How Long to Smoke Jerky in a Smoker?
Beef jerky might be the ultimate smoky snack. People come up with all sorts of recipes—soy sauce marinade, black pepper hickory, brown sugar for something sweet. But it all comes down to two essential elements. For starters, the beef.
And then there’s the smoke.
If you want to make your own jerky, smoking is essential. But it doesn’t only bring that characteristically BBQ or mesquite style flavor. It dries the meat and enhances taste and texture with qualities that only come through a smoking process done right. The only questions: how do you do it right? And how long does it take to do it right?
How to Prepare the Meat for the Smoker
Let’s start with a beef (err—brief) history of how meat becomes jerky. Before you can marinate, before you can pat it down with a paper towel, before you can smoke the meat, it all starts with a simple ingredient: high-quality meat.
Sirloin tip is a great option, but if you’re making your own, be aware that this is a bit on the expensive side. So instead, think “flank steak”: you want lean muscle here because you’re going to be giving it low and slow heat that helps break things down.
Top round and bottom round are lean, muscular cuts ripe for dehydration and smoking—two critical processes in turning a great amount of meat into a great piece of jerky. (Note: although other people might use venison and other meats for jerky, we’ll focus on a piece of beef jerky for our purposes today).
Let’s say you have your meat ready. What are the next steps?
- Trim the fat. Fat won’t respond well to smoking; you want dry, thin, long strips of high-protein meat to make good beef jerky. So if there is a lot of excess fat on the cut you purchased, trim that fat out to get it ready for slicing.
- Slice into long, thin beef strips. Almost imagine you were creating bacon. The thinness of the strips helps infuse every aspect of the smoking into each bite and promotes dehydration without spoilage. Generally, aim for about ¼-inch thick slices. Don’t buy a meat slicer just yet! Try to get it consistent with a good, sharp knife (a chef’s knife) at home; you want to make sure that you’re confident in your beef jerky smoking skills before starting mass-producing with a meat slicer.
- Flavor the meat. Want to marinate? This is the step to do it. If it’s your first time making jerky, you might experiment with all sorts of additives. Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder, hot sauce, onion powder, red pepper flakes, garlic salt—you get to pick the flavors here. Remember to track which one is which if you’re going to do a “tasting” style experiment to see which one you like best. If you’re using a wet marinade, set it in the refrigerator to marinate overnight. You might stick the strips in a plastic bag with your marinade to ensure proper coverage. At the simplest, you can apply some salt and pepper and start smoking right away.
- Smoke the meat. You don’t need a lot of intensity here; time will give the meat its smoky flavor. For example, some people don’t recommend using extra wood chips in the smoker. Wood chips will bring heat and intensity, and sometimes that might be too much for your goal. An electric smoker tends to be less intense than wood smokers, so keep that in mind, depending on the kind of flavors you desire. You can find a little bit more about how long this process will take in the next section.
Once you think your meat is done (more on that in a bit), transfer it to a cooling rack. You may also use clean, cold grill grates. At this stage, it might feel a bit like grilling; you’ve finished processing the meat, and you want it to reach a cool temperature. Good beef jerky will crack but not go brittle.
How Long Does Jerky Take in a Smoker?
It depends. If you’re using an electric smoker, you may want to consult the instructions to ensure that you get the timing right, primarily related to flavor intensity. Generally, you’ll leave a smoker at about just under 150 degrees Fahrenheit; however, some people start low and slow and fire up the smoker to hotter temperatures as the process goes on.
It will be at least a few hours. One recipe we found had a one-hour drying out process with no smoke and something just as close to room temperature as cooking, and then a few hours of hotter smoking, about 2 or 3. Other sources say that you can smoke for much longer than that, working from 10 hours and up, depending on your climate and just how dry the meat is.
Keep in mind that there’s a reason there’s no universal answer. If you cut thicker slices of jerky strips than you imagined, it may take longer for your jerky to completely dry out in the smoker. If you cut strips far too thin, the smoking process might be done in a hurry.
Your best bet is to cater your beef jerky recipe to what you’re observing in front of you. Don’t adhere to a rigid timeline, especially if your beef jerky recipe recommends that you get your beef jerky to specific stages of “doneness.” Instead, think of this as an experiment! Using your smoker type, recipe, and strip sizes, do some basic observation and find out what works best for you.
Total times will vary. As with your experiments with different flavors, try experimenting with your smoker until you get it just right.
Additional Smoker Tips for Jerky
Let’s leave you with something tangible that you can take home and use right away: some additional smoker tips for homemade jerky.
- Avoid adding liquid smoke. Liquid smoke is an ingredient that will be too much of a good thing if you combine it with all the work you did. Can you get a similar effect if you use a dehydrator and add liquid smoke? We don’t think it’s quite the same.
- Think of the beef jerky as brisket. People are familiar with how good food can be at home when using the “low and slow” method. You’re essentially doing the same thing here, whether you’re using an electric smoker or not. Smoking adds some heat but lots of flavors. The low heat is part of the fun—and the magic—of ending up with something remarkable at home.
- Treat different meats differently. Let’s say you’re making venison jerky. Many of the same tips will still hold up, but make sure you have the equivalent cuts of meat as we discussed for beef. And keep in mind that poultry is, quite literally, a different animal.
- Don’t be afraid of intense flavors. Remember that not all of your marinade is going to end up on the meat. Let’s say you add one cup of soy sauce to the marinade. It’s going to feel like a lot. But remember that you’re just prepping the beef jerky at first. One cup of soy sauce will feel very potent, but in terms of how it ends up in the final recipe, you may only get hints of it.
- Don’t make beef jerky just once. Having an electric smoker and all of these tips in mind is a good start. But it will feel like a lot of work for one batch of beef jerky. So don’t give up!
Once you know how to do it, you can repeat your smoked beef jerky recipe repeatedly.
Red Truck Beef Jerky is a small, family-owned business that sources all premium cuts of meat in the USA. Some more prominent beef jerky players say “packed in the USA,” which means that the meat is probably from overseas. With us, you are supporting a family business and keeping the quality right here in the USA.