As fall fades into winter, hunting season on the homestead is slowly wrapping up. The change of seasons brings a slower pace of life and a time of rejuvenation for the homesteader. Since using the dehydrator or the oven heats the house, winter is the perfect season to make venison jerky.
What is Jerky?
Jerky in the simplest terms is dried meat. It’s made from lean meat, typically salted as a means of preserving the meat. Vinegar and citrus juices can also used as a base of marinades that help to kill bacteria. Properly dried meats are shelf-stable. Therefore jerky is among the favorite trail snacks of backpackers, cowboys, athletes, or anyone who wants a protein-rich snack that they can toss into a backpack or saddlebag.
History of Jerky
People have been drying meat for thousands of years as a means of preserving the harvest. The climate and local humidity levels would determine the method used to preserve the meat. Some cultures smoke meat slowly over several days using a cold smoke method. Other cultures may have placed thinly sliced meats on rocks to dry in the sun. Fish was cut in such a way that the tail hangs the meat over a rack, then it was smoked.
The native people of the Andes Mountains are credited with being the first to make homemade jerky most similar to modern-day jerky. The Quechua called it Ch’arki which translates into “to burn meat”.
Modern Day Jerky Methods
Jerky can easily be made in the oven. No special equipment is required. However, a food dehydrator makes the process simple. A low heat setting dries the meat and a strong air circulation system reduces the moisture content.
Marinades and dry rubs are used to create different jerky flavors. Simple ingredients like brown sugar, liquid smoke, black pepper, onion powder and garlic powder, pineapple juice and red pepper flakes can be add to jerky marinade recipes to create any flavor combination imaginable. In light of this, salt, vinegar, and citrus juices and worcestershire sauce are used as part of the food preservation process and are common marinade ingredients.
Selecting the Meat
Since we have an abundance of venison, I make venison jerky. However, jerky can be made from almost all lean meats. The best meat to choose is any meat with less than 10% fat content. Fat does not dehydrate and will become rancid with time. All visible fat should be carefully trimmed off before marinating. Meats with a slightly higher fat content can be used in jerky but should be refrigerated after dehydrating. Meat like top round is a good choice for beef jerky. Wild game tends to be very lean and makes delicious wild game jerky.
Keep in mind that four pounds of meat will yield approximately one pound of jerky.
Jerky is traditionally made from thinly sliced, boneless meats, however, it can also be made from ground beef or ground venison. The ground meat is mixed with a variety of spices, then is piped with a jerky press to make thin strips of jerky. A jerky rack with a fine mesh works best to allow the strips to dry without falling through the wire rack itself.
Slicing the Meat
For best results, meat is most easily sliced when it is partially frozen. A sharp knife is used to slice the meat into strips 1/4″ to 3/8″ thick slices. It’s important to slice the meat as consistently as possible, this allows for more consistent dehydrating. Thick slices will require longer drying times. A meat slicer makes it easy to make consistently cut jerky strips. However, it should be considered an optional piece of equipment.
Slice the meat with the grain for a chewier jerky texture or against the grain for more tender jerky.
Drying: Turning Venison into Venison Jerky
Most commercially made jerky is loaded with preservatives. The biggest advantage of making your own venison jerky is to ensure the quality of ingredients. Jerky can be flavored with any number of marinades or dry spices. The marinades can be spicy, smoky, sweet, or tangy. The choice is yours! Once you select your favorite marinade recipe, allow the meat to marinade in a large bowl or plastic bag for at least 24 hours for the best results. This jerky recipe has been our family’s favorite for many years.
- 2 pounds lean meat of your choice (venison not required)
- 1 cup of soy sauce (or liquid aminos)
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Mix all seasonings in a bowl. Add the sliced meat. Make sure that each piece of meat is completely coated in marinade. Be careful that none of the slices are stuck together.
Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Stir on occasion to ensure all the meat is adequately flavored.
Dry the meat according to the directions of you dehydrator.
In a Dehydrator
A dehydrator is the easiest way to make venison jerky. Dehydrators operate at low heat and have excellent circulation to dry the meat efficiently. It is best to only use a dehydrator that allows you to set the temperature to a specific temperature range. Jerky needs to be dried between 145 to 155 degrees.
My personal preference is to use jelly roll trays when I use the dehydrator (pictured below). Jelly roll trays are designed for use within the dehydrator. They are used for drying sauces and more liquid-like items such as fruit leathers.
While they reduce some of the air circulation they are designed for use within the dehydrator.
Please note: It will take longer to make the jerky in the jelly roll trays, as the trays will limit some of the circulation of the heat, however, the trays are MUCH easier to clean. To help with drying the meat on the jelly roll trays more evenly, I turn the meat over, halfway through the drying cycle.
In the Oven
While venison jerky can be easily made in your oven there are a couple of extra steps to consider. It’s best to use an oven thermometer so that you can monitor the correct oven temperature. Not all ovens are calibrated correctly. Therefore it’s very important that the meat be dehydrated at a temperature between 145 and 155 degrees. Monitor the temperature in the oven periodically throughout the drying process.
Be sure to leave the oven door slightly ajar. This allows air to flow and the moisture in the oven to escape aiding in the drying process.
Place a piece of foil or cookie sheet on the oven rack beneath the meat.
When is It Done?
Testing for doneness is probably the most difficult part of making perfect jerky! Most recipes suggest beginning to check for doneness at the 3-hour mark. The meat will be dark, fibrous, and will bend easily almost to the point of breaking. Almost being the keyword, jerky that breaks clean in half is over dry and will be hard to chew.
Likely the jerky won’t be done at the same time. Be sure to check frequently at the end of the drying time and pull off any pieces that are done.
The USDA recommends baking jerky in the oven after dehydrating as an added safety precaution. This ensures the meat is fully cooked and shelf-stable. Place the dehydrated jerky on a baking sheet in a single layer. Strips that were originally cut 1/4″ or less in thickness should be baked in an oven preheated to 275 degrees for 10 minutes. Thicker slices will need to be baked longer. The internal temperature should be 160 degrees.
If making jerky from ground meat, it’s very important that the meat is cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. Jerky made from ground meat is more prone to disease-causing bacteria. Be sure to follow the directions carefully and cook thoroughly.
Once the venison jerky has cooled, place it into an airtight container. Properly dried meat is shelf stable. It can be stored on a shelf for up to 2 weeks. If you intend to store the jerky longer, refrigeration or freezing is recommended.
A word to the wise, small packages are always best! I like to package jerky in small packages using the vacuum sealer with only about 10 pieces per package. On a kayak trip, I once lost a gallon size bag of jerky when a kayak tipped over and was flooded. The entire bag of jerky was full of river water! Lesson learned, never keep all your jerky in one kayak!
Small packages containing 3 to 4 ounces of jerky is a good snack size. Remember, it takes one pound of meat to make a four-ounce package of jerky. It’s one of those foods that disappear quickly. Rationing makes it last longer!
Homestead Living Winter 2021: Warming Up the Homestead
This post was featured in the Winter Edition of Homestead Living: Warming Up the Homestead. I have to tell you this article is beautifully presented in the eBook! Pretty enough to share! The eBook has a total of 10 articles all written by homesteaders just like you! It’s got some amazing recipes, DIY projects and how to build a community of like minded people to support your growth. If you are a member of the Kowalski Mountain Family, it’s available as an instant download in the Subscriber’s Library, check your email for the password. If you haven’t signed up yet, you can do so here.
Did you miss how we process all of our own venison right at home? Read about it here.
About the Author: Barbra-Sue Kowalski grew up on a small hobby farm. She was always drawn to farm life, however, she was stuck in an urban life far from her roots. Barbra-Sue was a single mom for 13 years, raising her 3 children on her own. She met Philip in 2018 and they married in 2021. Between the two of them, they have 5 grown children and 4 grandchildren. These empty nesters are following their dreams! As they both turn 50, they are building their off-grid homestead to live the life that they dream about. Learn more about Philip and Barbra-Sue here. Contact them here. To leave a comment on this post, please scroll down.