Have you ever wondered how commercial processors make beef jerky? Well, we always liked to make our own jerky, and we recently launched our own Bearded Butcher Beef Bites, so we decided it'd be fun to break down how the big jerky companies make their products. We put a lot of time and effort into making jerky at home and in our factory, so it's not a surprise to see how expensive jerky is on the shelves. It turns out that the process of making commercial beef jerky is pretty interesting.
Making Beef Jerky Can Be A Lengthy Process
Start to finish, making beef jerky is time-consuming even for commercial manufacturers. In fact, it can take even longer than doing it yourself. When a plant makes jerky, they are required to follow rules established by the FDA, USDA, and OSHA. The various rules determine how the meat can be processed, cured, stored, and dried. Beef jerky can take more than 14 hours to make in a large commercial facility.
Initial Meat Preparation
The first step in making beef jerky is initial meat preparation. Processing plants use machinery to remove bones and connective tissue from the meat. The best meat for jerky making – whether you own a factory or are doing it in your kitchen – is flank meat. Before the store-bought jerky you love can be made, the excess fat must be removed.
Fat is removed using one of several methods. The meat can be put in a centrifuge to have the fat spun out of the meat. Another method of processing the fat is using pressure to force the fat out. Some facilities will use water and filters to filter out the fat from the meat. The meat is visually inspected on conveyors before going to shaker screens to remove any remaining foreign material.
At this point, the meat doesn't really resemble beef jerky. It's more of a limp, red, sorta slimy looking thing. The meat is either frozen in chunks or ground and frozen.
Preparing the Curing Solution
The commercial cure includes lots of ingredients we don't use at home. The additional ingredients are responsible for the extremely long shelf life that commercial beef jerky has. It also has a bunch of ingredients that you'll be familiar with and probably use at home. A simple cure starts with water, salt, and seasonings just like at home. The main difference is that the commercial factory is doing it in massive tanks with mixing blades. The tanks are often heated to aid in dissolving the salt and seasonings.
Seasonings they use include pepper, Worcestershire sauce, jalapenos, sage, rosemary, and garlic powder. Some brands use brown sugar or molasses, but many brands use various forms of dextrose, sucrose, and fructose for sweetness. Soy sauce and teriyaki sauce are common ingredients in the cure. Many companies also add liquid smoke flavoring to simulate the flavor of a smoker without the time. As you could guess, ours include our classic Bearded Butcher Blend Seasonings.
Meat Processing and Curing
Frozen beef is allowed to partially thaw. The chunks of meat are then immersed in the cure solution. Each manufacturer and flavor of jerky will require a slightly different length of time to properly absorb the flavor. Some facilities will also use a multi-needle device that injects cure into the meat. The meat then goes into a tumbler with additional curing solution that also tenderizes the meat.
The cured meat is then formed into blocks and frozen solid. A cutting machine then slices the meat into thin sections. When the blocks are formed, the beef is stacked with the grain running in one direction so that the slicing machine produces a more natural grain pattern.
Drying Process and Packaging
Once the beef is sliced it is transferred to wire mesh racks just like your home dehydrator uses. The racks go into drying ovens where the meat is taken to an internal temperature of 160 degrees. It is then gradually reduced to 90 degrees. This process can take up to 12 hours – much more than the two or three hours it'll take in your smoker.
Jerky is typically packaged in resealable bags with a small packet of moisture absorbing chemicals to keep your jerky dry.
The Manufacturing Process
The process of making beef jerky in large quantities requires that certain chemicals are used. Among the most common, you'll find nitrates, nitrites, and sulfates. Sodium nitrite is used to prevent spoilage. Another common ingredient you'll see on labels is sodium ascorbate which gives beef a pink color. These are chemical preservatives that are also found in natural products. For example, celery powder is often used in jerky because of the naturally-occurring nitrites.
Mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) is a chemical that is often associated with rare illnesses and is often avoided in most forms of cuisine, but is a common ingredient in commercial jerky meat. It functions as a preservative in food. But you won't find it in ours!
The cocktail of chemicals that are used are essential to making sure your store-bought jerky tastes as good the day you buy it as it did the day it was packaged. It prevents harmful bacteria from growing in your jerky. In a lot of ways, the weird-sounding chemicals producers use in your jerky are much better to have than they are harmful to you.
Picking Good Jerky
Beef jerky is by far the most common type of jerky you'll find in stores. These days, lots of places are making turkey jerky, pork jerky, and all manner of other jerky flavors. You may even find specialty meats like alligator, ostrich, or buffalo. Salmon is a popular jerky in the Pacific Northwest that is particularly delicious. Low sodium, low fat, gluten free jerky is out there, and it's every bit as delicious as anything you'll find.
If you're looking for 100% clean beef jerky that's keto friendly (and easier to chew), give our Beef Bites a try!
Commercial jerky often gets a bad reputation for being processed with weird chemicals, full of salt and fat, and is just generally unhealthy. Some products are just that – not very good. Read your labels when buying beef jerky and it'll surprise you how many brands are using all-natural, organic ingredients and clearly label everything that goes into the product you're about to eat.
The Bearded Butchers are dedicated to providing as much information as we possibly can to help you understand how to best process and prepare meats of all kinds. To help you, we maintain a blog and Youtube channel with lots of free, high-quality information. The Bearded Butchers and Beardedbutchers.com are also a participant in affiliate advertising programs designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to products we love. This means that The Bearded Butchers may receive a commission if you click on a link above and make a purchase using one of our codes.