Jerky is a very versatile product. It can be made from a wide range of meats using various combinations of spices and seasonings to achieve the desired flavor. For thousands of years, civilizations have been drying meat as a way to preserve large animals that could not be consumed at one time.
When jerky is made safely, it is nutrient dense, shelf stable and light weight. Specifically, jerky is meat that has been preserved by dehydrating, or removing moisture, at a low temperature for a long time. Once dried, a pound of meat is typically reduced to about 4 ounces.
The biggest safety concern when making jerky is the risk of allowing bacteria that can cause human illness to grow to high levels in the warm, dry environments of a food dehydrator or oven drying process. An added step of heating the meat either before or after drying is needed to destroy these bacteria.
Safe handling and preparation of meat products requires the following practices:
- Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after working with meat products.
- Use clean equipment, utensils and work surfaces. A sanitizing solution can be made from 1 quart of warm water and 1 teaspoon of unscented liquid chlorine bleach.
- Refrigerate meat and poultry at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or slightly below.
- Use ground beef and poultry within two days; whole red meats, within three to five days or freeze for later use.
- Defrost frozen meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.
- Marinate meat in the refrigerator. Don't save marinade to re-use.
- Avoid cross contamination from raw meat juices and marinades used with raw meat.
- Dry meats in a food dehydrator that has an adjustable temperature dial and will maintain a temperature of at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the drying process.
Jerky can be made from just about any meat, poultry or game. Meat selections should contain less than 10 percent fat. Fattier meats may become rancid quickly.
Beef, pork and lamb are popular choices for jerky. Start with a lean cut of meat, with little marbling, and trim excess fat from the exterior of the muscle. Your trimmed meat should contain less than 10 percent fat. Ground meat can also be made into jerky. Select ground meat that is 93 percent lean or higher.
Smoked poultry can be used to make jerky. Raw poultry does not produce a satisfactory product.
When making jerky from game harvested in the wild, it is possible that the animal may be carrying the Trichinella parasite. To destroy the parasite, meat can be frozen in small portions (no thicker than 6 inches) to zero degrees Fahrenheit or below for at least 30 days.
Game meat may also be contaminated with fecal bacteria depending on the location of the wound and field dressing practices. Carcasses should be rapidly cooled and care should be taken to avoid damaging the gastrointestinal tract.
Preparing the Meat
One of the toughest things to get right when preparing jerky is cutting the meat into those “perfect” long thin strips. Since fresh meat is typically quite pliable, slightly freeze the meat prior to cutting. This will give you a firmer product that is easier to cut. Remember to trim as much fat from the surface of the meat as possible before slicing into jerky strips. Excess fat can quickly turn rancid and develop “off” odors during drying.
To make chewy jerky (the kind most of us like) slice the meat along the grain. For more tender jerky, slice across the grain. For best results, meat should be cut no more than ¼-inch thick. Strips should also be about 1 inch to 1½ inches wide. The more even the thickness of your slices, the more even the drying time will be.
At this point, the meat can be dried as is or it can be tenderized using a marinade or a commercial meat tenderizer. Marinades usually include an acid ingredient, such as vinegar, teriyaki sauce or juice, combined with spices and other seasonings. Meat strips should be marinated in the refrigerator for safety.
When using ground meat to make jerky, the meat is mixed with a dry spice and curing mix instead of a marinade.
(This marinade recipe is from the National Center for Home Food Preservation)
Combine all ingredients. Place strips of meat in a shallow pan and cover with marinade. Cover and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours or overnight. Products marinated for several hours may be saltier than some people prefer. If you choose to heat the meat prior to drying to decrease the risk of foodborne illness, do so at the end of the marination time. To heat, bring strips and marinade to a boil and boil for 5 minutes before draining and drying. If strips are more than a ¼-inch thick, the length of time may need to be increased. If possible, check the temperature of several strips with a metal stem-type thermometer to determine that 160 degrees Fahrenheit has been reached.
Destroying Microorganisms in Jerky
The temperatures of dehydrators and oven dehydrating are not high enough to destroy harmful microorganisms that are typically present in raw meat. Even though fully dried jerky may appear done, it is not safe to eat unless it goes through an additional heat treatment. This can be done before or after the meat is dried.
This method is currently recommended by the USDA Meat and Poultry Hotline as the safest option. Meat that is pre-cooked will take less time to dehydrate and may be different from traditional jerky in color and texture.
Heat the meat strips to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (165°F for poultry). Meat is marinated first and then pre-cooked. This can be done by simmering or steaming the meat in the marinade or by baking in the oven. To bake, arrange meat strips on wire racks placed on baking sheets and bake at 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a bi-metallic stemmed food thermometer to check the internal temperature of the meat strips.
Jerky should reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (165°F for poultry). Arrange dried jerky strips in a single layer on a baking sheet, not touching or overlapping. Place in an oven preheated to 275 degrees Fahrenheit. Begin checking the temperature using a bi-metallic food thermometer at 10 minutes. Jerky that was more than ¼-inch thick when raw may take longer to reach the correct temperature.
Drying the Meat
Jerky can be dried in an oven or in an electric dehydrator. It is not recommended to use sun-drying for making jerky because of the risk of contamination and unsteady heat source.
When oven drying, it is important to keep your oven at a constant low temperature, between 145 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit, and to keep air circulating in the oven. You can encourage good air flow by propping the oven door open a few inches and placing a fan near the open door. This will help evacuate the moisture being released from the jerky.
When using an electric dehydrator, the unit should be tested, using a bi-metallic stemmed food thermometer, to determine its true operating temperature when empty. Even if the unit has temperature control settings, they may be inaccurate.
Use these steps to determine the dehydrator’s internal temperature:
- For a dehydrator with a fan in the back of the unit, creating horizontal air flow, place the thermometer inside the unit and close the door.
- For a dehydrator with a fan on the top or bottom, creating vertical air flow, place 3 trays on the base of the unit. Insert the thermometer stem between the top 2 trays with the dial held outside of the unit. Add the cover.
- Begin operating your dehydrator at its highest/hottest setting.
- Wait several minutes for the temperature to steady, then record. If your dehydrator has multiple temperature settings, you may want to repeat this test for each setting.
- If a dehydrator does not have various temperature settings, check if you can increase/decrease the amount of ventilation. This can allow you to keep more heat in or let more heat escape, as a way to adjust temperature.
- The dehydrator must reach a minimum of 145 degrees Fahrenheit to safely be used for making jerky.
Preparing the Trays
Begin by preheating the oven or dehydrator to at least 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove meat strips from marinade and place on paper towels to remove excess moisture. Prevent sticking by lightly coating trays (for your dehydrator) or wire racks on baking sheets (for oven drying) with vegetable oil or non-stick pan spray. Transfer slices to trays, arranging strips closely together, but not touching. Allow approximately 25 percent open space on each tray to allow air to flow freely between trays during drying. Place trays in preheated oven or dehydrator.
When making jerky from ground meat, the seasoned meat is formed into strips or logs by hand or using a special press. Similar to whole muscle cuts, the meat strips should not be more than ¼ inch in thickness. Arrange in a single layer on trays.
For best results in dehydrators with vertical air flow, rotate trays at least every 2 hours, moving the tray closest to the heat to the position farthest away from the heat.
While jerky will typically take many hours to dry fully, begin checking it after about 3 hours to avoid over-drying. To test for doneness, remove a piece of jerky from the tray and allow it to cool to room temperature. Once cooled, the jerky should crack slightly but not break completely when bent.
When it’s finally all done, press jerky between clean paper towels or napkins to absorb any excess fat. Allow the jerky to cool to room temperature, then package in air-tight containers. Examples of air-tight containers include plastic zipper bags, glass jars and vacuum-sealed containers.
Properly dried and treated (pre-heating or post-heating) jerky can safely be stored for up to two weeks at room temperature or three to six months in the refrigerator. For highest food quality, store in a cool and dry location.
Sant, Laura L., Carol Hampton, and Sandy M. McCurdy. Making Jerky at Home Safely. 632nd ed. Vol. PNW. Pacific Northwest Extension Publication, 2012.
Andress, Elizabeth L., Paulette Williams, Judy A. Harrison, and Susan J. Reynolds. So Easy to Preserve. Athens: Cooperative Extension Service, University of Georgia, College of Family and Consumer Sciences, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, 2014.
“Drying Jerky.” Home Food Preservation (Penn State Extension). November 17, 2012.
“USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.” Jerky and Food Safety. November 2011. Accessed October 04, 2016. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/ge....