While the term, “beef jerky”, rolls off the tongue with the greatest of ease, many proteins may be dehydrated and considered jerky. The science is fairly straightforward – slowly heat a piece of beef, poultry, fish, etc. to remove the moisture that lives inside it to prolong its palatable longevity. Moisture and fat cause the protein to spoil faster which is why you want to select very lean cuts in order to give yourself the best results. Moisture is what the dehydration process takes care of, at a slow pace, as opposed to cooking it at higher temperatures. Do you know those juices that you love to seal or sear in when cooking your favorite steak? We want all of those juices out of the meat! We do this by slow, steady, air circulated heat that is conducive to drying out the meat rather than cooking it.
My research and experiences have led me to the understanding that the best jerky meat choices are ’round’ (top round aka London Broil, bottom round, eye of round), ‘loin’ (tenderloin, top loin, short loin), flank, or cap. The key is to find a nice chunk of meat with minimal fat on the inside because you can only remove so much of it while retaining proper thickness for dehydrating the beef. Fat on the outside is easy to trim off, so that’s just a waste of money rather than end product. Every once in a while I can get a butcher to give me a trimmed piece of meat where they trim most of the outside fat off and I’m paying for more actual meat than fat. In Chicago, my go-to source of meat is typically a 5 pound Top Round from Costco which costs around $30. Local supermarkets require less planning and you can indeed get good meats at reasonable prices, so there’s no excuse for not making your own jerky! Venison makes a fantastic protein for jerky as well. I had more if it than I could eat going to college in Roanoke, VA many moons ago. I am not a hunter, but luckily lots of teammates and friends were hunters and were happy to share their seasonal hauls with us city folk.
Non-beef jerky recipes aren’t in my wheelhouse at this point but for chicken use the breast meat, and for fish use the fillet or steak cuts. Again, the least fatty pieces are what you want for best results. Plain, unseasoned slices of chicken breast make excellent dog treats – slice, dehydrate, and serve. Done!
Since we are removing all the good juices that we seek out when eating steak, we should take the opportunity to get other forms of flavor into the meat before we evaporate the juices out of it. In the jerky biz, this is what is typically referred to as marinade. You likely found BiteSeeing searching for jerky recipes, and that’s exactly is what the recipes give you – a punch of flavor to make your jerky enjoyable and memorable!
Typically, there will be a combination of wet and dry ingredients mixed together in a 1-gallon ziplock bag that the sliced meat strips will bathe in for 8 to 24 hours. Salt is a critical component of jerky because not only does it act as a natural preservative, (SCIENCE ALERT!) but when given time, it pulls out existing moisture from the meat and replaces it to a degree with whatever flavor is surrounding it (pssst, it’s the marinade).
In addition to being a mad scientist melding various flavor profiles together (Asian, sweet & spicy, smokey, vinegary, etc.) you may also use bottled marinades and sauces. While less exciting on the surface, you can make some fantastic tasting jerky using a bottle as a base sauce. Think Frank’s Hot Sauce with Worcestershire sauce, Liquid Smoke and minced garlic. Yummy!
So just have fun with it. Pick flavors you like, experiment, and try something new. The marinade is technically the easiest part of the entire jerky adventure, but also the most critical and nuanced because that’s the only chance you get to impact the final bouquet of the jerky you put into your mouth in a few hours.
There are several ways you can dehydrate meat, but for the purpose of the home chef, the oven and a dehydrator are the two most common choices and once you start making jerky routinely, a dehydrator is worth the investment – you can spend as little or much as your budget allows to make your treats as easy and stress-free as possible.
Every recipe and post I have here at this point revolves around using a dehydrator so I’m not your guy for the oven strategy. If I ever find a practical reason for it, I’ll write about it. Aside from being in the wilderness or at a cabin with only a gas oven, I can’t think of many situations I’d be in where I’d make jerky without having my dehydrator, “Naked And Afraid” moments notwithstanding.
For completeness, I’ll reiterate a previous post called, “Why You Need A Dehydrator“, on the topic of oven vs. dehydrator:
You can alternately use your oven to dry meat, however, you’ll have a few challenges that may give you a negative experience and hinder you from doing it again.
- For best results, the jerky should be exposed to as much heat as possible from a surface area standpoint, so unless you want to flip every piece on a regular basis throughout your 4-7 hour cook, a standard sheet pan isn’t going to cut it. You can lay the meat strips across your oven racks (and make sure you put a pan or foil at the bottom to catch all of the drippings!), hang them vertically (use a toothpick or skewer for the suspension), or if making smaller/quick batches you could use a cooling rack as you would with bacon (again, put something underneath to avoid a mess or fire!)
- Jerky does best when dried at 160 degrees. Take a look at your oven settings. The lowest my oven goes is 170, which I believe is typical of most home ovens. Getting into this range, if you aren’t careful, can cause the meat to cook as opposed to dry, which isn’t what you are looking for. You could prop the oven door open and use a remote thermometer to monitor temperature, but it’s another check you have to stay on top of.
So for the purpose of this site and your sanity, the operating assumption is that we will use a dehydrator for our jerky making needs until further notice 🙂
I find that pictures work best for describing the slicing process, so I’ve created a little slideshow for you below:
That should cover it for now! Check out our growing list of jerky recipes and let me know if you have any questions.
In the meantime, feel free to browse some of my past performances in another little slideshow: