There are different reasons that people decide to start making their own beef jerky. Some are looking for a healthier snack for the kids rather than the junk food that is full of empty calories and additives. Others use dehydration as a form of preservation for foods they can take along on camping trips. Many people who have never tried dehydrating foods question whether there are any real benefits to making their own beef jerky instead of just buying it commercially.
Why make beef jerky when I can buy it at the store?
It isn’t just that the taste of homemade jerky is better; it’s why it’s better that encourages many people to make homemade beef jerky regularly. They rely on the dehydration process to preserve the meat and use the seasonings of choice to enhance the natural flavor. The ingredients of most beef jerky in the stores include a long list of additives including preservatives, corn syrup, and flavor enhancers. When you make your own, you determine exactly what goes into the snacks you and your family will be eating. The end result is a healthier, better tasting jerky.
Cost is another consideration, especially when the jerky is eaten as more than an occasional snack. This is especially true if you purchase jerky made from grass-fed beef. You can also make the jerky to fit any special dietary needs by purchasing the quality of meat and using the type of marinade that has only the ingredients you want to eat.
What to look for in a dehydrator
The dehydrator is the most important tool for making good quality, safe, nutritious beef jerky. Although taste may be the first concern on your mind, safety is always an important consideration when preserving meat. Choosing the right dehydrator will determine how effectively the meat is dried and preserved.
There are two basic types of dehydrators including those with vertical and horizontal air flow. Vertical air flow dehydrators usually have a heat base and fan at the bottom but some are placed at the top of the unit. The fan moves the heated air up and down through the dehydrator. The air flows vertically and not across the food trays so that some areas are exposed to less air than others, often resulting in uneven drying of the food. Most will have to have the trays turned throughout the drying process and the end results can still be unpredictable.
In general, vertical flow dehydrators cost less than those that use horizontal air flow. Some beginners may be tempted to purchase a cheaper dehydrator until they decide if making their own beef jerky is something they want to do regularly. Using the wrong dehydrator will cause you to get poor results that may prevent you from ever wanting to make jerky again. Although vertical air flow dehydrators are fine for dehydrating some types of foods, such as fruits or herbs, they are not the best choice for making beef jerky.
Horizontal air flow dehydrators have a fan in the rear and distribute air evenly across the drying trays. Regardless of the number of trays in the dehydrator, the food at every level and position will turn out the same without the need to rotate trays during the drying process. When dehydrating meat, removing all of the moisture is essential for producing a safe product. You never want to leave moisture behind when making jerky to prevent the potential for bacterial growth.
Another important feature to look for on a dehydrator is an adjustable thermostat. All types of foods have a specific optimum temperature that should be used. People used to use low temperatures to make beef jerky but experts realize today that higher temperatures are needed to destroy any bacteria in the meat.
Although horizontal flow dehydrators are typically more expensive than vertical flow units, you don’t have to invest in the largest, best dehydrator to get good results. There are many affordable models with adequate capacity to handle large batches of jerky safely and efficiently.
How does a dehydrator dry meat?
The right temperature and airflow work together to provide the ideal conditions for jerky and any other type of food you want to dehydrate. A heating element produces the heat that pulls the moisture from the food and into the atmosphere of the dehydrator. Then the fan pulls the moisturized air out of the unit. When making beef jerky, it is especially important to reach the appropriate temperature to kill dangerous bacteria in the meat. Meats are dehydrated at higher temperatures than other foods and the air flow should be consistent to remove the moisture from the dehydrator.
Choosing the best cuts of meat
To make good beef jerky, you have to start with the best cuts of meat. Although you would normally choose a steak with the right amount of fat and marbling to give the meat the desired flavor as it is cooked, the opposite is true when making beef jerky. You will need to choose a lean cut with as little marbling and fat as possible. Fat will turn rancid and prevent your jerky from having the long lasting quality that you want from the dehydration process. Some popular choices are flank steak and round steak. You can also use London broil cuts and organic meats. Whatever cut you go with, make sure they are fresh and have a deep red color with no brown spots visible.
Marinades and seasonings come in a wide variety of pre-mixes and recipes you can use to make your own. Salt and sugar are often added to improve the preservation process but there are also low-sodium, sugar-free recipes available for those who are on restricted diets.
Marinades are typically dry rub or wet and they are used to add seasoning to the meat. Once you choose your recipe, it is added to the beef and refrigerated in a glass container or sealable plastic bag and refrigerated. To get the full impact of the marinade, let it refrigerate for about 24-hours. You do not have to rinse the meat once it has finished marinating but do shake off any extra liquid or lumps of rub.
The choice in marinade and seasoning is the one that you can always change if you are not completely satisfied with the taste of the beef jerky. Leaving the meat to marinade for 24-hours may result in a too-salty taste that you may want to change for the next batch, or you may simply decide that you want to taste more of the meat and less of the spice. If you can pinpoint the undesirable ingredient, you can try the same recipe without it. Otherwise, you may want to switch to an entirely different recipe. It may take a few batches before you find the perfect taste or the first one might be the one that sticks.
Steps to prepare for dehydration
Trim any excess fat or silverskin from the meat. This includes any pockets of fat that may appear throughout or layers on the surface. It is virtually impossible to remove all traces of fat, but you should remove as much as possible.
Once the fat has been trimmed away, cut the meat into 1/4-inch slices. You can either slice with the grain and get chewier jerky or against the grain to get jerky that is more tender, but which may fall apart. The grain is the direction that the muscle fibers, or white lines. While you probably like your steak to be tender, most people prefer a chewier jerky that stays intact so they cut the meat with the grain.
Place the jerky on the dehydrator trays in a single layer without overlapping any pieces. Set the temperature to 155-160°F. Depending on the dehydrator you use and the recommendations for drying the jerky, you may be able to set the timer for the appropriate drying time and leave it until the process is completed. After the dehydration process has completed, heat the jerky in an oven at a minimum temperature of 160°F (60°C) for at least 30 minutes as a precaution against the risk of salmonella.
How to store your jerky
The method of storage is nearly as important as the dehydration process. The main idea is to prevent moisture and air from coming into contact with the meat. Otherwise, mold or bacterial growth will spoil the jerky.
Let the jerky cool completely before putting into storage. If the jerky seems too moist, you may need to use a desiccant bag to help remove the moisture. Desiccant is readily available online or you can simply use a paper bag to wick moisture away from the jerky. The jerky should be thoroughly dry before putting into storage containers.
Air-tight containers made of glass or food-grade plastic are the best. If using sealable plastic bags, get a brand name that is good quality and heavy duty. Some people like to use a vacuum packing system to keep the jerky perfectly sealed for an even longer shelf life by providing a better airtight seal than you will get from any container. There are many who believe that jerky should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer to extend the shelf life but nearly as many who advise against it. As long as the jerky is thoroughly dehydrated and stored properly, it should last for many months without refrigeration.