This guide to drying jerky is based on the University of Idaho’s 2012 publication, “Making Jerky At Home Safely”, which is based on recent research by scientists at Colorado State University, and the Universities of Georgia and Wisconsin.
Jerky is a nutrient-dense food that is lightweight and provides high protein. One pound of meat (16oz) will yield 4 oz dried jerky. Proper drying of jerky removes most of its moisture, making it shelf-stable, and it can be stored without refrigeration. Research has shown that the traditional jerky preparation method of drying at temperatures of 140°F to 155°F does not destroy pathogens if present in the meat. Ground meats are particularly challenging from a safety perspective because grinding distributes any pathogens throughout the product. The most concerning pathogens are E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella. For illness to occur, the following chain of events must happen:
- The meat source becomes contaminated with a pathogenic microorganism
- The pathogen survives the jerky-making process
- The jerky is consumed
Jerky can be considered safe to eat only when it has been heated enough to destroy any pathogens present, and it is dry enough to be shelf-stable, which means it can be stored at room temperature without supporting microbial growth.
Dryness corresponds to a measure known as water activity – the water available in a product for microorganisms to use to grow.
An electric dehydrator or an oven works best. Sun is not recommended, as temperatures are harder to control. Research shows that home dehydrators can vary considerably as far as how quickly they heat up to an appropriate temperature, and how well they maintain temperature during drying (some fluctuate 30-40°F), as well as how closely the air temperature inside the dryer matches the temperature dial setting (some vary as much as 40°F). Choose your dehydrator carefully, and make sure you can control the temperature. Here’s the dehydrator I use. Excalibur has a whole host of amazing dehydrators here.
Dehydrator: Use a dehydrator with a thermostat control that goes up to at least 150°F. The meat must maintain a temp between 145°F and 155°F to be safe. Don’t use dehydrators without controllable temperature.
Oven: Oven drying can work just fine, but it can take up to two to three times as long as an electric dehydrator because there is no regular air flow to remove moisture. Before drying meat in the oven, test the air temperature in the pre-heated oven with a thermostat for one hour, checking it regularly. The oven should be able to maintain a steady temperature of 145°F to 155°F for the entire time. If it’s too hot, the meat will form a hard, protective shell that keeps the moisture from escaping. If it is too cool, the meat will not dry fast enough and it can spoil.
Thermometer: Two types of instant-read thermometers are available in stores – dial and digital. Both can be used to measure the air temp in the oven. For measuring the temperature of thin meat, you need a thin-tipped digital thermometer, found in specialty stores.
Choose lean cuts in excellent condition. Highly marbled or fatty cuts tend to turn rancid quickly, and can develop “off” flavors.
Beef: Use lean cuts. Chuck, flank, round, rump, and sirloin work well.
Game Meats: Most can be used. Venison, elk, and antelope make good jerky. Best cuts are loin, round and flank, but any cut will work. Avoid bear, cougar and feral hog because they can contain Trichinella parasites. Freezing and traditional drying techniques do not kill all Trichinella species found in game meats. However, adequate heating either by post-drying or precooking will kill Trichinella. The effectiveness of the vinegar soak for killing Trichinella has not been studied and is not recommended for game meat.
Poultry and Rabbit: The best cuts are breast, thigh and leg. Rabbit loin also works. Remove the skin and fat before drying.
Fish: Choose non-oily fish, because high fat content can lead to early spoilage as mentioned in the meat section above. Trout, tuna, salmon (yes some is fatty but it does work well) are good options. Store fish jerky in the refrigerator or freezer, as fish oil can turn rancid quickly.
Ground Meat: Use at least 93% lean for jerky.
Handling Food and Equipment
It is important when drying meats, to keep your hands and equipment very clean, to avoid introducing pathogens. Wash hands often with warm water and soap, when handling raw meat, fish and poultry. Make sure to scrub for 20 seconds and dry with a clean towel, not the one you just wiped the countertop with! Keep raw meat, fish and poultry separate from surfaces where dried product and any other food will touch. It’s best to sanitize cutting surfaces and other equipment with a solution of 1 Tbs bleach to 1 gallon water after using. Air dry.
Whole Meat Jerky: To make it easier to slice, freeze the meat in moisture-proof paper or plastic till it’s firm but not solid. Use a sharp knife. While the meat is still firm, slice it into long, thin strips about 1/8 to ¼ inch thick, 1 to 1.5 inches wide, and 4 to 10 inches long. For chewy jerky, slice along the grain. For tender, slice across the grain. Trim visible fat, and remove thick connective tissue and gristle. Lay the strips flat and flatten with a rolling pin. Then marinate if desired.
Ground Meat Jerky: Ground meat jerky is typically made by mixing the meat with salt and other spices and flavorings. The salt helps to bind the strips together. A jerky gun like this one helps for shaping the jerky into thin strips. You can also press the meat into a metal or glass loaf pan and cut in thin strips about ¼ inch thick.
Ensuring Jerky Safety
Any meat, fish or poultry used for jerky should be treated with a method known to kill harmful microorganisms that may be present. Traditional drying methods use temperatures that are not high enough to kill the pathogens, so some other step is needed to assure food safety. Research has shown three methods that produce safe jerky:
Post-drying Heating in the Oven: This is the easiest method, and it produces the most traditional jerky. After the whole muscle or ground meat has been seasoned and dehydrated, use tongs to immediately place the dried strips onto a baking sheet, with no overlapping. Heat in a preheated oven at 275°F for 10 minutes. IMPORTANT: the oven must be to temperature before you put the meat in. Remove the jerky and cool to room temperature before packing for storage.
Pre-cooking Method 1: Dipping meat in a boiling marinade: This method shortens drying time and makes a tender jerky. The color and texture will differ from traditional jerky. Do not marinate the meat before pre-cooking, as this can leave dangerous bacteria in the marinade. Method: Put 1-2 cups of marinade in a saucepan. Bring it to a boil over medium heat. Add a few meat strips. Reheat to a simmer, stirring thoroughly to immerse each piece. Simmer for 1/5 to 2 minutes (the strips must reach 160°F. 165°F for poultry). Use a thin-tipped thermometer to get inside the meat). Remove pan from heat. Using tongs, remove the strips from the marinade. Repeat until all the meat has been precooked, adding more marinade if needed. Also, baking raw strips of meat to an internal temperature of 160°F is effective. Start the dehydration process immediately.
Pre-cooking Method 2: Baking the meat: Preheat oven to 325°F. Place seasoned raw meat strips close together but not touching or overlapping, on a baking sheet. Heat beef, game meat or rabbit to an internal temperature of 160°F (measure inside the meat with a thermometer). Heat fish to 160°F and hold for 1.5 minutes. Poultry needs to go to 165°F. Use a thin-tipped thermometer to get inside the meat. Start the dehydration process immediately.
Soaking the meat in a vinegar solution: This method doesn’t apply to all situations, such as ground meat jerky. It is not recommended for game meats, as they may have Trichinella, which is not killed by this method. Soak slices or strips of raw beef in vinegar, marinating them, then drying. The acid of the vinegar combined with the heat of drying destroys any pathogens that may be present. [This section will be updated soon!]
Preheat the dehydrator or oven to 145°F to 155°F for 15 to 30 minutes. Use a thermometer to monitor the circulating air temperature. Use clean tongs to arrange the meat strips on the racks. They should be close to each other but not touching. Dry for a minimum of 4 hours until pieces are dry. Precooked meat will require less time.
Properly dried jerky is chewy and leathery. To test for dryness, remove a strip from the oven or dehydrator. Let it cool slightly, then bend it; it should crack, not break. No damp spots. When the jerky is dry, remove from trays and place on a clean surface. Pat any beads of oil away with a clean, absorbent towel, and let cool.
Some of the pieces will be moister than others, so the jerky should be conditioned before storing. This distributes moisture evenly among the pieces. Loosely pack the cooled pieces in plastic or glass containers to about 2/3 full. Cover the container tightly and store in a dark, room temperature place. Shake daily for 2 to 4 days. The moisture will be distributed evenly throughout the pieces. If you notice moisture forming on the container lid, place the jerky back in the dehydrator or oven. Before packaging for storage, check again for doneness. If needed, dry more and repeat the conditioning steps.
Packaging and Storage
Proper packaging and storage is crucial. Once you have determined the jerky is properly dried, package it immediately for storage. It protects your food from oxygen, moisture, light, microorganisms, and pests.
Containers: An ideal container for dried food is:
- Moisture resistant
- Protective against light
- Easily opened and closed
Use glass, plastic (non-BPA), metal (never galvanized steel), food-grade plastic or re-closable mylar bags. Jerky should be packaged with the least amount of trapped air possible. Too much air causes “off” flavors and rancidity. Vacuum-packaging is a good option for long-term storage.
Storage: Try to store foods in amounts that require the container to only be opened once. This avoids re-closing a package with newly introduced mold spores or moisture. Choose a spot that is cool, dark and dry. The cooler the space, the longer the shelf life of the jerky. Many people store dried foods in the fridge or freezer, which also keeps quality high. Jerky stored at room temp or in the refrigerator should be checked periodically to ensure there is not mold growth. If you find mold, discard the jerky.
Sant, Laura L, Carol Hampton, Sandy M. McCurdy. “Making jerky at home safely.” Pacific Northwest Extension Publications (University of Idaho), (2012). http://extension.oregonstate.edu/fch/sites/default/files/documents/pnw_632_makingjerkyathome.pdf