Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Everything You Need to Know to Make Really Great Jerky...Safely

Making jerky is the world's oldest way of preserving meat. When our ancestors hunted for food, they often did it in a large way. Bison, bear and deer were like the Walmarts of the ancients. A good hunt meant much more than food. It also meant bone tools, clothing, shelter and more. Priority was given to the meat and the hides because of rapid spoilage.

Before the days of canned foods and frozen dinners, many foods were usually preserved by drying. With the moisture removed, heavyweights become lightweights. The moisture is easily restored by soaking in water, or by adding to soups and stews, or simply chewed.

Because jerky and other dehydrated foods are so lightweight and needs no refrigeration, they are perfect for travel or emergencies. All the goodness of a pound of meat can be reduced to a mere four ounces!


Through the stream of time, much has been discovered in the name of food safety. Foodborne illness and diseases can be deadly serious. Because we know more about safe food preparation than the ancients did, most of us will enjoy a longer life span!

In the old days of the First Americans, jerky was hung to dry in the sun, especially in climates with low humidity, high heat and a goodly amount of wind. Other tribes that lived in less than ideal jerky-making territory, hung strips of meat near smoldering fires.

The old way of doing things is perfectly acceptable, if you are willing to put up with a small--but definite--risk of serious illness or death.

No jerky ever tasted good enough to die for, so it's a good idea to check out the latest approved techniques for making jerky the safest way possible. The USDA has the latest, right here:

Here are excerpts from the link above, which is (as of December 2007) the latest USDA meat and poultry recommendations for making homemade jerky:

* Keep meat and poultry refrigerated at 40 °F or slightly below; use or freeze ground beef and poultry within 2 days; whole red meats, within 3 to 5 days.
* Defrost frozen meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.
* Marinate meat in the refrigerator. Don't save marinade to re-use. Marinades are used to tenderize and flavor the jerky before dehydrating it.
* Steam or roast meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer before dehydrating it.
* Dry meats in a food dehydrator that has an adjustable temperature dial and will maintain a temperature of at least 130 to 140 °F throughout the drying process.
* Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after working with meat products.
* Use clean equipment and utensils.

Why is it a Food Safety Concern to Dry Meat Without First Heating it to 160 °F?

The danger in dehydrating meat and poultry without cooking it to a safe temperature first is that the appliance will not heat the meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F — temperatures at which bacteria are destroyed — before it dries. After drying, bacteria become much more heat resistant.

Within a dehydrator or low-temperature oven, evaporating moisture absorbs most of the heat. Thus, the meat itself does not begin to rise in temperature until most of the moisture has evaporated. Therefore, when the dried meat temperature finally begins to rise, the bacteria have become more heat resistant and are more likely to survive. If these surviving bacteria are pathogenic, they can cause foodborne illness to those consuming the jerky.

Are There Special Considerations for Wild Game Jerky?

Yes, there are other special considerations when making homemade jerky from venison or other wild game. According to Keene and his co-authors, "Venison can be heavily contaminated with fecal bacteria — the degree varying with the hunter's skill, wound location, and other factors. While fresh beef is usually rapidly chilled, deer carcasses are typically held at ambient temperatures, potentially allowing bacteria multiplication."

What is the Safe Storage Time for Jerky?

Commercially packaged jerky can be kept 12 months; home-dried jerky can be stored 1 to 2 months.

(Well, I'm going to argue about that last point. Lots of people say jerky has lasted as long as a year. Maybe it could last longer, but I'll never know because me and my friends can't keep away from it long enough to find out. I'll be sure to include some of my favorite recipes here, so you'll know the real reason jerky has such a short shelf life.) --PureCajunSunshine

The National Center for Home Food Preservation is an excellent authority all kinds of ways to preserve food including drying, curing & smoking, fermenting, pickling and more. Go here:

Their section on jerky recommends this:

If you choose to heat the meat prior to drying to decrease the risk of foodborne illness, do so at the end of the marination time. To heat, bring strips and marinade to a boil and boil for 5 minutes before draining and drying. If strips are more than ¼ inch thick, the length of time may need to be increased. If possible, check the temperature of several strips with a metal stem-type thermometer to determine that 160ºF has been reached.

If the strips were not heated in marinade prior to drying, they can be heated in an oven after drying as an added safety measure. Place strips on a baking sheet, close together, but not touching or overlapping. For strips originally cut 1/4 inch thick or less, heat 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 275ºF. (Thicker strips may require longer heating to reach 160ºF.)

(End of excerpts from the United States Department of Agriculture)


Now that we have the important food safety issues covered, lets get to the meat of the matter.

Use only pure lean muscle meat in making jerky. That means no fat, no tendons, no connective tissues of any kind. Meat that is marbled with fat will not make good jerky.

Best wild game or beef cuts of meat to use in making jerky: flank, round and sirloin.

If using poultry, pork or bear meat, dry only meats that have been thoroughly pre-cooked for safety's sake.

Before drying wild game, freeze the meat for at least 60 days at 0 degrees F to help kill any parasites or bacteria that causes disease that may be present.

Cut strips of meat 1/8" - 1/4" thick, and 1" -1 1/2' wide. They can be as long as you wish. The thinner the meat, the faster it dries.

Make the meat easier to cut thinly by firming it up in the freezer for a bit, first.

There are two ways to cut jerky: for a real chewing workout, cut the meat "with, or along the grain"; for an easier chew, cut "across the grain". The grain is the direction that the muscle fibers lay.

A marinade or dry rub is what makes delicious jerky.

To marinade: Raw meat strips are soaked between four to eight hours, or overnight in a flavorful liquid consisting of any combination of ingredients such as soy sauce, worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke and seasonings.

Dry rubs are often a blend of salt and seasonings that are rubbed onto the surface of raw meat, and is refrigerated for several hours to overnight.

Fancy dehydrators are nice, but not necessary. For years, I made my best jerky in an oven at the lowest heat setting, with the door propped open one or two inches. I can fit lots more in an oven, which is a must during deer hunting season.

To test jerky for doneness: Remove a strip of dried jerky, let it cool for 5 minutes. Bend the jerky. Jerky that was cut across the grain should snap if it is done. Jerky that was cut along the grain won't break, but will bend.

Never, ever make jerky in a microwave, which is notorious for uneven cooking, and can be a health hazard.

A gas or electric oven works fine.

For longer shelf life, I tend to overdry the meat a little more than I need to. I store it in a glass jar with some kind of desiccant (moisture absorber). Some people like to store jerky in plastic bags.

If you freeze or refrigerate the jerky, and take it out of storage, it will immediately absorb moisture from the air. This may shorten shelf life, depending on the amount of moisture it collects.

If you use a dehydrator, and if the instructions include jerky making, follow the directions carefully.


Here's how I do jerky in an oven.

Marinate the meat overnight in your favorite choice of flavors. Drain well, but do not rinse.

Line the bottom of the oven with heavy duty aluminum foil. Spray the oven racks with a no stick spray made for BBQ cookers. Do not forget this. If you do, you will never forget it again. The baked on drippings are a pain to remove.

Skewer the end of a strip of meat onto a toothpick. Position the toothpick between the rungs in the oven rack, so that the meat dangles freely below the rack. (My way is a little different from what most people do, which is laying the strips directly onto the oven racks. My way dries better because of improved air circulation. It is a space saver, so more jerky can be made at one time.)

Turn the oven on the lowest setting (mine goes to 200 degrees Fahrenheit). Close the oven door, but leave it ajar with a one or two inch opening to allow moisture to escape. To hasten the drying process, and drive everyone in the house insane and drooling, place a fan in the room. If it gets too bad, beat everyone back with a broomstick until it is done. Jerky before its time can make you sick as a dog.

Tip: place the thinnest cuts of meat near the front of the oven. Because it will be a few degrees cooler near the front, the thinner pieces won't need as much heat as the thicker slices. The thicker pieces dry much better closer to the hotter backside of the oven.

Before storing, the meat must be allowed to cool on the rack naturally. After the jerky has cooled, remove the toothpicks, and place the strips of jerky in a large bowl. Cover with a clean dishtowel and allow them to "rest" for several hours. During this period, the overall small amount of moisture remaining in the jerky becomes equalized. This allows for the possibility that a few small unseen spots in some of the pieces might not be as dry as the others.

Here are a few of my favorite jerky recipes. They're all deliciously different.

Cut strips of lean meat 1/8" - 1/4" thick, and 1" -1 1/2' wide. They can be as long as you wish. Soak the strips in the mixture given below for 6 to 8 hours, or overnight in the refrigerator. Stir occasionally to ensure even penetration of flavor throughout. Dry in a dehydrator or oven, according to guidelines given above.

Marinade #1, for about 1 or 2 pounds of meat

2 packs of Au Jus instant dry gravy mix
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons lemon pepper
2 tablespoons salt
1/2 dry powdered mustard
2 tablespoons liquid smoke
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 cups water

Marinade #2, for about 3 or 4 pounds of meat:

2 c soy sauce
1/2 c water
3 Tbs Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbs liquid smoke (look near the Worcestershire sauce in the grocery)
1 Tbs garlic powder or onion powder (or, in proportion, use both if you're adventurous!)
1 Tbs ground ginger
black pepper (optional)

Marinade #3, for up to 5 pounds of meat:

2 cups teriyaki sauce
3/4 cup water
½ cup Worcestershire sauce
2 t. garlic powder
2 t. onion powder
1 t. ground ginger (powder)
1 Tb. Liquid smoke
1 t. black pepper
1 t. Tabasco sauce

This recipe from Sunset Home Canning shows another way of making jerky.

Basic Beef Jerky Recipe

1½ lb Lean boneless meat
¼ c Soy sauce
1 ts Worcestershire Sauce
½ ts Onion powder
¼ ts Pepper
¼ ts Garlic powder
¼ ts Liquid smoke
Vegetable oil cooking spray

Preparing the jerky: Freeze meat until firm but not hard; then cut into 1/8 to 1/4-inch-thick slices. In a medium-size glass, stoneware, plastic or stainless steel bowl, combine soy sauce, Worcestershire, onion powder, pepper, garlic powder, and liquid smoke. Stir to dissolve seasonings. Add meat and mix until all surfaces are thoroughly coated. Cover tightly and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or until next day, stirring occasionally; recover tightly after stirring.

Drying the jerky: Depending upon the drying method you're using, evenly coat dehydrator racks or metal racks with cooking spray; if oven drying, place racks over rimmed baking pans. Lift meat from bowl, shaking off any excess liquid. Arrange meat strips close together, but not overlapping, on racks. Dehydrator and oven drying: Arrange trays according to manufacturer's directions (if using dehydrator) and dry at 140-degrees until a piece of jerky cracks, but does not break when bent (8 to 10 hours, let jerky cool for 5 minutes before testing). Pat off any beads of oil from jerky. Let jerky cool completely on racks; remove from racks and store in airtight, insect proof containers in a cool, dry place. You may also freeze or refrigerate the jerky, however keep in mind that cold jerky will collect moisture from the air when taken out of cold storage.

Makes about 3/4 pound.

Storage time: Up to 3 weeks at room temperature; up to 4 months in refrigerator, up to 8 months in freezer. Per ounce: 94 calories, 12 g protein, 1 g carbohydrates; 4 g total fat; 28 mg cholesterol, 398 mg sodium.

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This article is an excerpt from Mrs. Tightwad's Handbook #1: HOW TO SURVIVE DISASTERS AND OTHER HARD TIMES. For more information, see the left sidebar on this site:

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