Mastering the Craft of Making Jerky

It’s Not Just for Beef Anymore.  Here’s How to Explore the Jerky World.

It’s hard to say where and when jerky originated.  We’ve been drying food for millennia in the sun, the wind and over variations on a fire.  One idea attributes the actual word “jerky” to a tribe in South America called the        Quechua who made a dried meat called Ch’arki, but the recipe for jerky is as common and as old as civilization itself.  Maybe older.

Our primitive ancestors made jerky out of most any meat or fish.  Drying was an invaluable food preservation process and probably the first technique for long-term food storage. 

Today, we use jerk recipes mostly for the flavor as a snack or trail treat.  We also use food dehydrators rather than the low and slow drying process over a bed of coals or hung from a bush in the sun and wind. 

We’re going to focus on the food dehydrator as our primary means of making jerky, but we’ll also cover some off-grid methods using a kettle grill and then go back on the grid to look at some oven drying techniques for jerky.

What Makes any Food Jerked?

Jerking as a food preparation process usually involves a marinade of meat or fish that is then patted dry with a cloth or paper towel and subjected to very low heat for a long period of time.  The marinade is what gives various jerked foods their distinctive flavors.  The slow drying in low heat is what gives jerky its unique, chewy texture.

The Best Foods for Jerking

1. Beef

Beef shows up most often on Internet searches for jerky and is the most prominent variety of jerky on store shelves.  Any cut of beef works for jerky and that’s a good thing.  The jerking process removes most of the moisture from beef which means that a one-pound cut of beef can reduce to as little as one ounce once the jerking is complete.  That’s why beef jerky in the stores always seems a bit pricey.  That two-ounce package of teriyaki beef jerky started with as much as two-pounds of beef.

2. Venison

Every deer hunter is familiar with venison jerky and many hunters do it themselves.  The fact of the matter is that many cuts of venison can be a bit tough and don’t lend themselves to some recipes.  However, any cut of venison can make great jerky.  This is where the jerky marinating process adds an extra benefit as it masks the gaminess present in some venison cuts.

3. Fish

Certain species of fish lend themselves quite well to the jerking process.  However, each of these species has a shared characteristic.  The best fish for jerking are the fatty, oily fish like salmon, trout, whitefish, mackerel, and sardines.  Leaner fish like pike, walleye and bass are too dry and tend to disintegrate and become flaky, but it that’s all you have you can give it a try.  Salmon is the most popular fish for jerking and we’ll cover a Native-American favorite called Jerked Salmon Candy. 

Jerking Methods in a Nutshell

The Food Dehydrator

Food dehydrators come in a variety of shapes, sizes, configurations and prices.  One thing they all have in common is an instruction book.  While it will have many very good recipes, it will also have some very good information on times for dehydrating certain foods and temperatures if it’s adjustable.  We’ve covered some basic times and temperatures in the recipes but consult your instruction book for specific adjustments and timing unique to your dehydrator.

  • The most basic dehydrators run about $30 to $40.  These models are usually made of plastic, have two to four dehydrator trays, a vented lid and a single heating element in the base that runs at one temperature.
  • More expensive dehydrators run from $100 to $1,000 and feature up to 12 trays, an adjustable heating element, a built-in thermometer or temperature gauge, and small convection fans in the base to create air-circulation.

Conventional and Toaster Ovens

Jerked foods can be made in an oven, but the process requires very low heat.  The standard recommendation is for an oven temperature of 160° Fahrenheit for durations from 2 to 4 hours or more.  It’s also recommended that you leave the oven door cracked open like you would do when broiling.  This allows the moisture to escape. 

  • A technique that is sometimes used with a conventional oven is to suspend the meat or fish from the top rack with a toothpick or skewer to allow the meat to hang down from the top.  A sheet of foil is placed on the rack beneath the meat to catch any drips.
  • The standard technique for a toaster oven is to lay the meat or fish on the toaster oven rack.  Some toaster ovens don’t let you partially crack open the door, so you may have to wedge the door open with the metal handle of a butter knife or some other oven-safe object. 

Regardless of which oven you use, you may feel concerned about electricity usage even at a low 160°.  The open door means the oven will be running constantly.  It you want to avoid the cost either use a food dehydrator which typically runs at a lower wattage or take your jerking outside.

Kettle Grill Jerking

This doesn’t have to be a kettle grill.  It could be a bullet or barrel grill, but it needs a vented cover.  The idea is to use the indirect cooking method.  The coals or heat source are on one side of the grill and the meat or fish are placed on the grill over the other side where there are no coals or heat.  You’ll often use this setup for smoking with a water pan under the meat or fish but skip the water pan.  You’re trying to eliminate moisture -not add it.  You should also skip the addition of any wood chips or chunks unless you want a smoky flavor.

You can use a charcoal or gas grill for jerking as long as the meat or fish are not over direct heat.  For a gas grill, leave the burners off on one side for the meat or fish.

Testing for Doneness

The standard test for jerky doneness is to bend it.  It should be pliable and bend, not break.   You should also make sure that all of your cuts are of the same thickness.  If the thickness of the meat or fish varies, you’ll find that some pieces are done while others need more time. 

The reason that any test for doneness is important is because of the temperature variations that can happen with different dehydrators and drying methods.  Just taste and test as you go and with time, you’ll develop a sense for when the jerky should be ready.

Jerky Storage and Shelf-Life

You have to be cautious when it comes to packaging and storing any jerky you make.  Store bought jerky is not only processed with strict manufacturing disciplines but is often treated with artificial preservatives such as nitrites to extend shelf-life and prevent bacterial and fungal growth.  The good thing about making your own jerky is that it’s organic in the sense that the only preservatives used are natural ones like salt or acids from citrus fruits or vinegar. 

Packaging options include resealable plastic bags, vacuum sealing in plastic bags, tightly wrapped in foil or the use of home-canning jars.  All will do a good job of keeping airborne bacteria and spores from coming in contact with the jerky, and it will also prevent moisture from compromising the meat or fish.  Bacteria thrive in a moist environment and the jerky drying process works pretty well to get rid of excess moisture.  You just have to keep it that way.

While the drying process that is used to make jerky does help with regards to food preservative properties, don’t assume that you can chew on a stick of jerky after months on a pantry shelf without some risk.  The key thing to do is to eat it as soon possible, or package it so that it’s not exposed to air and refrigerate it if you have room in the fridge.  In an off-grid environment you can still assume the jerky will keep if packaged correctly, but there are some simple tests you should do that applies to all home-preserved foods.

1. Assess its appearance

Does it like you expect it to look.  Avoid any preserved foods like jerky if the color has changed.  If you notice anything that appears to be mold growth, discard it immediately.

2. Smell it

The smell of the jerky should evoke the flavors from the marinade or the spices plus the smell you would expect from meat or fish.  If you notice an odor that is inconsistent with what you expected, or any hint of mildew you should get rid of it.  The old food-storage mantra still stands, “If in doubt, throw it out.”

3. Taste it

Jerky will typically have a bit of a chew to it, but the taste should also be consistent with your expectations.  If it doesn’t taste good that’s another good reason to toss the batch.

4. Date it

Take the time to write the date that you packaged your jerky.  If you make multiple batches over time it’s easy to forget or confuse the actual age of anything stored.  It’s also easy to simply forget that we have some jerky tucked away and wonder at a later date how old it really is.  This is especially important if someone other than you is about to eat the jerky.  They may think you made it yesterday when in fact     -you made it last year.

Specific durations for jerky shelf-life are hard to estimate because there are so many variables related to preservative ingredients in the marinade, drying times, end-result moisture content, and packaging and temperatures related to storage.  It’s best to play it safe and package it quickly, keep it refrigerated, date the package and eat it as soon as possible.

Jerky Recipes

The primary variation in all of these recipes is based on the protein source (meat or fish), and the marinade.  There are also varying drying processes but all of them accomplish very similar results whether a food dehydrator, oven, or kettle grill.  You can also try some of the different marinades across various meats or fish, but the recipes featured highlight some of the more popular approaches to jerky.

The times for dehydrating are estimates based on a basic, one-element, one temperature dehydrator.  Consult your dehydrator instruction book for specifics because times can vary.  The standard recommendation for doneness remains the same: taste as you go.

Good Old Beef Jerky

Good Old Beef Jerky Recipe:

  • 1 pound of any cut of beef

MARINADE INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon of ketchup
  • ¼ teaspoon of black pepper
  • ¼ teaspoon of onion salt
  • ½ teaspoon of salt

DIRECTIONS:

1. Remove all of the fat from the beef and cut it into 3/8 to 1/4-inch strips.

2. Mix all of the marinade ingredients together and Marinate 1 hour.

3. Drain and pat dry and place on the dehydrator trays

4. Dry in the dehydrator for 2 to 4 hours and test and taste for desired doneness.

5. Serve or package and store in the refrigerator.

Dad’s Venison Jerky

Dad’s Venison Jerky Recipe:

  • 1-pound of venison

MARINADE INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of liquid smoke (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon of ketchup
  • ½ teaspoon of black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon of garlic powder
  • ¼ teaspoon of onion salt

DIRECTIONS: 

1. Slice the venison into long strips about 1-inch wide and 1/8 of an inch thick. 

2. Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a large bowl. 

3. Gently press the venison into the marinade. Refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.

4. When marinating is complete, pat the beef dry with a cloth or paper towel.  You can sprinkle with cracked black pepper as an optional step.  You can also cut the strips into shorter lengths for bite size pieces.

5. Place the strips or pieces onto the toaster oven rack and select 160° F.  Leave the door open partially to allow the moisture to escape and dry for 2 hours and taste to assess texture and flavor.  Continue to test every hour until it satisfies your taste.  You can also use a dehydrator.  Dry for 2 to 4 hours in the dehydrator and repeat the taste test.

6. Package either in plastic bags or a canning jar and either store in the pantry or refrigerate. 

Oven-Dried Beef Jerky

Oven-Dried Beef Jerky Recipe:

  • 1 pound of beef

MARINADE INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup of soy sauce
  • ½ cup of brown sugar
  • ½ cup of pineapple juice or orange juice
  • ¼ cup of Balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons of liquid smoke flavoring (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon of ground paprika
  • 3 garlic cloves minced
  • 1 teaspoon of salt

DIRECTIONS:

1. Cut the beef into thin strips about 1/8 to 1/4 inches thick.

2. Combine all of the marinade ingredients in a saucepan and heat until the brown sugar is dissolved.  Stir and let cool. 

3. In a glass or plastic bowl, cover the beef strips with the marinade and refrigerate for 4 to 6 hours or overnight.

4. Remove the strips from the marinade and pat dry with a cloth or paper towel.

5. Skewer the beef strips so there about 6 to 8 strips on a skewer.

6. Place a sheet of foil on the bottom rack of the oven and suspend the beef on the skewers from the top rack so they hang down.

7. Select 160° F. and leave the oven door open slightly to allow moisture to escape.

8. Oven dry for 4 to 6 hours.  Taste as you go to assess the texture and taste that you like.

9. Serve or package and store in the refrigerator.

Alaskan Candied Salmon Jerky

Alaskan Candied Salmon Jerky Recipe

  • 1 to 3 pounds of fresh Salmon filets

MARINADE INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of molasses
  • 2 tablespoons of white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tablespoons of ground black pepper
  • 12 dashes of hot sauce or to suit your taste
  • 2 teaspoons of liquid smoke flavoring (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

1. Remove the skin from the salmon.

2. Combine the marinade ingredients in a saucepan and heat until sugar is dissolved, and the molasses incorporated.  Let cool.

3. In a glass or plastic bowl immerse the salmon in the marinade and marinate in the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours or overnight.

4. Dry the salmon filets.

5. Carefully cut into strips about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick.

6. Place on racks in the dehydrator and dry for 4 to 6 hours.  Taste as you go to assess texture and taste.

7. Serve or package and store refrigerated.

Candied Salmon Skin Jerky

Yes, you can eat salmon skin.  In Japan it’s considered a delicacy and they will often serve it in a roll of rice (maki) or embedded in rice in a cone of seaweed paper (nori).  We’re only going to cover the basic salmon skin prep and dehydrating process here.

Candied Salmon Skin Jerky Recipe:

  • Fileted salmon skin

MARINADE INGREDIENTS:

(Same as candied salmon marinade)

  • 1 cup of soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of molasses
  • 2 tablespoons of white sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce
  • 2 tablespoons of lemon juice
  • 1 ½ tablespoons of ground black pepper
  • 12 dashes of hot sauce or to suit your taste
  • 2 teaspoons of liquid smoke flavoring (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

1. Remove the skin from the salmon filets.

2. Combine the marinade ingredients in a saucepan and heat until sugar is dissolved, and the molasses incorporated.  Let cool.

3. In a glass or plastic bowl immerse the salmon skin in the marinade and marinate in the refrigerator for 1 to 2 hours.

4. Dry the salmon skin with cloth or paper towels and slice into long strips about a ½ inch thick and place on the dehydrator tray skin side up.

5. Dehydrate for 1 to 2 hours and test and taste for doneness. Unlike most jerky, salmon skin should be crispy and crunchy.

6. Serve or package and store.

That’s Not All Folks!

AS you continue to experiment with making jerky you can try new marinade combinations, spicing alternatives from cracked black pepper to red pepper flakes, and other types of meat from pork to poultry.  It’s an excellent skill to learn for self-reliance and can allow you to make the most out of any fish or game that comes your way.

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