by Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo
I grew up eating beef jerky exclusively on road trips. It was a special snack reserved for long stretches of open road in the Arizona desert. Now, after making my own jerky with simple ingredients, those preservative-packed snack strips of my youth seem pretty unappetizing.
Jerky falls into two categories—those that start out raw and those that start out precooked. Of the three recipes included below, the beef and fish jerky started out raw, and the turkey jerky started as oven-roasted meat from the deli case. Raw meat must be marinated in a salt mixture that not only develops flavor but also binds up moisture that can harbor bacteria. Precooked meats need only be seasoned to spice preference prior to drying.
When undertaking a raw meat or fish jerky project, food safety dictates a pre- or post-treatment (or a combo) to kill any bacteria in the meat or fish since it’s never technically cooked in the drying process. Some raw meat jerky, like that made from game and pork, must be both pre- and post-treated by first freezing for 30 days to kill the possible parasite Trichinella, and then by baking in a 275-degree oven for 10 minutes to kill any bacteria not eliminated by the long freeze.
Cutting raw meat is easier when it’s partially frozen so that it retains its structure, but not so frozen that it becomes difficult to cut. Suitable freezing time for one to two pounds of meat is between 30 to 45 minutes. When cutting beef, slice across the grain so that the finished jerky will be easy to bite and chew.
Early television advertisements for food dehydrators touted the copious amounts of jerky (and dried fruits and vegetables!) a home cook might make and stash. I would watch these infomercials with amusement and outward jest—I was a teenager, after all. Now, 18 years later, I note the irony of my past infomercial scoffing because of my beloved first and current dehydrator: a simple Nesco 5-tray, which is a great and cost-effective workhorse. Though a dehydrator is helpful, it’s certainly not required for jerky-making. An oven set to the lowest setting with the door cracked to prevent baking will work fine.
Set the dehydrator to 140° and line the trays according to the machine’s instructions. (My machine indicates to never dehydrate with fewer than 4 trays in the machine, with empty trays if necessary, to create the type of airflow required.)
Set the oven to its lowest setting, which is likely 200°; go lower if possible. Line strips of meat on a wire cooling rack set inside a rimmed cookie sheet to allow the air to circulate completely around the meat strips and prevent baking the strips as they dry.
Both Oven and Dehydrator Methods
Cut the meat in ¼-inch thick (or less) strips to allow timely drying. Keep the strips approximately the same thickness and size to ensure even drying. Check on the progress of the drying and remove smaller or thinner pieces as they finish—allowing larger pieces to continue to dry. Use a clean paper towel to blot oil and fat from the jerky during the drying process. When the jerky is dried to pliable yet moisture-free consistency, sandwich the finished strips in paper towels and weight with plates or cookie sheets for 2 hours to wick out any excess oil and extend the shelf life. Store the jerky in an airtight container, such as a mason jar or freezer bag, and place in the refrigerator for up to 3 months. Or for the longest possible shelf life, freeze for up to 6 months. Lean meat jerky will keep for 3 to 4 weeks at room temperature before going rancid from the fat in the meat. Discard the entire package of jerky if mold is present.