Long used by hikers and campers, beef jerky is a satisfying snack that is high in protein, low in fat and offers a quick energy boost when eaten on the run. Store bought jerky may be tasty, but a quick look at the nutrition label shows that it is packed full of unnecessary preservatives and an unbelievable amount of sodium. It isn’t hard to make beef jerky at home if you have a food dehydrator, and by controlling what ingredients go into your jerky you can create a healthy, nutritious — and less expensive — alternative.
When choosing a cut of beef to use for jerky, look for lean cuts such as eye of round, flank steak or rump roast. Beef that is well marbled will spoil quickly — even after dehydration — due to the high fat content. Carefully trim any fat, gristle and bone from your choice cut. Placing the beef in your freezer for 15 to 20 minutes will help firm up the flesh, making it easier to slice; this step is optional but produces a more consistent final product. Use a sharp knife or meat slicer to uniformly cut 1/8 to ¼ inch strips off the beef roast. For a tender jerky, cut your slices across the grain; for a chewy jerky, cut with the grain of the meat.
Preparing a marinade allows you to choose what flavor your final jerky will have. Sweet and spicy, pineapple jerk, extra hot, rosemary black pepper — the possibilities are only limited by your imagination. Every proper jerky marinade consists of four components: salt, acid, flavorings and oil. What you choose for each group will determine what flavor of jerky you will get. Experiment with mild oils, such as canola or sunflower, or try more aggressive oils such as extra-virgin olive oil. Flavoring can be any herb, spice or vegetable you wish; think cumin and jalapeno, or onion and sage. Acidic ingredients such as vinegars, soft drinks and citrus or fruit juices will help the meat break down slightly, allowing the marinade to penetrate the beef. Some people think that salt is just salt, but many gourmet varieties are available even at local markets — smoked salts, sea salts, even pink Himalayan salts can add a distinct flavor to your marinade. For the quick and easy route, just use your favorite store bought oil and vinegar based salad dressing as your jerky marinade.
Using a food dehydrator to make beef jerky not only speeds up the process, but, when used properly, offers a safe and effective way to dehydrate raw ingredients. Always consult your dehydrator manual before using; every model and brand is used differently. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, all meats that are being dehydrated must maintain a steady temperature of 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit during the drying process. Use your home dehydrator accordingly to avoid food-borne pathogens caused by improperly handled meat.
Once your jerky is properly dehydrated, allow it to cool completely before storing. If the jerky is stored while still warm it will produce condensation that will quickly spoil the batch. An airtight container, like a plastic freezer bag or an appropriately sized glass jar, works well. Store the jerky in a cool, dark place. If you made a large batch, try storing it in the freezer to prevent the jerky from turning rancid.
References and ResourcesFood Dehydrator: Tips For Making Homemade Beef Jerky
Food Dehydrator: Jerky Marinades - How They Work