How is Beef Jerky Made?
Before refrigerators and freezers, people needed different ways to safely preserve food. One of the most tried-and-true methods? Dehydrating. Today, you can think of beef jerky as the modern version of hanging meat out to dry for the purposes of preservation—it’s just slightly more sophisticated than that. Here’s everything you need to know about how beef jerky is made, especially if you want to know how to make it well.
The Benefits of Making Your Own Beef Jerky
First things first. Why bother making your own beef jerky? Everyone’s reasons vary, but there are some potential benefits that you’ll want to keep in mind.
- We’re not your doctor, but keep in mind that having beef jerky as a convenience food can fit into some dietary regimens. This is especially true if you’re minimally processing the jerky at home and using whole, natural ingredients for the marinade. The more you do yourself, the more control you have over what goes into your body.
- When you have meat, it’s typically not the most convenient food. Even quick-cooking meat requires prep work in the kitchen. When you have a big batch of beef jerky made, all of the inconvenience is on the front end. Once it’s made, jerky becomes a grab-and-go snack.
- Beef jerky is simply different than other types of meat. You won’t get the snack-ready flavor of beef jerky when you cook a round roast, for example. It’s something unique, and you may even associate it with outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, or hunting.
History of Beef Jerky Making
Making beef jerky bites might seem intuitive to us now, but anything close to modern jerky wasn’t just about the drying process—it was also about food preservation.
If we distinguish beef jerky from the simple act of preserving food, we can trace the history of beef jerky making to South America. The Quechua tribe would hunt certain animals and gather up their meat—such as venison—and then cut out thin strips of muscle tissue. They would add salt to the meat and then hang it up, allowing it to try with one of two methods.
The first method, sun-drying, is intuitive to most of us. The sun’s blazing heat would take care of much of the moisture, especially when working in combination with the salt. The resulting environment wasn’t hospitable to bacteria the same way we think of leaning meat out on the counter at room temperature. Instead, the direct heat and salt combination would evaporate enough moisture that the resulting jerky could be stored.
The second method was smoking the meat. This application of heat also dried out the meat while offering additional flavor.
The resulting meat “jerky” came from the word ch’arki or charqui. Soon, Europeans would adopt the practice and popularize jerky. “Smoke huts” would become the first version of a meat dehydrator. Processes like marinating would be introduced. Over time, additional spices and ingredients such as black pepper, garlic powder, red pepper, and onion powder would help make the finished product more flavorful and appealing beyond its survival benefits.
What is Beef Jerky Made Of?
Since the process has evolved, “jerky” has come to refer to a two-stage process:
- A “cure” with a salt solution. This is essential to the preservation process, making the meat inhospitable for the miniature organisms that would otherwise creep in. It also adds salt, contributing to the flavor of the meat.
- Drying out the meat to reduce its moisture content to less than 50%. This, in addition to the salt cure, is what will make the resulting meat “tough,” completely altering its texture.
“Beef jerky” specifically refers to meat that has been turned into jerky from, well, beef. That means meat from cattle. However, because beef is such a popular term, it’s entirely possible to run into people who might use the phrase “beef jerky” to refer to any jerky, no matter what the source of the meat might be. Another popular source of meat is venison or even buffalo, but for the most part, the jerky you’ll see at the store is made out of beef.
This isn’t all the jerky is made out of, however. Today, it’s popular to marinate the beef jerky for additional flavors. This might result in a few ingredients getting tossed into the mix, such as:
- Worcestershire sauce
- Soy sauce
- Brown sugar
- Liquid smoke
Additional ingredients, such as sodium nitrite, might be included in the list of ingredients you find in your beef jerky.
What is the Best Cut of Meat for Making Beef Jerky?
Presuming we’re talking about beef jerky—as in jerky that is made from real beef and not simply called beef jerky—there really isn’t a wrong answer. However, understanding what makes a “good” cut of beef jerky does require understanding a few of the finer points.
First, lean cuts of meat tend to be better for jerky. Going back to the Quechua tribe, which would gather up strips of lean muscle tissue for preservation, humankind has a long history of understanding that the more muscle a meat has, the easier it will probably be to preserve.
Many leading beef jerky manufacturers will use top and bottom rounds for their jerky. The round comes from the back portion of the cattle, a muscular area that helps drive the hind legs. As you might imagine, this makes round cuts of meat less popular as “fancy” steak, but ideal for the jerky process.
What about other lean cuts? Sirloin tip? Flank steak? This type of lean meat can be used for jerky, but tend to be a little more problematic than the rounds thanks to issues like the expense (as with sirloin tip).
How to Cut Meat for Jerky
You’ll notice we didn’t talk about why flank steak might not make ideal beef jerky. Well, one reason is that flank steak can make quality beef jerky, but it depends on how you cut it. And that’s why it’s important to know how to cut meat for jerky.
Here’s what you’ll need to know:
Learn your meat types. For example, let’s say you’re cutting from an “eye of round.” This is a thick cut of meat from the round portion of the cattle. If you’re buying it wholesale, you’ll have to cut out a layer of fat and silverskin to prepare the meat for jerky.
Create even, thin strips of meat. Depending on the cut of meat, this may be a bit of a challenge. For example, an eye of round that doesn’t have uniform thickness might require some preparation before you cut it into even strips.
- Why even? Because you want your meat to be a consistent product when it comes to curing and preservation. If you’re applying the same marinade to each piece of meat, for example, having one slice that’s far too large will throw off the flavor.
- Why thin? The thinness of the meat makes it easier to cure and dry out—ideal for jerky.
Producing the right strips of meat is so important that many jerky makers will use a slicer through which they can run an entire cut of meat, producing consistent slices or jerky strips. If you’re doing it manually, you’ll want to be careful to eyeball it properly.
How Long Does it Take to Make Jerky?
Let’s say there are slices of beef jerky ready to be made. What’s the next stage of the process? Since the next stage is the cure, the jerky maker then has to get together a salt solution.
A salt solution is a certain ratio of salt dissolved in water. Other ingredients may be dissolved in water, and the water may be heated to make the dissolving easier. This may also be when other flavors are added.
At this stage, there are different options for getting the cure into the meat:
- A quick dip of meat into the salt solution is a fast way to get the solution on the meat for the cure.
- Some more industrial approaches to curing meat may include injecting the meat itself with the curing solution, ensuring total penetration.
- If a ground meat like ground beef is being used, then it’s possible to mix in the curing solution directly.
The goal of the cure, of course, is to reduce issues such as spoilage while preparing the meat for the drying process.
For the home beef jerky maker, a quick dip in solution is probably the most realistic approach, since it can be achieved with common household materials. From there, you’re then free to add your flavorings. And this is where you, as the home jerky maker, get the most control over how the flavor ultimately ends up.
Common marinade flavors such as Worcestershire sauce will typically be added at this stage. Many home beef jerky makes will leave the beef jerky to marinate for over 4 hours, and often overnight. Next, you may add the other flavors you’re looking for. Do you want to make a “teriyaki” flavor? Do you want the black pepper to shine? Do you want a sweeter taste through brown sugar? Do you want the bite of liquid smoke?
From there, we enter the drying process. Here you’ll have two options:
- A USDA inspected home smoker will preserve the meat, typically at least 160 degrees—low and slow. Or in this case, very low. Typically, a home smoker will take 6-12 hours and up, depending on how you want the jerky to come out. After a four-hour cooling period, the jerky will be ready.
- The home oven. This one can be a bit tricky, since you don’t want to leave an oven unattended. You’ll want to plan ahead so you’re always around the oven. The good thing about oven-drying your beef jerky is that you can do it cheaply and with materials you already have. But it does require special attention, especially if this is your first time making your own beef jerky.
How Do You Know When Beef Jerky is Done?
It will depend on a few factors.
- First, when are you starting the timer? Taking home a bottom round, for example, will mean additional processing time before you even get the meat cut. This will contribute to the overall time it takes to create your jerky.
- Second, what tools are you using? If you have a slicer designed for jerky, you can make quick work of a cut of meat. If you’re using kitchen items such as an ordinary meat-slicing knife to create even meat strips, that will take you more time.
- Third, how long are you leaving the jerky to marinate? Some people want an easier marinade, while others may leave their meat marinating in the fridge for at least 24 hours. The process of refrigeration is typically what cinches the fact that making jerky is a multi-day process for the average home jerky maker.
Once you get the ideal temperature for drying out the meat, it can take between 6-12 hours, plus an additional 4 for the jerky to cool.
This isn’t to say that this is the only way to learn how to make jerky. In fact, there are plenty of ways. Depending on what you have available at home, you might in fact have multiple options to choose from. But it should give you a baseline to understand what to expect.
The process of turning beef into beef jerky is not something you’ll undertake for a quick weeknight meal. But that isn’t to say it’s not a convenience food. Once the beef jerky is finished, it does something remarkable: it makes relatively fresh meat a convenience food! It’s something you can grab right out of the bag and enjoy. That’s the miracle of effective home processing—if you do it right.
Here at Red Truck Beef Jerky, we take great pride in providing high-quality jerky. Our beef jerky company can help satisfy your cravings by giving you Made in America jerky to consume. We offer a wide-range of delicious jerky and have some of the best meat sticks to satisfy any craving. Here are some of our offerings below!