which looks silvery. Just slip your knife through the sides of the skin and pull your knife along the meat to remove it. This membrane makes it hard to cut your slices and when dried becomes extremely chewy and doesn’t add any flavor. Once the fat and silver skin are removed, it’s time to cut the meat. You need to decide whether you want strip or slab jerky. You also need to decide whether you want your jerky to be tender (cut across the grain of the meat) or chewy (cut with the grain of the meat.)

Another way that you can prepare your jerky is to trim the meat of any fat, and silver skin, and marinate it whole, overnight, then cut it into strips and marinate it for a couple more hours before drying. Marinating like this allows more of the meat flavor to shine through the marinade. When you cut the meat into strips and soak them in the marinade, the marinade has a much more pronounced flavor. Either way, your jerky will taste great.

Create Your Marinade

Sure, technically you could just sprinkle a little salt and pepper on the meat and dry away. You could definitely make jerky that way and the salt and pepper would add a nice little bit of flavor to the meat. But why waste all that perfectly good meat by not using it as a premium flavor delivery service for your taste buds?

I’ve created a lot of different types of marinades, dry rubs, and pastes in this book (which I tend to refer to collectively as a marinade), enough recipes to keep you busy for a while anyway. But making a marinade isn’t really all that hard. You can, and should, invent some of your own. Wouldn’t it be kind of cool to give out batches of jerky that you created at the holidays?

I like to mix up flavors that taste good to me. Even a restaurant dish that I’ve had before, I’ll break down into its individual flavors and turn into a jerky.

When you start out creating your own marinade, a good rule of thumb is two parts salt to one part seasoning, either sweet or savory or both. Of course this ratio isn’t written in stone, but if you’re trying to create your own marinade, this is a good ratio to keep in mind.

When you select your seasonings, think about what flavors go best with the type of meat you’ll be drying. Of course you could always go the store-bought marinade/seasoning route, but what fun is that? You’ve got to spice it up a little bit. Just make sure that you taste your seasoning before you put the meat into it. Remember that all those flavors are going to be concentrated. Does it need more salt? Does it need to be sweeter? Is it too strong and need to be diluted it with a little water? Always taste before you marinate!

Substitutions

Many of these marinade recipes are interchangeable with pretty much any of the proteins. It’s possible that you may find some of the beef marinades have too strong a flavor on the fish or turkey. Also, I wouldn’t use on the beef any of the potato chip–like flavors used on the turkey. These were specially formulated for turkey.

While these recipes are all written for small-batch jerky, they can easily be doubled or tripled for larger batches. One thing to remember when doubling or tripling a recipe containing hot peppers is to keep the number of hot peppers the same as in the original recipe, then taste it to see how many more you should add. The flavor that hot peppers add isn’t necessarily a 1:1 ratio.

Those who are forgoing gluten can swap in tamari for soy sauce in any of these recipes. Those who are followers of Paleo eating can swap out the soy sauce for coconut aminos, but you’ll need to add 2 to 3 teaspoons of kosher salt (it depends how much salt flavor you like) for every 1/4 cup of coconut aminos that you add. Because coconut aminos have a lot less sodium in them than soy sauce does and the sodium is needed for flavor and preservation of the jerky you need to add back some salt to the recipe. To make the vegetarian recipes vegan, you can substitute tamari for Worcestershire sauce in the recipes. These swaps will change the flavors so slightly that no one will really notice a difference.

How to Dry Jerky

The Equipment

There are a few ways that you can dry meat to make jerky. You can use a smoker, an oven, a dehydrator, the good ol’ sun, or a roaring fire. Whichever way you choose to make jerky is up to you and your surroundings. For the purposes of this book, I’m not going to get into making jerky in a smoker (because not many people have access to one) and I’m not going to go through the process of making jerky in the great outdoors, as by this method the healthfulness and quality of the end product are pretty unpredictable. Using the sun to make jerky is how our forefathers did it ... and they had a life expectancy of thirty to forty years. Considering our natural environments are generally not conducive to making dried meat, I’ll stick to discussing the jerky making process using the oven or an electric dehydrator.

Making Jerky in the Oven

You can use gas, electric, or convection ovens to make jerky. A couple of issues to consider when making jerky in the oven is that most ovens don’t go lower than 200 degrees F (which is pretty hot for making jerky) and there isn’t great air circulation around the meat in a regular gas or electric oven (convection ovens do circulate air, however). Jerky made in an oven can be tougher and can taste more “cooked” than dehydrated.

To help get more air around the meat, there are a couple of things that you can do. First, you can stick a wooden spoon handle in the door opening to keep it ajar during the cooking process. You can also place a cooling rack in a sided baking sheet and lay the meat strips on top of the cooling rack. Alternatively, you can also skewer the meat strips with a toothpick or shish kebab stick and hang the meat strips between the grates of your oven rack. Just place a baking sheet underneath the meat strips to catch any drips. Also, try to set your oven temperature to 165 degrees F. (But you may be stuck with the 200 degrees F.) The drying time tends to be a bit shorter in the oven than in an electric dehydrator, due to the greater heat. Depending on the quantity and thickness of the meat you’re drying, the drying time will be between 4 and 24 hours. If using the oven to make your jerky, you’ll want to start checking on it after 2-1/2 hours.

While convection ovens definitely circulate the air (no wooden stick in the door), they also cook faster. If you use a convection oven to make your jerky, expect to do a bit of experimentation to find that jerky-making sweet spot. Start checking on the jerky after 90 minutes.

Making Jerky in an Electric Dehydrator

I much prefer making my jerky in the dehydrator. I can get the temperature I want, air circulates easily, it only takes a few hours, and I don’t need to tend to it while it’s working. Plus, it’s easy to clean up the dehydrator and its trays.

There are a few different styles of dehydrators but they basically come in two shapes: round or square/rectangular. Either shape works fine. It’s important to understand how your dehydrator circulates air. Some do a great job of circulating the drying air around all of your jerky and some don’t, so you may need to switch the trays around to help everything dry at an even pace.

Jerky needs to be arranged in a single layer on the drying racks and it’s best to leave a bit of room between the pieces. This just allows more air to circulate and for your jerky to dry faster.

Typical drying times are listed for each recipe. If no temperature is listed, set your dehydrator to 165 degrees F.

For regular meat, fish, or vegetable jerky, you can use the standard dehydrator trays. For such things as fruit rollups or the liver dog treats, you’re going to want to use the solid fruit roll trays. These are nonstick and allow you to dry and remove things easily. You can also use the nonstick mesh sheets on top of the dehydrator trays if you’ve got a jerky that seems particularly sticky or the pieces are small. (Remember, as things dry they shrink and could fall through the trays if they’re too small.)

While I’m on the topic of dehydrator accessories, I should mention that several dehydrators now also come standard with a jerky extruder. This tool is like a cake frosting gun for ground meat jerky. It can make the process of making ground meat jerky strips easier for you.

It’s always a good idea to make sure that your dehydrator is holding a steady, and acceptable, temperature. Sure, the dial on top gives you a number, but you’ll still want to check the accuracy. You can pick up a small oven thermometer at your local grocery store. Just pop it onto one of the trays and turn your dehydrator on, with meat in it, and check the temperature. It should be holding between 160 degrees to 165 degrees F (however, you will soon see that if it’s holding at a lower temperature, you may still be in the clear).

Drying Time

Whether you choose to dry your jerky in the oven or in an electric dehydrator, the drying process remains the same.

The meats are all arranged in a single layer with some space between them, air is circulating, and the temperature needs to be a minimum of 145 degrees F, with 165 degrees F the ideal temperature setting for drying.

The time it takes to actually dry the jerky is going to vary, depending on several things. What is the drying temperature? What is being dried? How big/thick are the pieces being dried? How wet are the pieces being dried? How much is being dried? The actual drying time could vary from 4 to 24 hours. Given the batch sizes that you’ll find in this book, your drying time will usually fall within the 4- to 6-hour drying time range. Where there is a known exception to that, I have noted it in the recipe itself.

How to Know When Your Jerky Is Done

Jerky is done when you take a piece in your fingers and bend it. It should bend and maybe start to break a little, but it shouldn’t snap and break. If the jerky snaps and breaks, it’s too dry. You can fix this by dropping the overly dried jerky back into the marinade for an hour or so and then drying it again. This will also give your jerky even more flavor. So, see? It’s not such a bad thing after all. Make up a fresh batch of marinade, though. Don’t use the old marinade that you had been soaking the raw meat in.

How to Safely Store Jerky

Let’s assume that you aren’t going to eat every piece of jerky you make immediately after removing it from the heat.

Because so much of the moisture in the meat has been removed, it becomes very shelf stable and could last well up to a month, with proper storage techniques. There are, however, some things to consider when storing your jerky. The more airtight your container, the longer the jerky will last (air and humidity are not friendly toward jerky). The cooler the storage temperature, the longer the jerky will last. To extend the life of your jerky, store it in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. I recommend storing it in the refrigerator. If you want to keep it even longer, drop the container of jerky into your freezer.

Airtight containers include, but are not limited to, resealable plastic bags (with the air removed before sealing them), screw-top jars, and vacuum-sealed packages.

The ingredients in your marinade will also play a role in the shelf life of your jerky. If there are fats in the recipe, or if you don’t remove enough of the fat from the meat, it will go bad quicker. Also, if there is a high quantity of sugar in the marinade, the jerky will attract moisture and could go bad more quickly. To help increase the life of these types of jerky, store them in an airtight container in your refrigerator or freezer. If your jerky is done drying, but still feels oily, or you see glossy spots on it, you need to roll it up into paper towels before packaging it. Simply roll up the jerky in paper toweling, and much of the oil will be absorbed immediately. Unroll and store the jerky pieces in an airtight container. This step will help prolong the life of your jerky.

You can also vacuum-pack your jerky to help increase its shelf life.

There are desiccants (drying agents) that you can use to help rid your jerky of moisture when you have it packed. Just make sure you use food-grade desiccants, which are available online.

If you see a bit of mold on a piece of jerky or it starts to taste rancid, the whole batch needs to be thrown out. No trying to save the pieces that you think look okay. Just make another batch.

Is It Safe to Make and Eat Homemade Jerky?

Yes, it’s safe to eat homemade jerky. Of course there are some things you need to keep in mind when you’re making it.

Temperature is the most important factor when making jerky. It helps kill pathogens, such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7. (Yes, this is even more important than the marinade you choose.) The USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline currently recommends that to safely make jerky, you need to heat the meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F and poultry needs to be heated to 165 degrees F before the dehydration process. Once dehydration begins, maintain a constant heat of 130 to 140 degrees F for the remainder of the drying time.

The University of Wisconsin has been researching safe home jerky-making since 1998 (jerky’s a pretty big deal in Wisconsin) and has its own recommendations: Dry meat at 145 to 155 degrees F for at least 4 hours, then pop it into an oven that’s been preheated to 275 degrees F for 10 minutes. Take it out, let it cool, then pack it up. This postheat treatment will get the meat to an internal temperature of 160 degrees F. The university believes this method to be safe and superior to the USDA method. The USDA method of precooking the meat gives the resulting jerky a crumbly texture ... not a nice chewy texture, which is preferred by the people of Wisconsin or people anywhere I suspect.

Beyond heat, another way to combat such parasites as Trichinella (found in pork and game) is through the freezing of meat. T. spiralis is considered nonviable if the pork is held at 5 degrees F for twenty days before being turned into jerky. Trichinosis is a very small, but still real, potential issue when working with pork, but it’s an even bigger issue when you’re working with wild game meats. For wild game, the recommendation is cooking to an internal temperature of 170 degrees F. E. coli O157:H7 can only be killed through heating to 160 degrees F for beef and 165 degrees F for chicken. Freezing does not effectively kill E. coli O157:H7.

Something else that can help cut down on the bad bacteria getting into your jerky is to wear gloves. You can buy a big box of latex or plastic gloves at cooking or beauty supply stores. They help cut down on any cross-contamination and make cleanup so much easier.

Tips and Tricks to Make Jerky-Making Easier

• Unless directed otherwise mix marinades, dry rubs, and pastes in 1-gallon resealable plastic freezer bags. Add the meat to the bags and remove as much air as possible before sealing and letting everything marinate in the refrigerator. The resealable bags work great for making jerky because they’re flexible in size, all of the meat can come in contact with the marinade, and they are relatively inexpensive and disposable (which makes cleanup much easier).

• Remember, everyone has a different tolerance for spicy foods. Read my notes. I’ll tell you if it’s got any heat in it. If you like it hotter, add more. Removing the seeds and ribs from peppers also helps tone down the heat. Also remember, the fresher your hot pepper powders and seeds, the spicier they will be. As the seasonings age, they lose their heat.

• Use the best and sharpest flat-bladed knife you have. If you don’t have one, I highly recommend spending a few extra dollars and getting a good-quality chef’s knife. Your hand and arm will thank you and your jerky slices will be beautiful. No serrated blades for cutting jerky because you’ll just end up shredding the meat.

• The liquid smoke used in all the recipes that call for liquid smoke is hickory.

• The meats listed in the recipes are those that I felt tasted the best with the marinades. But feel free to use whichever cut of meat you like.

• Regardless of whether you cut your item being dried into slabs or strips, they should be cut between 1/8- and 1/4-inch thick.

• The thinner the meat slices, the faster they dry. The more even the size of the meat slices, the more likely everything will be dry at the same time.

• Freezing the meat for 30-45 minutes before slicing helps to make even slicing an easier task.

• Feel free to scrape off any excess marinade, paste, or dry rub before laying the pieces to dry. This will help them to dry more evenly.

• All meats should be trimmed of as much fat as possible.

• Meats should be dried on the 160 to 165 degrees F setting of your electric dehydrator.

• Buy a box of latex or plastic gloves at a restaurant or beauty supply store. They help keep everything clean, offer less chance of cross-contamination, and they help make cleanup easy.

• One pound of fresh meat generally yields around 4 ounces of dried jerky.

For a recipe from Jerky Everything, try this:

Camper Jerky Recipe


Reprinted with permission from Jerky Everything by Pamela Braun and published by Countryman Press, 2015. Buy this book from our store: Jerky Everything