Folks have been drying meat to chewy perfection for centuries. The Quecha tribe of Peru introduced the concept of cured meat to Spaniards in the 16th century; the tribe’s name for their signature snack, ‘ch’arki’, inspired the term, jerky. Since that time, virtually every culture in the world has incorporated jerky into their culinary scheme – but according to experts, there are ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ ways to go about making it.
Tip #1: Know your meat
Jerky can be made from virtually any type of red meat, including beef, venison, elk and bison, as well as chicken, turkey, pork or fish. The process is generally the same, with one exception: any pork products or wild game should be frozen for roughly three weeks prior to dehydration. Low temperatures (5 degrees Fahrenheit/-15 degrees Celsius or lower) will kill any parasites (namely Trichinella) that might have gotten to the animal before you bagged it.
Tip #2: Cut the fat
Be sure to remove all fat, tendon, gristle and membraneous tissue from the meat prior to dehydration, as these unsavory bits can turn rancid quite quickly. Lean cuts with well-defined grains (such as London broil or flank steak) usually work best. Cut the meat along the grains into quarter-inch strips – this will ensure your jerky is extra chewy.
Tip #3: Don’t feel constrained by traditional marinades
Everyone who makes their own jerky has their own marinade standards. Andrew Snavely of Primer recommends a simple recipe that consists of ingredients found in most pantries, such as Worcestershire sauce, teriyaki/soy sauce, Tapatio Hot Sauce, garlic and onion powder. Inventive chefs have been known to substitute less conventional ingredients to give their jerky a more unique taste. The trick is to cater your marinade to the type of meat you’re using: tangy sauces go well with beef; rich, fruity flavors like red wine and cherries complement venison; and buffalo marinade is practically asking for spicy ingredients. Bottom line: marinade is pretty hard to screw up, so go where your palate leads you – and when in doubt, sample the sauce before you dunk your meat in it.
Tip #4: Keep your jerky bacteria-free
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, jerky has been linked to illnesses caused by Salmonella and E. Coli. Meat should be kept in the refrigerator throughout the marination process – and use each batch of marinade only one time. To further ensure your jerky is safe for consumption, the meat should be heated to roughly 160 degrees Fahrenheit/71 degrees Celsius and poultry should be heated to 165 degrees Fahrenheit/74 degrees Celsius prior to drying. Once it is in the dehydrator, keep the temperature between 130 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit (54 and 60 degrees Celsius); this will prevent spoilage and stop the formation of micro-bacterial organisms. In lieu of a dehydrator, mean can be dried in an oven that has been pre-set to the same temperature. Then there’s a third option…
Tip #5: Build a smoker
There are plenty of commercial smokers on the market – but if you’re looking for a fun weekend DIY project, take a stab at building one yourself. According to Mike Allen of Popular Mechanics, constructing a backyard smoker requires a fair amount of welding – but advanced skills aren’t required, and builders can use salvaged materials like pipes or rebar. Allen provides detailed instructions for how to assemble a smoker using sheet steel and square tubing. Another popular (and less expensive) option is the brick design, which can come in all shapes and sizes; BBQ Guys provide simple instructions for a homemade brick smoker that costs less than $200 to assemble.
Tip #6: Jerky doesn’t last forever
While jerky sold in stores can last up to one year if it remains in its original package, homemade jerky typically keeps for no longer than two months. If your jerky is tasty, then longevity shouldn’t be an issue (particularly if you live with fellow carnivores).
By Brad Nehring