Posted: November 17, 2012
Beef is commonly made into jerky, but jerky can be made from pork, venison, turkey, and even ground meats. Choose lean cuts of meat with as little fat as possible because fat can cause rancidity and off flavors. Avoid highly marbled cuts. Lean flank steak and round steak are good choices for making jerky. If making jerky from ground beef, choose ground round, lean, or extra lean ground beef.
To prepare the meat for drying, remove as much fat as possible; this prevents "off" flavors. Remove any visible fat, connective tissue, and gristle from the meat. It is easier to cut partially frozen meat. Slice slightly frozen meat into strips that are ¼ to 3/8 inch thick, 1 to 1½ inches wide, and 4 to 10 inches long. Jerky cut on the grain of the meat is chewy; cutting across the grain makes it more tender. It may be flattened with a rolling pin for uniform thickness.
Drying the meat removes moisture. This prevents enzyme reactions and growth of microorganisms such as bacteria and molds. This preserves the meat. If improperly cooked, homemade jerky may contain bacteria that can result in severe, life-threatening illness and possibly death. Using the dehydrator alone will inactivate microorganisms but not kill them. The right conditions of heat and moisture may cause the microorganisms to become active without the consumer being aware of a potentially dangerous situation.
Heating the meat to 160ºF before dehydrating assures that any bacteria present will be destroyed. Cook the meat strips to the necessary 160°F by baking them in the oven or simmering them before drying. Using the oven method, place the prepared strips of meat on cake racks with baking sheets underneath, and bake in a 325ºF oven. Check the internal temperature using an instant read thermometer to make sure the meat has reached 160ºF. To simmer jerky in a marinade, prepare two to three cups of your favorite jerky marinade and bring it to a rolling boil over medium heat. Add a few meat strips, making sure the marinade covers them. Reheat to a full boil.
There are several recommendations concerning marinating jerky before cooking it. The National Center for Home Food Preservation allows you to marinate the strips of meat 1 to 2 hours or overnight before cooking it to 160°F in the marinade but cautions that meat marinated for several hours may be very salty. Marinate meat in the refrigerator. Do not reuse marinades. Marinades are used to tenderize and flavor the jerky before dehydrating it. The University of Colorado cautions not to pre-soak meat strips in an acidified marinade (one with added ascorbic acid or citric acid) more than 2 hours because it may provide time for E. coli bacteria to become acid resistant. They recommend a 1 hour pre-soak time.
After simmering or baking the meat to 160ºF, place the strips in a single layer on drying racks. Avoid overlapping or touching pieces. Dry the strips at 140°F in a dehydrator, oven or smoker. Maintain a constant dehydrator temperature of 140ºF during the drying process. This is important because the process must be fast enough to dry food before it spoils and it must remove enough water to prevent microorganisms from growing.
You can also dry the jerky in the oven. The temperature of the oven should not exceed 170ºF and the door should be propped open 2 to 6 inches. Circulation can be improved by placing a fan outside the oven near the door. It will take 5 to 6 hours to dry. Thinner strips will take less time. Because you have precooked the meat, it will take less time to dry than older methods where the jerky was made with raw meat.
To determine the dryness of the jerky, allow a strip to cool five minutes and bend it. Strips should crack but not break when bent and should not contain any moisture or underdone spots. Refrigerate the strips in an air tight container overnight and check again for doneness. If necessary, dry strips further.
If the strips were not heated in marinade prior to drying, they can be heated in an oven after drying. Place strips so they are not touching in a single layer on a baking sheet and heat 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 275°F. Thicker strips may require longer heating to reach 160°F.
To store the jerky, blot off any excess fat. The jerky may be wrapped in a paper towel for several hours to absorb grease. Because jerky will absorb moisture very easily from the air, be sure to store it in an air tight container. Glass is a good long term storage container that is moisture proof and will prevent odors from escaping. Store in a cool, dark place. Depending upon the meat used, jerky should be eaten within one to three weeks. For longer storage, freeze the jerky to prevent rancidity.
For more information on making jerky, and a recipe for a jerky marinade, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation at http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/dry/jerky.html.