Dehydrating food is one of the oldest methods of food preservation known to man. Put simply, dehydration is the process of removing water from fruits, vegetables, and meat. Foods are preserved in this manner because harmful bacteria need water to survive. If all the water content in a food is removed, bacteria cannot live and cause the food to rot and decay. Preserving meat by dehydration creates a product called jerky. Jerky was a staple for people from prehistoric times to present day. Jerky is the perfect, portable protein in that it requires no refrigeration, is lightweight, takes up little space, and is quite tasty. Before modern methods of producing jerky were available, people made jerky by curing thinly cut pieces of meat with seasonings and then hanging them out in the sun to dry. Nowadays, inexpensive appliances like food dehydrators are available that allow the home cook to create jerky from practically any kind of meat and any kind of seasonings. The only limit is the imagination of the cook.
Why Make Jerky at Home?
Why would a home chef want to make jerky at home instead of buying it in a store? For one, jerky that is bought in stores is expensive since water accounts for almost 70% of the weight of a piece of meat. This means it takes a lot of raw meat to make a small amount of jerky. On top of that, before the consumer pays the final price at stores, transportation and manufacturing costs have to be added into the total. By making jerky at home, the middle man is cut out, making homemade jerky economical. Next, home cooks have total control over the quality of their ingredients and the seasonings that are used. By purchasing store bought jerky, consumers are at the mercy of the manufacturers, who may add preservatives and artificial ingredients into the jerky. Finally, making jerky can be fun for those who enjoy cooking. Nothing is more satisfying for someone interested in cooking that taking raw ingredients and crafting them into something new and delicious.
Buying Meat for Jerky
Any meat can be turned into jerky including turkey, chicken, and pork, however beef is the most popular meat used in jerky making. When selecting meat for jerky, it’s important to select lean cuts of meat that are flavorful. Meats that have too much fat content do not make good jerky because the fat in them can go rancid and spoil quickly. Meat is made of up to 70% water, so after dehydrating, there is a lot of shrinkage. For every pound of finished jerky that a cook wants to make, he/she will need approximately 3 pounds of raw meat. For beef jerky, a cut of beef like flank steak works best. Flank steak is lean, flavorful, and easy to slice into thin strips.
Making the Jerky
Thin strips of beef are necessary to ensure even and quick drying. The best way to cut a flank steak into thin pieces is by placing it into the freezer for one hour. This allows the meat to firm up a bit for easier slicing. The beef should be sliced against the grain into thin strips no thicker than one quarter inch thick.
After the meat has been sliced, it is time to season the meat. Any kind of seasoning can be used at this point to flavor the meat. Common seasonings include soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, pepper, honey, salt, and liquid smoke. A cook is only limited by his imagination at this point. Once the meat has been seasoned, it needs to marinate for up to 8 hours.
When the meat has marinated, it needs to be patted dry between layers of paper towels and then arranged on the racks of a food dehydrator in one layer.
Next, the jerky should be dehydrated according to the directions that come with the food dehydrator. Each dehydrator is different, so it’s best to follow manufacturer included instructions. Almost all food dehydrators come with instructions for making jerky. A good rule of thumb, however, is to dehydrate the meat at 145 degrees for 8 to 10 hours.
The jerky is done when the meat turns a dark brown color and feels leathery. Jerky can be stored for up to two weeks in resealable plastic bags in a cool and dry place.