Back in my grandparent’s day Jerky was still used as a staple food by many families. As a child I remember my grandmother cutting thick roasts into thin strips and boiling them in a salt water brine. She would string the strips on a piece of wire and suspend it over the pot, allowing the meat to hang inside the boiling water until all the red color was gone. Then she would hang it over the sink in the washroom until it was dry, usually overnight. The next day she hung the meat in front of a fire in her small back room and by that evening, or sometimes it would be the next morning, she would finally take the dried and shriveled meat and put if in a glass jar and add the jar to the shelf on the back porch. We loved chewing on a piece of this ‘salted beef’ as she called it. I suddenly realize that using this salted beef or jerky in her stews may be the reason for the flavor I have never been able to exactly duplicate. But I digress.
Today we don’t have to go to such lengths to make our own jerky from a variety of meats available to us. Turkey, chicken, venison and wild game, and of course beef jerky can be made in your own home using your ordinary oven. All you need is the meat of choice, I will use beef in this case, an oven with a low setting, a few seasonings and spices and of course some patience.
To make a traditional Beef Jerky you will need:
hot pepper sauce
a jerk seasoning or steak sauce with an ‘A-1’ flavor.
and patience, because this stuff is gonna smell great!
You will want to start with several pounds of a very lean meat. Fat does not dehydrate well and a lot of fat in the meat will spoil the outcome. A nice, lean roast is a good choice. You could also use your favorite cut of steak The meat should have a visible grain, or direction of the muscle with little or no fat. You don’t need the highest quality of meat. In fact, a tougher cut of meat will often give you a better product in the end. This is another reason jerky is quite popular. You can purchase large quantities of meat at discount or bulk pricing and create jerky from it that will last for a long time. No danger of freezer burn either.
Mix up a marinade using some or all of the following. Remember, this is a matter of taste. If you love it hot, add more pepper sauce. If you don’t like garlic, leave it out. You should use approximately equal parts of Worcestershire and brown sugar, three parts soy sauce, and the rest to taste. The marinade should be very salty, spicy and slightly sweet. The rest of the ingredients, as I mentioned, depend on your taste and this list is minimal. There are really no limits to what you might add to your marinade. If you use the red wine it will dilute the spicy-salty effect without affecting the overall flavor. You should not use more than about 30 or 40 percent of wine to the other ingredients because you need the salt to help preserve the meat.
Once you have mixed up your marinade solution you are ready to prepare the meat. Don’t get too focused on the recipe however, the jerky will be delicious using almost any recipe or just tossing some ingredients in a zipper bag with your meat.
To prepare the meat you will use a very sharp knife to slice the uncooked meat with the grain. This is usually down the length of the meat. You need strips about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. The thinner the slice the crisper the final product. For a chewy jerky go for thicker slides. Keep in mind that the thicker cut will take longer to dry.
Trim any additional fat and place the strips of meat into a zipper bag with your marinade, squeezing out as much air as possible. If you happen to have one of those machines that creates vacuum sealed packages, this is a good way to increase the overall tenderness and reduce the time needed for the marinade. It is not necessary however. A zipper bag works well. Let the meat soak in the marinade for a couple of hours at room temperature. It is a good idea to turn the bag over several times unless you have made enough marinade to completely cover all the meat strips.
Meanwhile, prepare your racks and oven. If you have a commercial food dehydrator such as the ones you see advertised on television, simply spray a light coating of vegetable spray onto the plastic or metal racks, lay our your strips in a single layer, close up the dehydrator and set at about 145 degrees or a medium setting. Allow to dry about 8 hours or until done (see below).
Don’t worry if you don’t have one of those fancy machines. Set your oven on the lowest setting possible. Remember you are drying the meat, not cooking it. Use a cooling rack such as you might use for cooling cakes or cookies to lay out your slices. I like to line the bottom of the oven with foil, just in case there are drips. Makes cleanup easier. If you don’t have racks, you can use parchment paper, or a clean tea towel. Don’t use paper towels or brown paper bags as these will stick and influence the overall flavor. As a last-ditch effort if you are standing there with your marinated meat, is a cookie sheet or other flat pan. You will need to turn the meat every hour or two however to help with even drying and don’t forget to spray the pan with vegetable cooking spray.
Prop the door of the oven open about three inches to allow the moisture to escape. Allow about 8 to 10 hours, but it can take twice that long if the meat slices are thinner.
When you remove a slice of your freshly made jerky from the oven or dehydrator you can check for done by bending the slice slowly should cause a breaking or splintering of some of the outside fibers. You should not see obvious moisture, although there should be a slightly moist feel to the meat.
Your jerky should keep well at room temperature for about two weeks. I prefer to keep it in a jar with a loose-fitting lid. Keep an eye on it though. If you notice that there is a moisture film in the jar, especially after the first two days, you must take it out immediately and re-dry it for a couple of hours to finish the process. This moisture is an indication that you did not allow enough time initially. You might also add a slice of bread to the storage jar to help attract excess moisture.
When you consider the advantages of using and storing meat preserved in this way compared to the relatively low-cost of preserving it, you may decide, as our grandparents did, that dehydrating meats and making jerky is a good way to help the family budget survive the tough times.
Of course, if you don’t want to make your own, we recommend our Hot N Spicy Slab of Jerky 🙂