Jerky is one of the most underrated snack foods in regards to the great outdoors. We always hear about trail-goers bringing with them a bunch of granola; energy bars; and, well, trail mix; but we think those folks might be missing out on a golden opportunity. Not only is jerky delicious and easy to transport, but it also offers a superb protein-to-weight ratio that’s practically unheard of with the alternatives. After all, that’s just the nature of meat – high protein, low everything else. And since protein is one of the absolute best sources of biological energy, it’s nearly always going to beat out the competition in that category.
Before you get ahead of yourself, however, we want to make one thing abundantly clear: most store-bought jerkies are not all that good for you. That’s because they are often processed and loaded to the gills with sodium and/or chemical flavoring. And while that’s not always true, you can avoid the risk entirely by making jerky on your own. Truth be told, it’s a relatively easy process if you’ve got the time and the space. Plus, the boon of finding that perfect recipe and executing it is a huge payoff. So, without further ado, the following is our guide on how to make beef jerky.
Why Make Jerky?
The Traveling Snack
Believe it or not, the roots of beef jerky date back for literal hundreds of years, if not thousands. And that’s because the process of drying and salting meat was necessary to keep it safe for eating before the invention of refrigeration. You see, salting and drying meat actually prevents the growth of bacteria, which makes it both safe for consumption and gives it a longer shelf life. And that’s what jerky is all about: dehydration. The end goal here is to eliminate as much moisture from the end product as possible. In fact, when it comes to making jerky, you’re actually not going to be cooking it at all. Rather, you’ll be putting the meat through a drying and curing process instead that will make it safe to eat, easy to transport and store, and incredibly delicious. And you still get all the benefits of the high protein content of the meat. Believe it or not, once your meat is made into jerky, you don’t even have to refrigerate it. Just keep it in some airtight storage containers and it will keep for potential weeks.
Choosing Your Meat
While you might want to go out to a nice dinner and get yourself a juicy filet mignon or tenderloin steak, that line of thinking will do you no good when it comes to making beef jerky. And that’s because what you look for in a good steak and what you want out of jerky are two very different things. Steaks are all about the meat itself and preparing it in a way that accentuates the fat content and overall flavor of the dish itself. Jerky, however, is all about spices and protein content. As such, your best bet for a good jerky beef is to go as lean as possible. To be fair, you can absolutely make jerky out of high-fat meat and it will likely be incredibly delicious. But, a pragmatic approach to a high energy content snack food would suggest that you leave the fat out entirely. Apart from accentuating flavor, it just isn’t going to do much for you here.
There are a number of different options out there, most of which are on the cheaper end of the meat spectrum, and you can pick whatever suits you best, but we suggest going with a sirloin or round cut of beef. Just remember these tips: you want as little fat as possible (so trim off what you can prior to prep); the meat will shrink significantly during the process, so you’ll want to err on the side of caution and get more than you think you need; and don’t even consider anything ground. That last bit might seem obvious, but we’d rather say it than not. For the record: it is possible to make jerky out of ground meat, but it requires a lot more work and/or specialty tools and simply isn’t worth it for what you get out of the process.
You don’t have to choose beef, if you don’t want to. Turkey is a popular substitute and you can use chicken, pork, or even fish. The process is virtually the same, but for slight cutting and timing differences due to meat grain and moisture content – though even those are somewhat inconsequential, so long as you pay attention to your meat as it is drying. Really what it comes down to is preference. If you don’t eat or like beef, try making turkey jerky. If you hate all things feathered and you’re not particularly picky when it comes to healthiness, bacon-based jerky might be best for you. Make your choice based on what you like. After all, it’s more about the spices, anyway.
Dry Rub Vs. Marinade
A Question of Spice
Preparing your meat for your spice of choice is pretty simple. All you want to do is take the meat and cut it into long strips about 1/8″ thick. If you’re using beef or pork, you’ll want to cut against the grain to make the end product more easily torn apart and chewed. If you are using fowl or fish, cut with the grain to ensure that the jerky wont fall apart while you are making it. This is more of a general guideline than a rule, but the thinner your strips are, the less time it will take for them to dry. Once you’ve got your meat cut, you’re ready to spice it. For this process there are two possible options: you can apply a dry rub or you can marinade the meat. Your choice will be largely based on flavor, as each spice category favors certain profiles.
DRY RUB: As the name suggests, a dry rub is a mixture of dry spices whose flavors are imparted into the meat by rubbing said spices into the surface of the meat and allowing it to set. Usually a dry rub will consist of a combination of salt and black pepper, as well as a number of other ancillary flavor-giving spices like cayenne, cumin, garlic, etc. You can either purchase a pre-mixed rub (like the one from Hi Mountain pictured above), or you can make your own. The spices and their amounts will vary from recipe to recipe and can always be altered to suit your personal preferences, but this Food.com one is a pretty good place to start.
Once the dry rub is applied, you’ll want to give the spices a chance to really soak into the meat. So, if you have the option, it’s best to take your seasoned meat and put it into a safe storage container (you can always use a serving dish and some plastic wrap) in your refrigerator for around 24 hours. If you don’t, no harm will come to your jerky, but the flavor will not have the same depth as it might if you do take the time. Trust us, it’s worth the wait.
MARINADE: Just as you might for a steak, marinading is an excellent way to get bold flavoring into your jerky – especially if you like barbecue or asian flavors like teriyaki. Again, like dry rubs, you can either purchase a pre-made marinade (the teriyaki sauce from Mr. Yoshida’s pictured above is particularly good), you can put one together based on an online recipe (like this highly rated one from AllRecipes.com), or you can get crafty and make your own from scratch. Popular marinades generally include soy and/or Worcestershire sauces, salt, black pepper, and varying other dry spices from onion to cumin and everything in-between. Again, this will come down to personal preference and a bit of experimentation to get it right.
To impart the flavors of your marinade into your meat, take your strips and lay them in as few layers as possible in a large dish, then pour your marinade mixture over the top, cover it, and place it in your refrigerator. For thicker marinades, you can slather them onto your meat strips with a basting brush. Marinades generally take less time to set than rubs, so you can expect it to be ready in around 6 hours – although you can wait longer if you choose.
Drying Your Jerky
Two Schools of Thought
There are a few different ways to dehydrate your jerky and the opinions on each are somewhat mixed. Traditionalists will tell you that you should keep jerky meat away from any and all artificial sources of heat, whereas pragmatists might say that it isn’t reasonable or even feasible for the average person to dedicate so much time and space to making beef jerky. Instead of taking any specific stand on the matter, we think its better that you choose for yourself based on practicality, pros and cons, and your personal preference. The common methods are as follows:
Commercial Dehydrator: Perhaps the least practical of all the options is the commercial dehydrator. It isn’t that it doesn’t work, but rather because so few people actually own one and it certainly isn’t worth buying one just to make a couple batches of jerky. If you do already own one, however, feel free to use it to make your jerky. Drying times and temperatures will vary from device to device, so consult your owner’s manual for proper instructions prior to using it for this purpose. This can take anywhere from 4 to 15 hours depending on your device and amount of jerky made.
Conventional Oven: There are two issues with using a conventional over to make beef jerky (or really any jerky). First, a closed oven door does not allow moisture to escape, so you’ll want to prop it open at least an inch or two – but that mean’s you’ll be heating up your entire kitchen and, potentially, your whole home. Second, a temperature that’s too high will cook the meat rather than dehydrating it, thus not creating jerky as much as creating very chewy steak strips. That being said, conventional ovens are probably the most convenient and quick, as you can dry about 5 pounds of jerky in around 5 hours at a temperature of 200° Fahrenheit. All you need is to space out your meat strips on metal cooling racks, then put the racks directly into the oven and wait. The jerky is done when it is easily torn into smaller pieces and retains a bit of spring when folded.
Au Natural: This traditional means of drying meat is also probably the easiest in regards to labor and energy cost, but the toughest when it comes to time spent and space required. Just as with the conventional oven, the best way to dry your meat is by spreading it out on metal cooling racks. Then, set them somewhere they can just sit undisturbed for the at least 24 hours it will take to dry. Alternatively, if you have access to a large fan, you can place the racks in front of it to speed up the process by around half. Keep in mind that this process is not without risks – you could potentially still end up with bacteria in your meat. If you are worried about this, we suggest you put your dried meat in the oven at a temperature of 160° Fahrenheit for at least 30 minutes following the drying process.
And that’s all there is to it. Once the meat is dried properly, it’s ready for your enjoyment. Store it in a cool dry place like you would any other perishable and take bits of it as needed. The next time you go on a hike, bring some jerky – it’ll taste great and keep your energy up. The same goes for just about any outdoor activity. Hell, you could even bring it tailgating at your favorite race track or pack it in your carry-on the next time you go traveling. Jerky, beef or otherwise, is an incredibly versatile snack food that’s limited only by where you’re willing to take it.
10 Best Beef Jerkies Available
Although we love whipping up our own batch, sometimes time just isn’t on your side. For those moments, we recommend taking a look at our picks for the 10 best beef jerkies available.