Before the advent of refrigeration, drying, smoking and salting of meat were commonly used to preserve meat and prevent spoilage. These practices antedate recorded history, and they were common by 1000 B.C. The Spaniards who came to North America following Columbus found dried meat (jerky) in use by the Indians. Meat was cut into thin strips and often dried without seasoning. The strips of meat were hung in trees, on poles, or in the tops of huts or tepees out of the reach of dogs. When the meat became hard, it was powdered and mixed with dried berries and corn or other dried fruits and vegetables to form pemmican. Animal fat was often added. In this form, the dried meat was transported in skins and was the principal food whenever tribes were migrating. Pemmican was often soaked four or five hours and boiled into a stew.
In recent years, jerky has again become a popular item. It can be purchased at the grocery, in sporting goods stores, in bars and even in some gas stations. As a result of its popularity, recipes for homemade jerky are in demand. The purpose of this section is to outline several methods of making jerky. All of the recipes listed can utilize meat from domestic sources or from big game. For example, the same recipe will produce beef or venison jerky.
NOTE:Because of recent food poisoning outbreaks, it is recommended to bring jerky to 165 degrees F and avoid cross-contamination with raw foods after this temperature is reached. This should be done before drying the meat. Thin strips of jerky make it difficult to measure the temperature of the meat. Cut at least one strip slightly thicker and use this strip to measure temperature.
The Indians frequently used the loin or tenderloin, but any muscle from any place in the carcass can be used. Muscles from the round or leg are most often used today. It is recommended that muscles be removed from the carcass and made into jerky the day after the kill to prevent unnecessary bacterial growth. However, aged meat can be used. Meat that has been frozen and thawed can also be used satisfactorily. Freezing meat for a month at 0 degrees F or below before jerky is made ensures that it will be free from live parasites (which are rarely found in venison). To have freshly made jerky during the year, many people freeze meat that is to be made into jerky, then thaw it in small quantities and make it into jerky as it is needed. Meat for jerky should be trimmed of fat and connective tissue and then cut into strips 1/4 inch thick, 1 inch wide and up to a foot long. Cut with (not across) the grain. Small muscles, 1 or 2 inches in diameter, are often separated and made into jerky without being cut into strips. These thicker pieces of meat take longer to absorb the salt and seasonings and longer to dry, but with these exceptions, no changes in the jerky recipes need to be made. Some recipes call for drying jerky in the sun. Because of sanitation problems, this method is not recommended. If sun drying is used, the jerky should be cut into strips 1/4 inch thick or less. The color of finished jerky ranges from light brown to black. Color variations depend on the recipe used, the species of animal and the age of the animal. The latter two factors are related to the myoglobin concentration in fresh meat. Myoglobin is the substance in meat responsible for color. Higher levels of myoglobin result in darker colored jerky.
Checklist for Making Jerky
Use fresh, lean meat free of fat and connective tissue.
Slice the meat with the grain, not crosswise.
Add the correct amount of seasoning. If you do not have a scale, use approximate equivalent measures for the jerky recipes as follows:
Salt 10.5 oz (298 g) = 1 cup 8.0 oz (227 g) = 3/4 cup 2.0 oz (57 g) = 3 level Tbsp.
Sugar 5.0 oz (141 g) = 2/3 cup 3.5 oz (99.2 g) = 1/2 cup 1.0 oz (28 g) = 2 level Tbsp.
Ground spices 0.50 oz (14.2 g) = 2 level Tbsp. 0.08 oz (2.3 g) = 1 level tsp.
Cure the meat the correct length of time at refrigerator temperatures. Salted meat should be placed in plastic, wooden, stainless steel or stone containers.
Oven or smokehouse temperatures of 170 to 190 degrees F are often recommended for the first 60 minutes, or until the meat reaches 165 degrees F. Keep the drying or smoking temperature in the smokehouse or oven at 140 degrees F after the meat reaches 165 degrees F (use a thermometer).
If an oven is used, line the sides and bottom with aluminum foil to catch the drippings. Open the door to the first or second stop to allow moisture to escape and to lower the oven temperature when necessary.
Use any hardwood for smoking. Do not use pine, fir or other conifers.
Remove the jerky from the smokehouse or oven before it gets too hard for your taste. Five pounds of fresh meat should weigh approximately 2 pounds after drying or smoking.
Store jerky in clean jars or plastic bags, or wrap it in freezer paper and freeze it. Although jerky will last almost indefinitely at any temperature, its quality deteriorates after a few months.
Alter seasonings and smoking or drying times to suit individual tastes. Examples of spices that could be added to 5 pounds of meat in the recipes below: 2 Tbsp. chili powder, 2 Tbsp. garlic powder, 2 Tbsp. onion powder, 1 tsp. ginger, 2 Tbsp. coriander or 1 tsp. allspice.
Simple Dry-Cured Jerky
Prepare 5 pounds of meat as described above (1/4-inch strips).
Spread out meat and sprinkle on 2 ounces salt (3 Tbsp.), 0.16 ounce ground pepper (2 tsp.) and 1 ounce sugar (2 Tbsp.).
Put the meat in a pan or dish and let stand 24 hours in the refrigerator.
Dip strips of meat in liquid smoke 1 to 2 seconds for added flavor (optional).
Spread meat out in the top half of a kitchen oven on a rack to dry. Cook the stripes on the rack to an internal temperature of 165 degrees F. Once an internal temperature of 165 degrees F has been reached, hold the strips at this temperature for a minimum of 60 minutes. Following the 60- minute hold time, open the oven door to the first or second stop and set the oven temperature at 140 degrees F (the lowest setting). Heat at 140 degrees F for 48 hours or until the meat reaches the desired dryness. Use an oven thermometer to make sure the oven does not get hotter than 140 degrees F. Higher temperatures result in hard, brittle jerky that crumbles when it is eaten.
Cut the meat into 1/4- by 1-inch strips.
Make a brine as follows:
1 gallon water
8 ounces salt (3/4 cup)
3.5 ounces sugar (1/2 cup)
0.5 ounce ground pepper (2 Tbsp.)
Stir to dissolve salt and sugar.
Put the meat strips into the brine and leave them in the refrigerator overnight.
Pour off the brine and let cold tap water run on the meat in a container for one hour.
Hang the strips of meat in a smokehouse, heat at 170 degrees F until meat reaches 165 degrees F, then dry at 140 degrees F until the jerky is the desired texture. Use any hardwood for smoking.
NOTE:An oven, as described under “Simple Dry-cured Jerky,” can be used if a smokehouse is not available, but the smoked flavor will be lacking. In addition to pepper, some people add 10 bay leaves, 1 tsp. of cloves or 1 tsp. of sage (or all of these) to the above brine.
Hot Pickle-Cured Jerky
Prepare the jerky as described in “Simple Dry-cured Jerky”, then pound the meat on both sides to work in the spices. Other spices and liquid smoke can be added.
Immerse the fresh meat strips (a few at a time) into boiling brine (see “Pickle-cured Jerky”) until they turn gray (approximately 1 or 2 minutes).
Remove the meat from the brine and oven-dry or smoke as described in the preceding recipes.
NOTE: Hot pickle-cured jerky is preferred by some because the boiling brine sterilizes the surface of the meat before the meat is dried.
Cut the meat into 1/4- by 1-inch strips.
Cover the meat with 1 cup soy sauce and 3 cups water and add 0.16 ounce pepper (2 tsp.) and 0.08 ounce ground ginger (1 tsp.) per 5 pounds of meat.
Stir the meat and marinate for 12 hours in the refrigerator.
Oven-dry or smoke in a smokehouse as described for pickled cured jerky.
Jerky from Ground Meat
Cut 5 pounds of meat relatively free of fat and connective tissue into 1-inch squares. Sprinkle 2 ounces salt (3 level Tbsp.), 0.24 ounce ground pepper (1 level Tbsp.), 1 ounce sugar (2 level Tbsp.) and 5 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce over the meat.
Grind meat through a 1/8-inch plate. Divide the meat into four or five portions.
Place each meat portion on a sheet of freezer paper, plastic or aluminum foil, and flatten the meat until it is about 1 inch thick. Now cover the meat with a second piece of freezer paper, plastic or aluminum foil, and use a rolling pin to flatten the meat to 1/4 inch in thickness. Peel off the top layer of freezer paper. Turn a cake cooling rack or screen over the meat mixture and reverse. Peel off the other sheet used to flatten the meat.
Heat at 170 degrees F until meat reaches 165 degrees F.
Oven dry at 140 degrees F or smoke in a smokehouse until jerky reaches the desired dryness.
Slice into thin strips with a knife or a pair of kitchen shears.
NOTE:Ground meat can be used if it is 10 to 15 percent fat or less and if care is taken to make sure the spices are thoroughly mixed into the meat.