There’s a certain ruggedness about jerky that can’t be matched in other snacks. You get the savory satisfaction of deliciously spiced meat without the mess of cooking, and you don’t have to worry if your jerky’s got salmonella after spending a long day in your backpack. Unfortunately, store-bought jerky is too often overpriced, under-seasoned, or laden with not-quite-natural ingredients that can be a bit unappetizing if you dig too deep into them.
If you’re a hiking enthusiast, avid camper, frequent traveler, or just a man whose looking to satisfy his meaty munchies without having to fire up your skillet every day, making your own jerky is a great way to get hands-on with your favorite snack and ensure you know every last grain of spice going into it. At first the process of seasoning, prepping, dehydrating, and packaging jerky may seem too much for one man’s home kitchen, but the truth is, making jerky at home can be a pretty easy (and fun!) process. For some serious jerky knowledge, we enlisted the help of chef Thomas Boemer — culinary genius behind Minneapolis’ Corner Table and Revival, butcher, Cochon 555 winner, and all-around master of meats — to explain the best method and share his favorite beef jerky recipe.
Different Deets for Different Meats
When it comes to jerky, the leaner the cut of meat, the better, as too much fat can result in greasy jerky that spoils quickly. “Leaner cuts with good beefy flavor like brisket flat are ideal,” recommends Boemer.
Even though beef is the jerky variety that you may be most familiar with, don’t be afraid to step outside of the box when making your own — after all, why make your own jerky if you can’t have a little fun with it? If you’re looking to go beyond the beef, there are a number of other meats that can make really great jerky. Game meat — like deer and bison — tends to be much leaner, therefore can be a prime choice for jerky. As you can probably guess from the less-fat theme, leaner breast meat is best if you’re making jerky from poultry like turkey or chicken.
Don’t forget that the most critical part of making jerky is dehydration, which means the meat you select will reduce by about 2/3 during the process. So make sure to buy enough meat to end up with the amount of jerky you want.
Clear the Area
Now, to say that making your own jerky isn’t difficult is one thing, but we’d be lying if we said it wasn’t messy. Before you start, it’s a good idea to clear some space to work in your kitchen. Keep in mind you’ll be handling raw meat and lots of gooey, drizzly, delectably messy marinade, so keeping little ones and pets out of the way is best. Once your battle station is cleaned and cleared for duty, you’re ready to start prepping your meat.
Slice and Dice
Whatever protein you choose, your first step is to make sure all of the fat is trimmed away. Even if you had your butcher trim it before purchasing, give it a quick once over and trim off any fat that remains. Once you’ve got that meat all lean and mean, your next step is to slice it up into those classic strips. To make this a lot easier on yourself, put the meat into a zip-lock bag and drop it into your freezer for a bit. The amount of freezer time depends on the type and size of your cut of meat, but keep in mind you are not going for a full freeze here — you only want the meat firm enough to make slicing easier, but not so firm that you have to use an ice pick to break off jerky nuggets. Once the meat is just firming up, pull it out and slice it into thin strips no thicker than 1/4 inch.
Bathe that Beauty
Great news! If you’ve successfully sliced your protein without turning it into a frozen block of meat or mangling it, you’re already past the toughest part of the process. Now comes the moment when your creativity and finely tuned meat-sommelier’s palate can really shine: the marinade. Don’t be afraid to play around with your marinade recipe, but always keep in mind the signature spicy-sweet combination that really makes the jerky-eating experience. “I love using hot chilies dried or ground, and lots of garlic,” says Boemer. Once you’ve settled on your spices, toss your strips of meat into a bag, dump that yummy marinade all over it, and give it a good rub-down. Once it’s thoroughly juiced-up, put the bag in the fridge overnight, or for up to 24 hours, to let the meat absorb the flavors.
Dry it Out
The final step in your jerky adventure is to dry those beautiful meaty morsels out. To do this, you have a couple of options. The first is to use your oven. Remove the racks, line the bottom of your oven with a piece of aluminum foil to catch any drippings (we wouldn’t suggest skipping this step unless you’re also a big oven-scrubbing enthusiast), and set the temperature to around 180 degrees Fahrenheight. Then place your marinated strips of soon-to-be-jerky flat on the oven racks. It’s important to make sure none of your strips are touching, as you want air to be able to circulate easily around each piece during the drying process. There’s one last critical detail in the oven-drying method: you must prop the oven door open to ensure the meat dehydrates rather than cooking. You don’t need to leave it hanging open Hansel-and-Gretel style, just enough to keep moisture from building up inside. To do this, you can use a wadded-up bit of aluminum foil or even a large utensil like a spoon or spatula to hold the oven door open just a crack. Cook the jerky for four to six hours, or until it is tough enough to bend but not break. This cooking time can vary depending on your choice of protein and your oven, so check the meat periodically to ensure it doesn’t get too brittle.
If you’re not into leaving your oven on for such a long stretch of time (or if you just want to get all modern and tech-savvy on that jerky) your second option is to purchase a dehydrator, something that Boemer recommends for beginners “to control accurately the temperature and drying time.”
The method is similar to using your oven, just a little easier. Turn on the dehydrator to the appropriate temperature (again, around 180 degrees Fahrenheit), lay your strips out flat on the trays (again, make sure they are not touching), and let the dehydrator work its magic for a few hours.
Once your masterpiece is complete, you need a good way to store it — although if you’re a real jerky-lover, it may not last that long. If you happen to have made enough for leftovers, let the jerky cool thoroughly and then place it into any airtight container to store your spicy-sweet treats for up to six months.
Do It Yourself: Sweet Potato and Habanero Beef Jerky
After you’ve mastered the basic process, you may want to venture out into creating your own signature flavors, but if you’re just beginning it can be helpful to have a recipe to work from. Lucky for all of us, chef Boemer is a generous master of meats, and provides a perfect beef jerky recipe to try your hand at.
- 2 ½ lbs brisket, flat trimmed
- 1 cup onion, chopped
- 1 cup sweet potato, peeled and chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, grated
- 5 habanero peppers
- 4 oz beer
- ½ cup salad oil
- ½ cup brown sugar
- ½ cup white sugar
- ¼ cup cider vinegar
- 3 tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground dry ginger
- ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp turmeric
- Cut onion and sweet potato in 1 inch pieces and process in food processor until finely chopped, but not so far to puree.
- Add oil in hot large sauce pot and sweat the onion, sweet potato, and habanero.
- Add cinnamon, turmeric, ground dry ginger, salt, sugar, garlic, and beer. Cook until vegetables are tender.
- Add cider vinegar and set aside to cool.
- Slice beef slightly against the grain about a quarter and an inch thick. With the grain, it can be chewy and against the grain the jerky can be brittle and fall apart.
- Add beef to marinade for 4 to 6 hours in the fridge
- Place in dehydrator or in oven at 170 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 to 4 hours,or until the beef is fully dried.
- Cool and store in tightly sealed Mason jar or freezer bag.
Featured image courtesy of Eliesa Johnson.