Making Jerky from Wild Game (or Beef) by browningbbr Jerky is a very popular item to make from harvested venison. It keeps well, has a lot of flavor and is handy to carry into the field for snacking. Virtually every meat-eating culture has some form of jerky because it is an example of the simplest and most ancient form of meat preservation - drying. Jerky can be made in a large variety of flavors ranging from sweet honey barbeque to Teriyaki to fiery hot pepper. The list of possibilities is pretty much endless. Recipes are also easy to “tweak” to suit your own taste. With the use of an internet search engine, it is possible to find thousands for free recipes and procedures for making jerky. One example of such a website is www.beefjerky.com where 100 recipes are available with just a mouse click. Because it is so easy to find this information, I won’t spend any time on specific recipes. Instead, this post will focus on information and tips for making a quality product, making the job easier and for insuring that the jerky is safe to eat. REAL JERKY A number of available recipes (and a few “bargain” commercial beef jerkys) call for making the product from lean, ground meats. There are even devices (that look like caulking guns) on the market for extruding the ground meat blend into strips. For the record, the product made with this method is actually a “kippered” meat strip. It differs from jerky in that it does not keep as long and will not have a true jerky texture. The extruded product is good, it’s just not jerky. MEAT SELECTION The best jerky is made from very lean, trimmed meats that are sliced WITH the grain of the muscle. Because of this, the large muscles of the hind leg (round) are the preferred. The inside round (semimembranonsus) is ideal for jerky making. The outside round (biceps femoris) and eye of the round (semitendinosus) also work very well. MEAT TRIMMING While fat is a wonderful thing in a prime steak, it’s a bad thing for jerky. Because of the ingredients used and the drying process, any fat left on jerky meat will eventually undergo oxidation and become rancid. Since long-term preservation and great flavor are objectives of jerky-making, 100% of all visible fat should be removed from the muscles. If you are using the inside round, it’s important to remove the cap muscle (gracilis) from the inside surface because fat often remains in the connective tissue seam. MARINATING – Injection / Cover Pickle v Slice-then-Marinate Some jerky recipes call for injecting the brine/marinade into the whole muscle (using a veterinary syringe and a trocar needle) and then immersing the meat in a “cover pickle” for a day or more to insure uniform distribution of the salt and flavorings. This is followed by slicing before drying. More commonly available recipes call for slicing the meat prior to immersion in the marinade. For the home jerky maker that does not have a commercial meat plant machine called a “massager” to distribute the injected marinade, the slice-then-marinate procedure works much better and will produce a more uniform product. Also, by slicing before marinating, you drastically shorten the amount of time required to get the solution distributed. SLICING Large pieces of fresh lean meat are difficult to slice because they are soft and not “set up”. To make meat slicing easier, just partially freeze the meat cut until it becomes stiff (not hard frozen). It will have enough rigidity to slice more easily. Use of a meat slicer is highly recommended. Even a home-model slicer will allow the production of uniformly thick slices which will all dry at the same rate. This is important for drying because a mixture of thick and thin slices will result in jerky pieces that are too moist or too dry. To create a flat slicing surface that minimizes waste trim on the first slice, lay the partially frozen lean cut on a sturdy table or counter and whack it with a cast iron skillet. Always remember to slice with the grain of the muscle. How thick should meat be sliced? One-quarter of an inch is about the limit for the thickest jerky, but you will need to be very careful not to case-harden the product. (See the notes in the Drying section.) One-eighth inch is about the limit for the thinnest jerky. Anything thinner than 1/8” tends to shatter too easily when fully dried. RUBS & COATING Probably the most popular coating for jerky is black pepper, but red pepper, dry barbeque rub and dried honey can be found in some recipes. If using a coating, there are a few tricks to using them successfully: • Dry the surface of the sliced, marinated meat by blotting it on a clean towel before applying the coating or rub. It helps the coating stick better and keeps the high-sugar coatings from becoming a paste. • For pepper rubs, apply twice as much coating as you would want to have in the finished jerky. About half of it will fall off during the cooking and cooling processes. • For high-sugar rubs (like sweet barbeque), apply about 25% more than you want on the finished product. Because the sugar becomes sticky when it gets wet, it tends stay on better. • With all rubs, shake off the excess before putting them on the rack or screen in the dehydrator or smoker. If you have multiple tiers of racks in your dryer or smoker, you don’t want a lot of coatings falling down onto the rack below. DRYING The drying of jerky is probably the most difficult step for the first-time jerky maker. This is because there is almost as much art as there is science involved. Here’s a few factors to watch out for when drying your home-made jerky: • Proper racks - The best racks for drying jerky are made from expanded metal. Expanded metal allows water to evaporate from both sides of the slice evenly. Stainless steel is the best, but mild steel can be used as well. To keep mild steel from rusting and leaving brown stains on your product, try “bluing” the metal with liquid smoke. To do this, remove all the rust and coatings from the metal with a wire wheel and thoroughly wash the expanded metal. Next, cover the metal with a heavy coat of liquid smoke and immediately heat it (dry heat) in your smoker until it gets to 200° F. Wipe off or wash off any remaining liquid smoke before loading product. • Prepare your racks - Applying a thin coat of non-stick cooking spray to the rack before laying the meat on will help minimize the meat sticking to the rack. • Don’t overlap pieces - It’s OK to have pieces of jerky on a rack bump up against each other, but don’t let them overlap. The overlapped areas will not dry well. • Space the racks - Some room (about 4-5”) is needed between racks in a heat smoker to allow adequate drying. If they racks are too close, jerky can take twice as long to dry. • Air movement / air change - To remove moisture, some fresh, dry air has to be introduced into a smoker or oven. Gentle air movement also speeds the rate of drying. • Keep some moisture in the smoker - At first this statement might not make sense. Why would you want moisture in the smoker? Aren’t we trying to dry the jerky? Here’s the reason some moisture helps: If the surface of the meat dries too quickly, it becomes a hardened, solid barrier of protein that water cannot pass through. Sausage makers call this phenomenon “case hardening”. A case hardened piece of jerky is very difficult to dry because the water in the center of the slice gets trapped. It’s much better to keep about 30% relative humidity in the smoker so the surface does not harden and the water keeps coming out. • How dry is dry enough? - Commercial meat plants use a piece of lab equipment called a “water activity meter” to determine the dryness level needed for shelf-stable jerky. These instruments cost thousands of dollars and just make no sense for the small-volume jerky maker. To determine if your jerky is dry enough, just purchase some commercial jerky to use as a comparator. If your jerky has the same texture as the store-bought product, it is dry enough to be shelf stable. • What kind of a “oven” is needed to dry the jerky? Here are three options that will work: Home Smoker - These work well if heat can be regulated down to about 100-120° F and some moisture can be included. Moisture addition can be as simple as an aluminum pie plate with some water in it just over the heat source. Food Dehydrators - Virtually all dehydrators come with recipes and procedures for making jerky. If you use a dehydrator, be sure to fully cook the jerky in your oven afterward as noted below. Home Oven - Not the best method, but a regular oven will work if it can be regulated down to about 100-120° F and some moisture can be included. Just like with the home smoker, moisture addition can be as simple as an aluminum pie plate with some water in it just over the heat source. COOKING - Food Safety After you are done drying, make sure to fully cook the jerky. This is as simple as getting the meat up to 155° F for 5 minutes. If you are using a home smoker or home oven, simply turn up the heat to 165° F and begin checking temperature after 10 minutes. If you have used a dehydrator, transfer the jerky to your oven that is pre-warmed to 165 degrees. Jerky is very thin, has little mass and is nearly impossible to check for temperature with a meat thermometer, so you have to use this method to test temperature: 1. Open the door to your smoker just enough to get your hands in and so you can see what you are doing. 2. Lay 3 pieces of jerky on top of each other. 3. Lay a meat thermometer on top of the 3 jerky slabs. 4. Stack 3 more pieces on top of the thermometer. 5. Wait 20 seconds and read the temperature. Along with a good recipe and a quality piece of meat, this should be enough to get anyone started on jerky making. The author, browningbbr, has a degree in Animal Science from Iowa State University (specialized in meat processing) with minors in Food Science and Food Technology. He has an M.S. in Food Science from Oklahoma State University through the Department of Animal Science, again specialized in meat processing. For the last 30 years, he also experimented on the best ways to handle the processing of wild game to get the best quality meat for the table. When in South Africa, he asked a LOT of questions about how meats are processed, handled and prepared there. The hunting outfitter and chef gave him many insights into their procedures. Not suprisingly, the most effective ones matched basic principles of good meat science.