food preservation

Beef Jerky Made Simple!

I know this subject has been covered at least two million times on the internet, but I’m a firm believer that there can never be too much information about it.  Jerky has sustained man for thousands of years, and even in modern times it is still a staple.  Second only to bacon as they best food ever created, simple dried out flesh satisfies a craving that every man (and most women) have.  Historically, jerking meat was a way to preserve meat when no other means were available.  Primitive man couldn’t always be sure when the next game animal could be harvested, so he needed a sure fire way to save some meat from the current harvest without it rotting.  Some guy in a cave discovered that if you cut meat thin enough, it dries out and keeps for a really long time.  Then he discovered if it was dried it in the smoke of a fire, it dried out better and had a wonderful smoky flavor.  I’m sure this guy became very wealthy bartering his incredible new creation with others in the caves.  Of course, this history is anecdotal and can’t be verified.  Primitive people the world over had variations on drying meat for preservation, from basic sun dried jerky to Biltong to Bakkwa to Pemmican.  Each has its own methods and processes, but the basic concept is the same.  Get the moisture out of meat and it will keep a lot longer.  Chemicals can be introduced to help the process along, but isn’t required to get good results.  The most common chemical aid has traditionally been salt.  Salt really helps pull moisture out, but we can cover that in another article, since its uses are so broad in food preservation.

Here at the Surviving Modern Life household, we always have grand plans of jerking meat and having it available for long term storage.  Sadly, it rarely works out.  Any time I make a batch of jerky, the house is filled with a wonderful aroma.  Everyone in the house starts craving the product before it is finished drying.  You can imagine what happens when the process is complete.  Everyone needs to taste test it to make sure it’s good.  For some reason, one piece is not good enough for this testing.  Within a couple of days, the product has been fully tested but there’s not any left.  I might or might not be guilty of participating in the testing.

I’ll risk copyright infringement by say that making jerky is so easy a caveman can do it.  I know this to be true because they actually did.  The process is extremely simple, but it seems modern man can complicate anything.  A lot of recipes available recommend specific amounts of salt or even potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate.  These no doubt have their place in preservation, but just aren’t required to make jerky.  I do use ingredients that contain salt for my marinade (even a marinade isn’t required), but that is simply for flavor.  Other recipes call for using various sugars as a preservative for jerky.  Once again, some of my ingredients contains sugars, but they are for flavor.  Jerking meat simply means removing the moisture by drying.  Marinating the meat before drying can be done to impart flavor.  I’ll be sharing a rough version of my overly complicated recipe a bit later.  A rough version is the best I can do because none of the measurements are exact, or even written down.

The most important part of jerky is selecting the meat and getting it cut up.  Any lean cut of meat is eligible, but I’ve had best results with cuts that have long grain.  My favorite cut for this is Eye of Round roasts or top rounds.  They are even grained and the tissue is very lean.  Whatever cut you use, you want to make sure there is as little fat marbling as possible.  Fats left in the meat will not dry out well since oil cannot be dehydrated.  These oils will turn rancid in a few days and can ruin any pieces of jerky that contain them.  I learned this the hard way by losing a whole batch by not trimming fat away enough.  Another common mistake is cutting the meat too thick.  I like to cut mine 1/8 inch thick, but you can get away with cuts as thick as 1/4 inch.  The thicker the cut, the longer it takes to dry.  Some folks want to try to make the big, thick nuggets like you buy at the store.  Keep in mind they never dry completely and will turn bad on you within a couple of days.  The reason the store bought stuff keeps is due to chemical preservatives.  I’ve experimented with several different ways to cut up meat and by far the easiest is to use a deli slicer.  These can be cost prohibitive, but if you end up making a lot of jerky they are invaluable for convenience.  I did spend several years slicing meat by hand and have a couple of recommendations for this method.  Most importantly, keep your knife sharp.  Like really sharp.  Another trick was taught to me by a friend that is a chef.  He pointed out that if you put the meat in the freezer for a couple of hours to the point that ice crystals start to form, the meat is considerably easier to handle and cut.  You don’t want it frozen too solid though.  Freeze it just enough that it starts to feel a little firm.  As long as you pay attention to the thickness, sizing your pieces is really up to you.  I’ve made long, thin pieces and I’ve made pieces as large as my hand.  Either works well, so use your preference.  Now on to turning those pieces of dead critter into jerky…

Once you’ve selected a lean cut of meat and have it all sliced up, you are faced with a dilemma.  Now is the time to decide what you want your jerky to taste like.  There are as many recipes as there are people making jerky.  Of course, everyone will tell you that theirs is the best.  I feel the same way.  My super secret jerky/steak marinade is probably the best tasting stuff on earth… for me at least.  A lot of how you want the end result to taste is dependent on what you add to the marinade.  Any good steak marinade will work, or you can customize a recipe to satisfy your tastes.  Some like it sweet, some like it spicy.  Personally I prefer a salty jerky with a little spicy kick to it.  If your tastes are really simple, you can just lightly sprinkle the meat with some salt and pepper and go straight to the drying process.  Most of us will want a bit more flavor.  My personal recipe starts with several spices like onion powder, garlic powder, chili powder, cayenne pepper, and a touch of paprika.  Then I add in a few dashes of Worchestershire sauce, a pretty healthy dose of Soy sauce and top it off with a can of Coke.  I let the meat marinade for at least 4 hours.  I’ve gone longer, but the flavor gets  more intense the longer is stews.  Overnight is too long for me.  There are hundreds of recipes available online, so find one that sounds good and try it.  You can always improve on it to meet your needs for future batches.

The dehydration process is what turns that raw meat into wonderful jerky.  There are a few ways to accomplish getting that moisture out of the meat, but the simplest is a dehydrator.  These are usually counter-top units that have trays that allow fan forced air through them.  Most integrate a low wattage heater to dry the air as it passes through.  I’ve been using the same American Harvest dehydrator for over ten years.  If you don’t have access to a dehydrator, you can use the oven for the process.  Using inexpensive oven dehydrating racks, but you can use the existing racks if you don’t mind scrubbing them after you are done.  Just set the oven to it’s lowest heat setting and leave the door cracked.  This method is pretty energy intensive and runs up the cost of making jerky.  Overall drying times will vary depending on the method you use.  The best bet is to check on it after a few hours to see where it’s at.  I’ve got my time nailed down pretty well, but it took a lot o practice.  My dehydrator seems to make perfect jerky at 8 hours.

Once you have your jerky at the level of dryness you want, it should keep for a long while.  Of course, for longer storage time, you want a drier product.  A couple of lessons I’ve learned are that if there is any fat or oil in the meat, eat it pretty soon.  If it is still a bit moist, it will start to grow mold after a few days.  This is accelerated if you store it in a plastic bag.  I prefer storing in an open Mason jar or in a paper bag.  If you put it in anything that seals moisture in, it will go bad a lot sooner.  I once found a couple of pieces in a paper bag on my counter under a huge stack of paperwork.  It had probably been there for at least three months.  I looked it over and didn’t see anything funky, so I decided to try a piece.  It was bone dry, but tasted just the same as it did when I made it.  Of course I will leave it up to each person to determine if eating 3 month old meat is something they want to test!

Before parting, I want to share my thoughts on food safety.  Once the meat comes out of the refrigerator and you start cutting it up, you want to get it drying or marinading as soon as possible.  Marinating in the fridge is your safest bet unless you are very comfortable with the idea that your particular marinade is salty or acidic enough to prevent bacterial growth.  Bacteria that cause foodborne illness thrive at temperatures between 40 and 140 F.  You are fine once you start the drying process, since this will deny the bacteria the moisture it needs, but you shouldn’t let raw meat sit at room temp for very long.  Using a little common sense in the kitchen will go a long way toward preventing any nasty issues.

Hopefully I’ve been able to pass along a little bit of information about jerky, or at least brought a little humor into a subject that has been covered completely.  I know that jerky is one of my favorite foods, so I wanted to share my thoughts and processes with my readers.  I plan on branching out into other types of dried meats in the near future.  I’m especially looking at Biltong.  I’ve never made it before, so the results might be a little iffy.  I’ll be sure to cover any successes or failures in an article here.