Beef Jerky is Easier to Make Than you Think
If you are a lover of beef jerky and are not making your own, you know that buying it can take a bite out of your wallet. What you might not know is how easy it is to make yourself. Whether you have a dehydrator, barbecue, smoker, or just an oven, with a little preparation and some time you can have healthy, homemade beef jerky quickly and inexpensively.
Beef jerky is lean meat cut into thin strips and dried over low heat. The result is a leathery, flexible, salty, meat product. It is ideal for traveling and camping because it is nutritious, lightweight, and doesn’t require refrigeration.
You Need a Heat Source
Dehydrating has been used for centuries as a way to preserve food. Good candidates for drying are fruits, vegetables, and meats that have firm flesh. The process of drying meat eliminates three-quarters of its weight, and preserves most of its nutritional value.
Any number of heat sources can be used successfully, but the easiest and most common are dehydrators, smokers, and traditional ovens. Ideally, you want to dehydrate meat at a temperature between 130° F and 140°F. This will be hot enough to dry the meat quickly but prevent over drying. The area around the meat should be open to the air and there should be enough airflow to allow the extracted moisture to escape. Hanging strips of meat from skewers, or placing them on open racks and turning them periodically will work fine. If you are using oven racks, place aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven to catch drips.
You Need a Curing Medium
In order to effectively extract moisture from inside the meat, you need an agent to help draw it out. Traditionally salt has been used (1-1/2 cups of pickling salt to 1 gallon of water), but recently soy sauce, which is high in sodium, is the more popular choice. Soy has the advantage of being flavorful and inexpensive.
The Meat's the Thing
The best results are obtained by using a good cut of meat. London broil, flank steak, sirloin and brisket are good choices. Less expensive cuts of meat can be used, but care should be taken to remove all gristle and fat.
Once you’ve selected your meat, have the butcher remove all of the fat and slice it 1/8 inch thick, with the grain. Slicing meat this thin can be tricky, but if you want to try it yourself, partially freeze the meat first in order to make it more rigid and easier to cut. Use the same process for cutting other varieties of meat, fish or poultry.
Give it Some Time
Drying times will vary depending on the humidity of the air, the type of meat you select and the drying method you use. Check and turn the meat frequently. When you see that it looks leathery, has no traces of moisture, and is pliable to the touch, it’s done.
Basic Recipes and Variations
Jerky is available commercially in lots of different flavors. The following is a good basic recipe that will marinate two pounds of meat. It can be modified to suit your own taste.
Beef Jerky Marinade
1 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/2 tsp. liquid smoke
Marinate the raw, sliced meat for an hour in the refrigerator and then drain off the liquid. Pat each slice with a paper towel to remove as much moisture as possible. (The USDA recommends cooking all meats to 160°F as a safety precaution before drying them.)
There are a number of ways to spice up the basic recipe. For a change, try adding: honey, molasses, brown sugar, pineapple juice, lemon pepper, cayenne, or curry.
Once the meat has been prepared, place on or near the heat source and wait for it to become leathery but pliable, turning it every couple of hours as it dries. This should take about 24 hours in a dehydrator. Homemade beef jerky can be kept for one to two months in sealed plastic bags out of direct light.
Jerky is always a welcome snack and makes a great gift around the holidays. You can prepare it in batches using different variations of the basic recipe above. Use your imagination. With the money you save, you can make enough for everyone on your gift list.