There are many guides out there on how to make beef jerky at home – with and without a dehydrator, in a smoker, and so on. So, why another one? The answer is simple – I wanted traditional taste and a product that is perfectly safe to eat.
I have not been able to find a simple method for home that would not require specialized equipment and produces traditionally tasting jerky that is also made safe to eat. After a number of experiments and many batches of homemade jerky I am happy to say that I’ve finally achieved the results that I am personally quite satisfied with.
Traditionally tasting beef jerky
First things first, to me traditional beef jerky is the one that is chewy and is on the tougher side. It doesn’t mean that it’s hard like a rock though. It’s just not as soft and tender and moist as some of the commercially produced beef jerky you can buy at a store. It’s more like Jack Links Original beef jerky if you happened to try it. A little less tough, perhaps. It’s also about the flavors, but in this post when I say traditional I mean texture above anything else.
Traditional beef jerky is made by drying beef at very low temperatures, that’s what gives it it’s texture. Increase the temperature high enough and the texture is not the same any more.
Beef jerky and food safety
My young kids love beef jerky. This forces me to pay special attention to food safety, even if there is only a tiny chance of someone getting sick. So, what’s the safe way to make beef jerky that also has that coveted traditional jerky texture?
Let’s look at the methods that are commonly used to ensure that beef jerky is safe to eat.
Method 1 – precook the meat to 160F before drying
USDA recommends to “steam or roast meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer before dehydrating it“. The reason for doing that is to destroy any potential pathogenic bacteria (e.g. E.coli and Listeria) present in the meat. Otherwise those bacteria may become heat resistant during low and slow dehydration process and survive higher temperatures at a later stage.
Stanley Marianski in his Home Production of Quality Meats and Sausages book suggests, as an alternative, to boil the meat for 2 minutes in the marinade, if you have enough, or in a separately prepared brine. Now, this will definitely destroy any bacteria in the meat, but it will ruin the texture, no doubt. I decided to take the steaming/roasting path.
I hung the meat in the oven and cranked the temperature up to 230F for about 20-30 minutes, until the internal temperature of the meat reached 160F. Early in the drying process the meat releases a lot of water so that oven was very steamy. I then turned the heat down to 170F, the lowest setting in my oven, and dried the meat until it cracked but did not break when it’s bent, as instructed by S. Marianski.
The resulting beef jerky tasted great, but the texture was fairly crumbly and far less chewy than what I was aiming for. It was something that I would not be ashamed to share with others at all, but I would not call it traditional due to lack of proper chewiness.
Method 2 – soaking the raw meat in vinegar
Additional research revealed other methods to make beef jerky safe to eat, which are summarized in Making Jerky at Home Safely publication based on the study conducted by Oregon, Idaho State and Washington State universities.
These additional methods are:
1) placing the dried pieces of meat on a cookie sheet in the oven pre-heated to 275F for 10 minutes, and
2) soaking raw meat strips in vinegar which, combined with subsequent drying, effectively eliminates pathogens.
I am not a big fan of vinegary meat, so that option is out for me.
Method 3 – heating the dried jerky at 275F for 10 minutes
Baking jerky at 275F for 10 minutes doesn’t sound too bad so I gave it a go. Since I only have one oven in the kitchen I had to improvise. Instead of placing the meat on cookie sheets in the oven preheated to 275F I cranked the heat up to 275F once the jerky finished drying. I was afraid that the meat that was hanging freely and not touching a hot baking sheet would not get hot enough in 10 minutes. I turned on convection and lowered the temperature to 250F. Ten minutes later I got this:
The resulting jerky was bad. Edible but bad. Lot’s of burnt ends. I am sure convection played a great role in that, but heating thinly cut meat at 275F for 10 minutes would definitely change its texture, convection or not.
The meat had a very different texture. It tasted like roasted beef that later was dried. This turned out to be the worst beef jerky I’ve ever tasted.
My final method with full details
Step 1 – selecting meat for jerky
There is no best meat for jerky. Any lean meat can be used to make jerky. I read somewhere that the meat needs to be 93% lean or higher. This is because beef fat does not dry well and becomes rancid quickly.
Commonly used beef cuts for making beef jerky:
- Eye of round
- Flank steak
- Top round
- Bottom round
- Sirloin tip
- Skirt steak
It makes financial sense to go with the cheapest cut you can find. More often than not I use eye of round, one of the cheaper lean cuts, and the one that is used for making jerky by many. You can use tenderloin, but it will make little sense financially.
Step 2 – trim fat and slice
A lot of beef cuts come with a fat cap. Trim the fat off and cut the meat into manageable pieces that will be easy to slice. Then put the meat in a plastic bag and put in a freezer for a few hours.
Freezing will firm it up and make it a pleasure to slice.
If you are fortunate enough to own a meat slicer, use it to slice the meat for beef jerky.
It takes me a whole 5-8 minutes to slice 5 pounds of meat. By hand, I am looking at about 30-40 minutes at the very least.
The biggest benefit of using a slicer is getting perfect slice uniformity. Every single slice of meat has the same thinness, which ensures that all pieces of jerky are done at the same time. When slicing by hand I’ve had thicker and thinner slices, which caused some to be ready ahead of others. In this case you have to pull them out sooner, or let them keep drying out too much.
Now, to make your beef jerky less chewy cut the beef across the grain. Your teeth will thank you for it, too.
How thin or thick you slice the meat will affect the length of drying and the final product. Thinner sliced meat tends to come out dryer and less chewy. 1/8 to 1/4 inch thickness is commonly used for making beef jerky. I like to slice 3/16 to 1/4 inch thick.
Step 3 – marinate the meat
Marination is not necessary, but it makes jerky:
1. Much more flavorful inside out
2. Tenderizes tougher beef cuts
I marinade the meat for at least 24 hours and up to 48 hours, in a Ziploc bag, flipping and massaging the meat every 6-8 hours. Meat cut along the grain benefits from longer marination, while shorted marination is appropriate for beef cut across the grain.
There are hundreds of good and, well, not so good marinades out there. It’s hard to say which one is good without first trying it. Below is a very common traditional marinade that will fit many tastes. I picked it up based on many favorable reviews and really liked it. It’s slightly modified based on my personal preferences.
- 3 lb meat, 93% lean or higher, sliced
- 1 tsp red pepper flakes (plus more to taste)
- 1½ tsp garlic powder
- 1 Tbsp onion powder
- 1½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup Worcestershire
- 1 cup soy sauce (regular, not low sodium)
- Cure #1 (optional) - follow the instructions provided on the package
- Combine all the ingredients in a large Ziploc bag.
- Add the meat slices, shake and massage really well.
- Refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours, flipping the bag and massaging the meat every 6-8 hours.
For safety considerations I always use Cure #1, but I made it optional in the marinade recipes. You decide for yourself.
Here is another recipe that is well liked in our family. It’s tasty, not over the top and has mild flavors. Not traditional, but I am willing to bet there will be few people who won’t like this flavor.
- 3 lbs beef, 93% lean or higher, sliced
- 1 cup soy sauce (regular, not low sodium)
- 2 Tbsp tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 Tbsp roasted sesame seeds
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 1 Asian pear, peeled and grated (substitute for regular pear or green apple, if necessary)
- 3-4 scallions, green and white parts, sliced thinly
- 5-6 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp grated fresh ginger
- Combine all the ingredients in a large Ziploc bag. Add the meat slices, shake and massage really well. Refrigerate for 24 to 48 hours, flipping the bag and massaging the meat every 6-8 hours.
A special note on adding Pink Salt/Cure #1/Prague Powder #1. Is it necessary in production of beef jerky? USDA references a study that concluded the following:
Half of the ground beef was inoculated with E. coli O157:H7 before making it into jerky strips and dehydrating it. The authors found that in both the heated and unheated samples, the jerky made with the curing mix had greater destruction of bacteria than jerky made without it. The jerky made with the mix and heated before dehydrating had the highest destruction rate of bacteria.
It can be concluded that if you make beef jerky from solid muscle sodium nitrite is not necessary. I personally think that adding Cure #1 to beef jerky marinade is a good health safety measure and I do it. Another benefit of adding Cure #1 is improved color and taste.
Jerky made without Cure #1:
And with Cure #1:
Step 4 – hang the meat in the oven and dry for 4-6 hours
This step, seemingly easy, turned out to be the most problematic at first. The good news, once I figured it out, it became quite easy.
Hanging the meat
The most efficient way is to hang the meat slices vertically, as shown on the picture below. This way I can have about 5 lbs of meat on one rack, properly spaced out.
If you place the slices on the rack horizontally, expect to need 2-3 racks for 5 lbs of meat.
The problem with horizontal placement is that your racks will get dirty from the wet marinade and will need cleaning later. Another problem is the difference in temperatures at different levels. You will need to rotate the racks throughout drying.
Temperature monitoring and air flow
When drying beef jerky in the oven it’s important to ensure proper temperature level. USDA and other reputable sources recommend drying jerky at 145F – 155F. The reason is simple – according to USDA,
pathogenic E. coli could survive drying times of up to 10 hours and temperatures of up to 145 °F.
As such, you must ensure that the temperature in the oven is within that range. There are a couple of challenges, though. First, ovens typically don’t go that low. My oven’s lowest temperature setting is 170F. Second, you need good air flow to ensure proper drying.
Insert a wooden spoon between the oven and the door to keep it slightly ajar to let humidity escape. This will ensure good air flow.
Use a BBQ thermometer with a probe placed at mid level of the meat monitor the temperature. It’s very important given that your oven’s door will be kept ajar.
Set the oven’s temperature such that BBQ thermometer read 150F or so. On my oven it’s 185F. Remember, the door will be kept ajar, so 185F temperature set for the oven will result in lower actual temperature.
The jerky is dry enough when it bends without breaking, while surface develops cracks when you bend it.
Improving air flow and temperature in the oven
This does not apply when you place beef slices horizontally and only use one rack, though, if you want faster drying times, read on.
The problem with the setup above is that the temperature at the bottom of the meat and the top of the meat would be very different – 144F vs 158F, and the drying would take a very long time, about 8-10 hours.
Intuitively, the solution is to use a fan to move the air in the oven around. Since the door is kept ajar the convection fan won’t turn on. I placed a computer fan right on the oven door and ran it at full speed using 12 volts. Running the fan at 5 volts did not make a tangible difference to the air flow.
With the addition of the fan the temperatures pretty much equalized – 151F and 156F.
Overall drying time went down to 4-5 hours for 1/8 – 3/16 inch slices and 6 hours for 1/4 inch slices.
Step 5 – increase the temperature to 200F and bake until beef jerky reaches 160F, about 25 minutes
When the jerky has dried enough (when you bend it, it cracks on the surface but does not break), you need to heat the meat to 160F to ensure any potential pathogenic bacteria is destroyed.
OK, USDA recommends having internal meat temperature reach 160F before drying. As such, to make sure your beef jerky is 100% safe to each, perform this step (step 5) before step 4.
My personal view on this is such, that if you use fresh meat that was properly refrigerated, use sanitized equipment, don’t grind or mechanically tenderize the meat and use Cure #1 that should produce jerky that is safe to eat. You have to decide for yourself.
So, keeping the fan on and the oven door closed, increase the oven temperature to 200F. In my oven the meat reaches 160F within 20-25 minutes.
Step 6 – cool the jerky down to room temperature
Once the jerky is done, remove from the oven and let cool completely at room temperature.
Step 7 – place in air tight container
Once the jerky has cooled down, transfer to an air tight container.
Taste test and final words
I love homemade jerky and I think it tastes much better than any store bought. I decided to do a quick comparison of my homemade traditional beef jerky against Jack Links beef jerky, a frequent winner of various jerky comparisons on the Internet.
What I like the most about the homemade jerky is the clean flavors. You can control what you put in the marinade and can pretty much ensure that you get what you want. Jack Links Original jerky tastes very good, but it does contain preservatives and flavor enhancers and you can certainly taste them. There is some sort of aftertaste that I am not fond of. Homemade jerky definitely wins in the taste department.
Thickness and uniformity
Homemade jerky is on the left, Jack Links is in the center and on the right. I noticed that thickness and uniformity of Jack Links jerky varied from piece to piece, while the homemade jerky, sliced on my slicer was much more uniform. Ensuring the same level of dryness would be very tricky at home if the meat slice thickens varies. In the end, I did not prefer one over the other based on thickness and uniformity of the final product.
Bend test and softness
Unlike what many sources for making beef jerky suggest, Jack Links jerky does not crack on the surface when bent (Jack Links jerky is on the left, homemade is on the right). It’s more leathery and bendy. It’s also a little softer and more moist.
I think it’s possible to make it a little more moist and softer because of al the added preservatives. If you want to achieve the same, dry the beef a little less, use Cure #1 and refrigerate the jerky once it has cooled down.
Overall, the homemade jerky tasted fantastic. Very traditional, chewy texture. The spices marinade from the first recipe are spot on. Clean and familiar flavors, no unpleasant off or after tastes. I am super happy with the results.
Update on August 28, 2016
Made another batch today, using Asian BBQ marinade. My folks like it the most so far. Pure deliciousness. Same process, but had issues with the jerky drying evenly. I think it’s because I stuffed too much in the oven, about 6 lbs of meat. My last batch was about 3.5 lbs of meat. It’s best to keep the batches smaller so no issues with drying. I did solve the problem by moving the fan from side to side to the middle, but that’s a hassle and constant worry. Drying time was about 6 hours, plus 25 minutes at 200F with the fan on and the door closed. I sliced at 3/8″ thickness this time. I like the jerky better like that. I think 1/4″ just a tad too thick for my taste.