Drying meat has been happening longer than recorded history: It was a way for people to have protein during scarce times, especially during long winters. While we may no longer need beef (or pork, or venison, or turkey) jerky to survive, but there are still very good reasons to eat it.
First, it's delicious. Also, it’s lightweight and safe to keep at room temperature, which makes it great for campers and backpackers alike.
But What Cut?
If you want the best results, you should start with lean, grass-fed flank steak. However, there are options. If you’re looking for good jerky on a budget, you can use other lean cuts such as top round, bottom round, or rump roast. You can even use a London broil. Whichever route you go, it’s important to start with a lean cut and clean away as much fat as possible. Fat doesn’t do as well as lean protein at room temperature, and can shorten the shelf life of your jerky if it turns rancid.
How much you make is up to you: Generally, meat will lose about 50% of its weight due to evaporation in the drying process. If you want a pound of beef jerky, start with 2 or 2 1/2 pounds of raw beef.
Big Knife, Small Slice
You’ll want to use a long, very sharp blade such as a slicing knife. The added length will help you achieve uniformity in your slices, and using a sharp knife is always safer for your fingers. Before you start hacking away, wrap the meat tightly in plastic wrap and put it in your freezer for a bit. The amount of time needed will vary depending on the cut of meat and its size, but the goal is to firm the meat without freezing it solid. The added structure will help keep your cuts straight and even.
I generally try to shoot for strips about ¼-inch thick. Thicker strips can take too long to dehydrate, creating a brittle exterior and under-dried interior. Thinner strips can easily overcook and end up as sawdust in your mouth. Opinions vary, but most people who use flank steak will tell you to slice with the grain of the meat.
Cutting: If you’re looking for a softer variety of jerky, there are a few options. Remember when I said that most people will tell you to slice with the grain of the meat? Rules are made to be broken. If you find your finished jerky is too tough, next time cut across the grain. Muscle fibers are organized into bundles like rope. Cutting across the grain creates a multitude of tiny cross sections of those ropes, making masticating connective tissue (collagen) the toughest chore for your teeth.
Tenderizers: There are also a number of choices for chemical tenderizers. I know that sentence scared a few of you. If you’d like to avoid the enzyme-based mix you can find in the spice section of most grocery stores, there’s still hope. Certain fruits—like kiwi, pineapple, and papaya—contain enzymes that work in a similar fashion. You can use fresh, frozen purées, or juices.
Ground meat: You can also try mechanical tenderization, if fruit doesn’t work in your marinade. You can use ground meat, though I would recommend grinding your own to ensure freshness, food safety, and low fat content. Ground meat is a little trickier to portion, but if you’re serious about your jerky, you can buy specialized equipment such as a jerky gun.
Mechanical tenderization: My favorite mechanical method, though, is old school and cathartic: If using a thicker cut, slice the meat into steaks about twice as thick as you want your jerky wide (so if you want 1-inch wide strips, cut 1-inch thick steaks). On a sturdy work surface, put plastic wrap under and over the meat. Find something heavy. It could be a rolling pin, a meat mallet, or, my favorite, a heavy bottomed pot. Now beat the hell out of it until you reach your desired thickness.
The water method? I’ve tried all of the above and found them effective, but I was curious if there were still trade secrets lurking in the world of culinary professionals. I spoke with two-time Top Chef contestant Grayson Schmitz, a fellow Wisconsin native and jerky aficionado, and she was quick to produce a method I’d never heard of. At a place called Pipe Meat Market in Wisconsin, they would lay the strips of raw meat on a sheet tray and add water before placing it in the oven. The meat was cooked slowly until tender. The science behind it is sound. The application of low heat in the presence of water allows the water-soluble connective tissue to break down and dissolve, and is essentially the same concept as a braise. At this point, the meat would be patted dry and marinated.
Marinate Your Meat
This is the fun part. How you marinate your meat is mostly up to you. There’s something to be said for the classics; black pepper jerky is popular for a reason. But don’t be afraid to get weird with it. Along with the money you’ll save, creative control is the best part of making your own jerky. As you experiment, try to create a balance between sweet, spicy, and salty. It’s important to make sure the marinade contains a fair amount of salt, as it will aid in prolonging the shelf life as well as permeating the meat with the flavors of the marinade (yay, osmosis!). The sugar will also do double duty as a flavoring agent and preservative.
Don’t soak the meat for too long, or the finished product will be too salty. I usually soak mine for 2 1/2 hours. If you’re working with thicker slices, you may need a little longer. Anyways, here are a few ideas to get you going:
Though the cooking process takes a while, it’s mostly an adventure in "set it and forget it." Once it’s under heat, all you need to do is check periodically for doneness. How you cook it is up to you. I generally use a dehydrator because most models allow you to reach lower temperatures than you can in the average oven, but I’ve used an oven with comparable efficacy, and you can too. Alton Brown even has a method that uses air conditioner filters, bungee cords, and a box fan, but we’ll stick to the oven for now.
Once your meat has finished marinating, remove it from the liquid and pat it as dry as possible before proceeding. If you’re unsure if it needs to soak longer, taste it after cooking off a little piece in a skillet.
Now, there are a couple of ways to dry out your meat:
Line the bottom of your oven with foil and coat the racks with nonstick spray. Hang the strips of meat over the oven racks, leaving a little breathing room between each strip and its neighbor.
If you don’t feel like scrubbing oven racks, lay bamboo skewers across the oven racks and hang the meat from the skewers.
If you don’t have bamboo skewers, lay wire racks on foil lined sheet trays, and spread the meat evenly across the racks.
Whatever you do, it’s important to make sure both sides of the meat have access to air flow. This not only allows them to cook evenly, but effectively doubles the exposed surface area, speeding the process.
Turn the oven as low as it will go. Most ovens bottom out at 170°F, but some have a “keep warm” feature that runs between 145°F and 165°F. If you have it, use it. Prop the oven door ajar slightly with a folded kitchen towel. This will help keep the temperature even as well as allow evaporated moisture to escape. Depending on how big the pieces are and how loaded the oven is, it should take around 5 hours to dry. The meat is finished when it is cooked through, though you can take it as far as you want to. Some people like charcoal.
That’s it. You’re done! Eat.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).
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