Skill Builder: Do-It-Yourself Venison Jerky
Jerky can be tasty, but take care to avoid contamination.
By E. Dan Klepper
“Always hang your venison jerky out to dry above the fly line” went the running joke among my father’s hunting circle, a rarified world of tricksters and “old coots.” One of my father’s contributions included sun-dried venison jerky. The joke he perpetrated among his peers was that he had figured out the proper height to hang his jerky, thus avoiding flies.
Encouraged by my mother (a biologist) to avoid giving the entire family a bad case of salmonellosis, he eventually added several health-conscious stages to his jerky-making. This included cooking the meat first and then drying it in an oven or smoker.
Jerky comes from the Quechua word charqui (which means “burnt meat”) and refers to a form of dried llama meat sold to travelers along the Incan roads during the pre-Columbian era. The cold, dry air and constant sun of the Andean highlands made for ideal freeze-drying conditions. The process is actually the oldest food preservation technique known and was used routinely throughout the ancient world.
The basics for making jerky haven’t really changed since: Slice meat into strips, season and dehydrate. The key is to remove as much moisture from the meat as possible, preserving it and dramatically reducing the conditions in which bacteria thrive. Contamination can be avoided by practicing cautious, sanitary techniques.
1. Always dress your game properly and keep it cool and clean before you start to prepare it.
2. If meat is already frozen, thaw it in the refrigerator, not on the countertop.
3. To ensure tenderness, cut your meat strips across the muscle grain. Remove as much of the fat and connective tissue as possible.
4. Season with your favorite spice mix (simple salt and pepper works with a little red chili pepper) and then pound the strips with a meat cleaver.
5. Rather than soaking the meat in your favorite marinade overnight, try preparing the marinade fresh in a saucepan. Bring it to a boil, submerge the meat strips completely, bring the marinade back to the boiling point, then remove the strips with clean tongs before the meat cooks. Immersing the meat in a boiling marinade, rather than soaking it, will reduce the chance of bacteria growth. (For a classic marinade, try dried red chilies boiled for about 10 minutes. Transfer the chilies to a food processor, add fresh garlic cloves and salt, add some of the chili boiling water and then blend.)
6. If you are not using the marinade boil, then pre-heat the meat strips to 160 degrees before drying in either a dehydrator or the oven.
7. If using a food dehydrator, place meat strips evenly on the drying racks. Avoid overlapping the strips.
8. Dehydrate at 145 degrees for a minimum of seven hours. For safety’s sake, place a calibrated thermometer on one of the drying racks so that you can monitor the temperature rather than relying strictly on the dehydrator’s gauge. Dehydration temperatures below 145 degrees are not recommended.
9. If using the oven, lay the meat on racks that allow full air circulation around them. Set the oven on 150 degrees and leave the oven door open an inch or so. Dehydrate for a minimum of nine hours.
10. Whether using the oven or the food dehydrator, don’t depend on set times to determine if your homemade jerky is thoroughly dried. Check it yourself. Allow several pieces to cool. Make sure no portions have remained moist or underdone. Jerky should crack but not break apart when you bend it. If anything looks suspicious, continue the drying process.
11. Bag and store jerky in the refrigerator overnight after the drying process and then check again the next day to make sure all pieces are properly dried. If not, continue to dry them.
12. Enjoy it now. Don’t wait until next deer season to eat it. The flavor quality starts to diminish after a few months.