I’m not doing meat much these days, but I did fine-tune some principles of jerky before I went mostly vegetarian. Most articles, I’ve found, will give you the same advice about slicing across the grain, pulling it off while it’s still bendy, etc. I will assume that you know all these jerky basics and principles as we go through my advice for making jerky tastier and cheaper.
I don’t recommend doing every single one of them at once, but depending on how you work out your process, these are useful tips. Here are all the things I wish I had known about making jerky from scratch. Standard “I’m not a food biologist” warning, but I do think most of the below exercises additional caution atop the recommended practices by actual food biologists.
Slice it nice for the same price
If you want even results (that is, all of it safe before some of it is rock-hard) you have to slice even thickness. Ask your grocery’s butcher to do it for you. It’s invariably free, and you might make a friend doing it.
A butcher can slice faster, safer, and more evenly than you ever will. They’re usually happy to do it and talk shop with you about your plans for it will they perform the task. A minute or two with professional equipment can save you from doing a worse job. Their industrial slicers will shame any machine you can buy casually and save you twenty minutes of clean-up, since they’re taking those precautions regularly anyway. Tell them you want slices thicker than a crepe and thinner than a pancake. For red meat, I recommend thinner; for poultry, thicker.
Me, I live in an NYC apartment, and while I have some space, a dehydrator and slicer take up more than their fair share of it. I’m not making jerky every dang day. Back when I was regularly making it, I was buying wholesale cuts, some of them dang near primal, from a place that was essentially a walk-in freezer. Cutting them myself was the only option. I bought a cheap meat slicer, I’ll bleach the hell out of it before each jerky batch, dismantle it for cleaning and another bleaching, and I’d still rather have the butcher do it. Even if but butcher’s counter charges you a small convenience fee–which has never happened to me–an hour of your life and holding onto your thumbs is worth a couple bucks.
Or just schnitzel that beast
So honestly, at the small batch level, I think a good knife and all-but-frozen meat will get you most of the way there if you must do it yourself. Some groceries don’t have butchers or even delis (which won’t slice raw meat for you anyway). So if you go the knife route, you can erase the difference with wax paper, rolling pin or a mallet, and two minutes of pounding/flattening. Congratulations, you just evened out the varying thickness in your sliced meat. Bonus: now it’s more tender, as well.
Before doing this, pre-salt it (and let it sit in the fridge for an hour or two) for tensile strength to stand up to the beating. Honestly, you should be doing this anyway because the other thing you should be doing is..
Salt before freezing (before slicing)
Salt is an alchemical wonder, so if you freeze or even par-freeze your cut for slicing, salt it in advance. This means brining before you freeze, letting it work its magic in the fridge for a day or two, and then moving to the freezer. This is a two-step textural move that will alter the proteins in the meat in your favor, so it holds together better through slicing and the contraction of its fibers during dehydration.
It also raises the freezing point very slightly, which is good, because sawing through an actual brick of frozen meat is work. Slicing through one that’s on the cusp of freezing? Easiest thing in the world. You only want it fully frozen if you have an electric slicer. Then you get even pieces that stand up to the kinetic heat.
Skip the soy sauce and make your own brine
Soy sauce is typically 5-6% salt by volume. However, soy sauce is also expensive relative to the goal of making a lot of jerky at low cost, even if you buy the cheap stuff by the gallon wholesale (trust me, I’ve done it). It’s popular among jerky makers because it’s easy, flavorful, and a guarantee of safe saline levels. But you know what’s cheap? Salt. Glorious, magical, delicious salt.
If you have a kitchen scale, weigh your meat. You can then calculate the needed amount of water and salt, to the gram. If you DON’T have a kitchen scale, even though you can get one for under $20 with all the money you just saved on soy sauce, skip the math with two easy rules of thumb:
- For a dry brine: I won’t yoink her entire list of ingredients but for safety and utility, Mary Bell says 1 tsp of salt per pound of meat, with 1 tsp to 1 tbsp of sugar according to your preference and desired result.
- For a wet brine: I use 1 tbsp of salt per cup of water, and 1 cup of water per pound of meat. Sugar, well, we’ll get to that in a second.
Soy sauce is usually 14g of salt per cup. One cup of water weighs 236.59g. A tablespoon of salt is 18g, so you’re coming in right in between 5 and 6%. (Frankly, I’ve found even this can be too salty, and you may want to go for 2 heaping tsp rather than 1 level tbsp.) That’s a little under 50g of salt per quart of water if you’re wondering.
Brine in a bag
By making your own brine, you’ve just reduced your cost per batch by $2-3, so this is less a budget thing and more my love of economy. But hey, maybe soy sauce is part of your recipe. At any rate, you only need enough for saline equilibrium. Once the brine portion reaches even distribution, any liquid outside the meat is sitting around, not doing any work. You could dry brine in a container, but for a wet brine, use a bag.
Put your raw meat in the bag, pour in just enough brine to cover the thing and meet your saline requirements (so much less than you might think), and get as much air out as possible. I like Stasher bags for this (no waste! No plastic!), but you can do this perfectly with a Waring Pro gun/bag pairing, or any countertop vacuum sealer.
Soften with sugar
I try to keep my sugar levels light in making jerky; I want meat candy, not candied meat. But facts are facts, and sugar will make it softer. Some jerkymakers favor honey, which is a surfactant and I don’t know enough about organic chemistry to say what effect that will have beyond some antibacterial action, but I do believe it’s connected to more tender jerky. Most likely you’d want to do the honey in the “brine in a bag” method so you maximize surface area contact between the honey and the meat.
Braise it soft, dry it safe
The best guides are usually done by universities, and all of them recommend a high heat finish after several hours at lower temperatures. Personally, I’m unsure why they want to kill off the bugs after giving them an entire day to reproduce and hone their craft making unhealthy byproducts. I prepare the Krave method of an initial heating high enough to kill bugs, and then dehydrating as low as possible, so that by the time bacteria re-establish themselves, there’s no water for them to subsist on. I think it’s safer to commit germocide, then render the environment inhospitable.
There are two positive textural effects of this: lower heat renders your jerky more tender, or at least, gives you a wider curve to pull it off before it turns into leather and/or rocks. The other is that braising itself softens the proteins, and is presumably done low enough that the meat doesn’t really cook.
It can be tricky. I’ve tried this myself with sous vide circulation, and I can’t recommend slicing your meat prior to doing so, or you’ll end up with meat that tears as you try to separate it. This is especially true of poultry, which has thinner muscle fibers and requires higher heat for safety. If you want to try the braising method, I say do it to the whole cut, referring to the many good guides on Serious Eats, Chef Steps, and Amazing Ribs for the relationship between time, texture, and temperature. Or–ahem–a self-plug, in which I did exhaustive research coupled with interviewing the amazing Meathead Goldwyn.
Fair warning, you will find contradictory info, and I would defer to the scientists. However, the FDA sides with caution, because the government’s job is to assume a worst-case user and keep them from getting killed.
Or just dunk it
If you’re not going for braising, you can just drop your sliced meat into boiling water and scoop out immediately, before it cooks. It’s an instant kill temperature for pathogens, and assuming you disinfect your knives and cutting board or meat slicer a few seconds prior, should be clear to then dehydrate at your leisure.
Braver people among you can do this to the whole cut, since almost everything dangerous lives on the outermost portion of the meat. I’m not responsible if you get sick, but then, I’m not responsible in life to begin with. But it’s how I operate when I do it this way.
Two notes here: Frozen meat is a million times easier to slice evenly, so you can parboil the outside for five seconds without cooking the inside, and Mary Bell, who’s forgotten more about jerky than I’ll ever learn, recommends your boil be a vinegar brine. Fair enough. I’d just brush with vinegar after pulling out of the boil. I think you’ll get a better effect than a watered-down solution, and you won’t be coughing as you do it.
Temperature, vinegar, salt, and dehydration are all methods of regulation that will prevent germs from growing, and I recommend using them all in conjunction.
It’s not essential to use, but if you’re planning on longer storage, I recommend Prague Powder #1. I have lost a batch to moisture creeping in despite doing a good job dehydrating, it so: for every pound of meat, slightly less than 1/4 tsp of curing salt #1. (That’s sodium nitrite. If it says nitrate, you have powder #2 in your hands for long-term curing of charcuterie and deli meats, which have higher humidity over a much longer process.)
Nitrite and nitrate take a beating in health literature, but as I have to tell my parents every time they bust out the supposedly healthier “no added nitrates” bacon, celery juice is rippling with the stuff, and it’s in everything that purports to avoid using such additives. In fact, a great many healthy greens teem with nitrates, and there is, as always, a debate about processed vs. natural. It’s a cheap workaround that the FDA should honestly rap some knuckles over. But I guess I’ll take heart disease over botulism.
Spray your trays with nonstick oils
I loathe spray oils. Bad for the planet, wasteful in packaging, and suspiciously artificial. Nevertheless, take it from a guy who has tried and tried to rub a little coconut oil on dehydrator trays by hand; they are the most unwieldy things in any kitchen. They’re larger than any cookie sheet in at least one dimension, they barely fit in the dishwasher, and if you’re lucky enough that they do, they still group up in ways that make them come out sticky. Even the nonstick ones cling to the meat and tear it. You need lipids and they’re a pain to apply.
Far and away the best thing to do is just step outside and spritz both sides with aerosol, or even spray through a wide-open window. Congratulations, I gave you twenty minutes of your life back.
Group your trays by meat slice size
As the jerky loses water, it shrinks tremendously, and the temptation, for efficiency, is to lay out your big slices, fill in the gaps with the medium ones, and then the trimmings. Don’t do it! Make each tray its own approximate size of slicings (one tray of large pieces, one tray of medium, etc.) and then you can pull off each size as it reaches its desired dryness. It’s a lot faster and easier than picking off the pieces from each tray.
You will likely use all available space anyway. Filling out a tray so much that the meat is touching dramatically slows down its dehydration time. You want air hitting it from every possible side, and you don’t want to wait till it contracts enough to get there. I know, cleaning jerky trays is a humongous pain. They don’t fit in a sink. They barely fit in a dishwasher. They cling to the glaze of the jerky. But if you’re cleaning a few, you might as well do one more.
Fatty cuts are okay
Most jerkymakers avoid fat, which will go rancid no matter how you preserve it. The thing is, what you really want to do is avoid marbled fat. Anything with a fat cap, however, is easily trimmed. You can use it for other purposes, or you can make snip off the fatty edge to make jerky you intend to eat on day one. DELICIOUS!