Jerky making is a practice that dates back to ancient times and one of the most popular reasons to own a dehydrator. Removing moisture properly from meat limits biological activity, effectively preserving it for future consumption. It’s easy to imagine early hunters leaving strips of meat to dry in the sun to keep for later use. Today, with refrigeration, there isn’t quite the same need for dehydrating meat, though it still remains an effective method of preservation.
While sun drying meat is no longer considered safe by today’s standards, a dehydrator allows you to apply a steady temperature and air flow in a controlled environment, which is important for proper food safety. The United States Department of Agriculture currently recommends making jerky only from meats that have been heated internally to 160°F (71°C), or 165°F (74°C) for poultry, so our recipes reflect this recommendation.
Of course, it’s important to follow good safety practices, but making jerky at home is easy and results in big flavors for snacks, energy for hiking and camping trips and easy meal additions for anytime consumption. Let’s break down the process for making jerky and dehydrating cooked meat.
1. Choose lean meats for the best results
Lean meats are best for long-term storage. Fat does not dry completely and will spoil more quickly. That said, my goal with jerky is for short-term storage and use, like for an upcoming hike or a weekend camping trip, or even for snacking, and these recipes reflect this.
You can also make jerky from ground meats, which is even easier because it requires no marinating. A pound (450 g) of meat will yield you about 4 ounces (113 g) of jerky, so if you’re concerned about weights, which is important for hiking, then plan accordingly.
2. Freeze & slice the meat
Partially freezing the meat before slicing will help make slicing it much easier. Pop it in the freezer for 20-30 minutes.
Starting with a clean workspace and fresh meat, slice the meat into ¼-inch (6-mm) strips, or ½-inch (13-mm) strips for fish, that are 5 to 6 inches (13 to 15 cm) long. Slice against the grain for chewier jerky. Make them as even as possible so they dehydrate uniformly.
Marinate the strips overnight in your chosen marinade. Marinades bring in the flavor and help tenderize the meat. Marinate the meat at least 5 hours, but overnight is best for deeper flavor. The exception is fish, which only needs a few hours to marinate. Alternatively, use a dry rub. If you are making jerky from ground meats, you’ll skip this step, but you will be adding in other ingredients and seasonings.
4. Cook it
Cook the meat either by steaming it or roasting it in the oven until the internal temperature reaches 160°F (71°C) for meat and 165°F (74°C) for poultry as read by a food thermometer. I prefer roasting, as it is easiest.
5. Dehydrate it
Finally, drain off the marinade, lay out the strips of meat in the dehydrator, and dehydrate at 160°F (71°C) for 6 to 8 hours, or until dried through. Times can vary a lot depending on the moisture content of the meat, the chosen meat, the temperatures in the house and various other factors, so check on the meat after 6 hours or so. You may also need to check the meat several times through the drying process to blot off any fats or liquids that rise up from the strips. Use a paper towel to dab it dry, and continue dehydrating. Some meats, such as bacon, take longer, so be sure to follow the recipes.
Make sure your jerky is dried completely for the best storage.
How to store jerky and dehydrated cooked meats
Store the jerky in vacuum-sealed bags or airtight containers. As mentioned, homemade meat jerky isn’t made for long term storing, but it will keep for 1 month in a pantry, 6 months in the refrigerator and 1 year in the freezer. Salmon and other fish should be kept in the fridge or freezer and will last about half as long. If you’d like to make jerky for long-term storage, consider adding nitrites to the marinating stage.
Used with permission from The Spicy Dehydrator Cookbook by Michael Hultquist, Page Street Publishing Co.