The act of making jerky, or dehydrating meat, has been a method of preservation since humans first found a need to preserve food. Drying meat provided a way of making it lightweight and transportable; plus, it keeps for months when properly prepared, and can be mixed with other food items when making a meal. Native people often pounded the dried meat and mixed it with dried fruit and animal fat to make a high-energy emergency food.
While the principle behind drying meat hasn’t changed, the means of doing so have. Early people often put strips of meat on wooden racks that were then hung over a fire. In some cases, like in the desert of the Southwest, the dry air and the sun combined to dry the meat without fire. Today, we use commercially available dehydrators or, as I do, the oven. Like anything else involving food, there are some hidden dangers to making jerky—mainly in the form of pathogens such as E. coli or Salmonella. The good news though, is there are ways to reduce these risks.
Clean, Clean, Clean
To reduce the possibility of pathogens, the first and most important step is to clean everything. Wash your hands thoroughly and often, before and during the handling of meat. Make sure your knives, cutting board and anything else that may come into contact with the meat is also thoroughly cleaned. The low heat used to make jerky is not sufficient to kill bacteria. By keeping everything as clean as possible, you reduce the risk of transmitting bacteria from your hands to the meat and vice versa.
When it comes to making jerky, any meat will work. For this particular batch, I’m using beef, but I’ve also made jerky using turkey, duck, goose and deer. The leaner the meat, the better the jerky. And though I’ve never done it myself, I know people who have had success making fish jerky.
The key to making jerky is the preparation of the meat. First and foremost, trim away as much fat, ligaments and gristle as you can. If you’re using wild game, this shouldn’t be too much of a bother. Beef, on the other hand, depending on the cut of meat, may require a little more attention. This step is very important, especially when it comes to fat, because it can lead to improper drying. Fat doesn’t dry, so it can open the door to bacteria.
Don’t throw away the fat, though! Make sure you put any trimmed fat into a resealable plastic bag and throw it in the freezer. That saved fat has many other uses; it can be rendered and used to make soap, or it can be added to other meat when making sausage.
Once the fat is trimmed away, lay the meat on the cutting board and see how the grain runs. When you cut your strips, you’ll want to cut across the grain. Using a sharp knife, begin slicing the meat into strips between one-eighth and one-quarter-inch thick. The thinner the strips, the more quickly they will dry. To facilitate the cutting process, put the meat in the freezer for a couple hours. This will stiffen the meat and make it easier to cut.
Some people like to marinate the meat prior to drying it, while others do not—it’s all up to you. There are commercially available marinades on the market, but be sure to read the label to find out what’s in them (usually a ton of both salt and sugar). I usually make my own marinades. If you choose to use a marinade, let the meat strips soak for anywhere from an hour to 24 hours in the refrigerator prior to drying.
The Drying Process
Since I don’t own a dehydrator, I use my oven to make my jerky. One of the benefits of using the oven is it can dry more meat at a time. The downside is that it’s not as energy efficient. Don’t lay the meat directly on the racks in your oven, which would create a mess. Instead, line a few flat cookie sheets with parchment paper, and place smaller racks on them. Laying the strips of meat on these racks allows any excess marinade and meat juices to drop onto the cookie sheet, making cleanup much easier.
The ideal drying temperature for jerky is 140-150°F, but my oven (like a lot of your ovens, I’m sure) only goes down to 170°F. Since you’re drying meat,not cooking it, you need these low temperatures and air circulation. A closed oven door doesn’t circulate air, so leave the oven door open a small amount. If your oven door won’t remain open on its own, you can prop it open using a wooden spoon. Depending on the thickness of the meat, it should take between four and six hours to dry. After four hours, test the jerky for doneness. If it bends too easily or is too juicy, it needs more time. If it tears but doesn’t break, then it’s ready for the next step.
Making It Safe
Numerous studies have found that the drying temperatures used to make jerky are not hot enough to kill many of the pathogens that may be present. Jerky can only be considered safe to eat when it has been heated enough to kill any pathogens, and when it’s dry enough to be stored at room temperature without any bacterial growth.
Once the jerky is dry enough, crank the oven up to 275°F. While the oven is heating, move the jerky from the racks (using clean tongs!) to a parchment-lined cookie sheet, not allowing any of the pieces to touch each other. Place the jerky-filled cookie sheet in the oven for 10 minutes. This will be enough to kill anything. After 10 minutes, remove from the oven and allow to cool at room temperature.
Packing and Storage
Properly prepared jerky will last a long time if packaged correctly: about two weeks in a sealed container at room temperature, three to six months in the refrigerator, and up to a year in the freezer.
When it comes to packaging, there’s no perfect container, but here are some basic rules to keep in mind:
- The container should be clean and sanitary.
- It should be made from food-grade material.
- It needs to be as airtight as possible.
I’ve found over the years that resealable plastic bags work the best for me. For long-term storage, vacuum packing is the best. Of course, jerky doesn’t generally remain in my home long enough to warrant that.
Early people discovered that by drying meat, it could be saved and stored for fairly long periods of time. This also made it possible to transport food from one place to another, thus cutting back on the need to hunt constantly. In the modern world, it’s easy to just throw meat into the freezer and take it out as you need it, but what happens if the power goes out? By making your own jerky, you’ll be able to rest easy, knowing you always have a reliable meat supply on hand.
- Ingham B. “Beef or Venison Jerky Recipes.” University of Wisconsin–Madison. Sep 2010. https://foodsafety.wisc.edu/assets/pdf_Files/Jerky_recipe.pdf
- Nummer, BA, Harrison JA, Harrison MA, Kendall P, Sofos JN, Andress EL. “Effects of preparation methods on the microbiological safety of home-dried meat jerky.” Journal of Food Protection. 67.10 (2004): 2337–41.
- Sant LZ, Hampton C, McCurdy SM. “Making Jerky at Home Safely.” Pacific Northwest Extension Publication. Apr 2012.https://www.cals.uidaho.edu/edcomm/pdf/PNW/PNW0632.pdf