Meat slices laid out on a dehydrator to be made into deer jerky

It's pretty easy to know when a fried egg is done. You just eyeball it while it's cooking until the yolk looks the way you want it, and you're good to go. When you're cooking a steak, however, it's a bit more difficult. But you can use an instant-read thermometer or just cut into it to see how done it is. Neither of those options works when you're making jerky in a dehydrator, unfortunately, so there's a bit more finesse involved in knowing when your jerky is done.

There's No Set Standard for "Done"

Part of the problem with jerky is that there's no objective way to know what "done" is. If you follow the instructions that came with your jerky maker, it should hit a food-safe temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit early in the drying process, and it will stay at that temperature for hours as the moisture continues to evaporate from the beef. Even if you could simply test for a given temperature, the slices of jerky are so thin there's no really practical way to insert an instant-read thermometer.

Time isn't a reliable guide, either. The manual for the Nesco dehydrator, for example, suggests that drying times can range from 4 to 15 hours. It depends on the meat you've chosen, how thickly it's cut, whether you used a dry rub or a wet marinade, the humidity of your climate, and many other factors.

The good news is that "done" is a range when you make jerky, not a specific point, so you've got a lot of wiggle room. As long as the meat is dry enough to inhibit bacterial growth, it'll stay safe to eat. After that, it's largely a question of what texture you're looking for and how long you want to store the finished jerky. Drier jerky lasts longer, while moister jerky is tastier and easier to eat.

Bend and Chew to Test

To test for doneness, lift the lid from your jerky dehydrator and remove a piece. Set it aside on the counter to cool for 5 to 10 minutes, because the jerky will be more pliable when it's warm. Take the piece of jerky and bend it gently to about a 90-degree angle. If any moisture squeezes out, it's definitely not done yet and can go back into the dehydrator. If it cracks and breaks, you've left it too long, and it's already past the point of best flavor and texture. It's still perfectly edible, just not as good as it might have been.

Ideally, the jerky should be pliable like leather, and it should just fray and crack slightly at the bending point. If that's what you see, your next step is to take a bite. The jerky shouldn't crack or crunch, but just give way grudgingly between your teeth. If it's tasty, no longer has a "fresh meat" feel, but doesn't crumble as it's chewed either, you've gotten it right.

Jerky Preparation Basics

Getting to the perfect point requires careful preparation, mostly centered around food safety. To make sure your dehydrator trays and all your work surfaces are clean and sanitized, use either a commercial sanitizing product or a solution of 1 tablespoon of bleach in 3 cups of water to clean everything. You can also preheat your dehydrator to 145F or higher while you're getting everything else ready, which will kill any stray bacteria that have settled in it.

You'll also need to wash your hands, knife and cutting board thoroughly, or in the case of the knife and cutting board, you can run them through the dishwasher on the high-heat setting. You can't do anything about any bacteria that come into your kitchen on the meat, but you can make sure you don't add any new ones.

Choosing and Slicing the Meat

When shopping for your meat, your best bets for making jerky are lean cuts with fine grain and minimal fat or connective tissue. Round roasts and eye of round are ideal, and they are usually inexpensive. However, other cuts will also work as long as they're lean. Trim away any large seams of fat, as well as any connective tissue.

Slicing your meat evenly is crucial in having all your jerky dry at the same rate, and it's hard to do that without a commercial meat slicer. If you're slicing by hand at home, place the trimmed meat in your freezer until it's firm but not hard-frozen. It'll hold its shape and be easier to slice evenly with a sharp knife.

You're looking for slices no more than 1/4-inch thick, and no less than 1/8 inch. Anything over 1/4 inch is hard to dry, and under 1/8 inch will get over-dried and crunchy too easily. An easy rule is to go thicker for a chewier jerky, and thinner for one that's easier to eat or if the meat itself is extra-tough. You might also opt to skip this step entirely, and just ask your butcher to slice it for you.

Marinating Beef Jerky

Marinating your jerky is a crucial step in the process. You can use either a liquid marinade or a dry marinade – otherwise known as a spice rub – depending on personal preference or what your recipe calls for. Either way, the goal is to add flavor to the beef. You'll want some combination of savory ingredients such as salt and pepper, onion or garlic powder, soy sauce or liquid smoke; heat from chiles or hot sauce; and sweetness from sugar, honey or perhaps a sweet sauce such as teriyaki. Start with simple combinations, and then tweak the mixture from batch to batch. Keep notes, so you can remember what you liked or didn't.

Some beef jerky recipes call for a curing salt, such as "Prague powder" or Morton's Tender Quick, as part of the marinade or rub. These help discourage bacteria, and make your jerky more food safe. Alternatively, the USDA suggests boosting food safety by boiling the marinade first, and pouring it hot over the beef slices.

Leave your meat in the marinade for at least 4 hours or up to 24, or as directed in the recipe. Blot it dry, if necessary, before you put it in the dehydrator.

Jerky From Ground Meats and Game

You can also make jerky from ground beef, as many commercial producers do. Use the leanest ground beef you can find, at least 80 percent and, ideally, 90 percent lean. You don't marinate ground meat; just work the spices into it during or after grinding. Pipe the mixture onto your dehydrator trays from a jerky gun – basically a jumbo-sized cookie press – or pat it out to 1/4-inch thickness on a sheet pan or jelly roll pan, and cut it into strips for drying.

Ground meats need to be dehydrated at 165F rather than 160F, and the USDA suggests pre-cooking your meat to that temperature before dehydrating it.

Once you've mastered beef, you might want to try venison jerky. Unfortunately, game animals often carry parasites or pathogens, and it's hard to know how contaminated an animal got during field-dressing. Freezing the meat for a month or so before you make jerky can kill off most potential pathogens. For additional food safety, you should also dry venison jerky at 165F, or add some insurance by using curing salt or the boiling-marinade technique.

After the Jerky Is Done

You're not quite done when the jerky comes out of your dehydrator. If you want to be extra-safe, you can give your finished jerky 10 minutes in the oven at 250F to kill any especially stubborn bacteria. This is optional, but not a bad idea if you're working with higher-risk poultry, game or ground meats.

Once your jerky is cool, pack it loosely into airtight bags or containers for a few days to "cure." The strips won't come out of your dehydrator at exactly the same degree of dryness, so this allows the drier strips to absorb moisture from the moister ones and evens things up.

Seal the jerky as airtight as you can make it in bags or containers, because the less contact that oxygen has with your jerky, the longer it'll last. Vacuum-sealed bags are ideal. Really dry jerky can keep for a few weeks at room temperature, but you're always better off to keep it in the fridge or freezer until it's needed. The jerky's flavor will last longer, and you're less likely to have issues with mold or spoilage.