Jerky is a nutrient-dense snack that is packed with flavor. It's also easy to toss in your gym bag or stash in the glove box and it won't spoil for a long time. One of the best things about jerky is that it is available in a broad range of flavors and textures.
Unfortunately, jerky isn't a cheap snack option. Average prices tend to fall around $5.00 per ounce which is just too expensive for a lot of people. Did you know that you can make jerky at home using equipment you already have at a cost of less than $5.00 per pound? A bonus of making it yourself is that you have control over the ingredients you are using and the flavors you develop.
We're going to break down some of the most important tips and tricks we've learned in the kitchen experimenting with ways to make jerky from just about anything you can think of. Once you get the hang of a few things, mastering jerky making at home is a simple way to make your own beef jerky snacks and save money.
What is the Best Method for Making Beef Jerky?
There is really only one hard-and-fast rule about making jerky and that is that you must use low and dry heat to dehydrate beef into jerky. Too high of a temperature will cook the beef rather than dry it and too much moisture will never allow the meat to dry. Other than that, jerky-making at home is all about being creative with the tools and ingredients you've got on hand.
The Oven Method
Probably the first way that almost everyone will make jerky for the first time is in the oven at home. Thin slices of meat are either hung or placed on wire mesh grills in the oven at a very low temperature. The oven door is left partially open to vent the oven and keep the temperature from climbing too high.
The pro of this method is that almost everyone has an oven at home. It doesn't require any special tools since you can hang strips of beef from toothpicks or skewers in the oven. Oven racks with a wire mesh are handy for doing larger amounts because they promote air circulation and limit physical contact points.
The con of this method is that it takes about four hours and heats your kitchen up quite a bit in the meantime. It can be challenging to get the right level of dryness without under or overdoing parts, particularly when you have pieces that aren't uniform in size.
The Dehydrator Method
One of the best, most efficient, and easiest ways to make jerky is using a food dehydrator. Our favorite food dehydrator for making jerky is a reasonably priced appliance that is versatile and perfect for making jerky at home.
A dehydrator circulates warm, dry air through racks that hold the slices of meat. They allow for excellent air circulation and great temperature control to ensure you have lots of success. Good designs use a wire mesh screen to hold the meat slices while drying. It'll still take four or five hours to make beef jerky, but you won't be heating your kitchen up as much and you'll still be able to make dinner.
The downside is that you'll need to factor in the cost of purchasing a dehydrator if you don't already have one. You'll need to justify the purchase by making dried fruit, fresh dried herbs, vegetable chips, and other tasty snacks.
The Smoker Method
Smoked jerky is one of the best ways to make jerky at home. You create a dried beef product that is full of smokey flavor and texture. The smoker method is also the most challenging, has the highest likelihood of not working out, and is both time-consuming and expensive. In other words, if you are up for a challenge, try the smoker method.
The idea is that you'll need to get the temperature in your smoker to as close to 165 degrees as possible, but no hotter. This will cause the pellets, wood chunks, or lump charcoal to burn slowly, forcing dry, hot air into the smoker. It also takes about four or five hours this way.
The downsides can seem endless. It is often difficult to keep a smoker steady and low enough to prevent overdrying or even cooking the beef. Tending a charcoal smoker to make jerky can be tedious. It's also easy to get too much smoke flavor since the temps are so low.
Which Is Better: Oven or Dehydrator?
We prefer to use a dehydrator for making jerky over any other method. A very close second is jerky in the smoker. There is no reason that the oven method isn't perfectly usable and it is easily possible to turn out better-than-store bought jerky in the oven.
Investing in a good food dehydrator will open up a whole range of options for culinary creativity. One of the things we learned with our dehydrator is how much better herbs and spices taste when we dehydrate fresh over store-bought options. Then, we use the herbs and spices we make to flavor our favorite jerky recipes to create our own jerky flavor.
Best Cuts of Meat for Beef Jerky
One of the key things to making jerky at home is that you've got to get the right kind of cut to make beef jerky. You want to find cuts that are lean and have clearly defined muscle fibers. Cuts like rib eye and fatty cuts like brisket don't make good choices.
The cuts you want for making jerky at home are often low-cost options, which is how you save money making jerky at home. One of our favorite cuts to use is the round. This is the top part of the rump and it is very lean and is easy to see the grain. It also has an excellent beefy flavor and as an added bonus, it tends to run around $5.00 per pound.
The round is cut into three parts. These are the top round, the bottom round, and the eye of round. The first two are obvious – one is the top, the other the bottom. The eye is a long muscle in the center. It is the ideal choice for making great jerky.
How to Cut the Beef
Here is where things get interesting- cutting the beef will change the flavor and texture of your finished jerky, but there isn't a "right" way to do it. One of the reasons that round cuts work well is that you can easily see the direction of the grain of the muscle and they tend to run in one direction which makes slicing easier.
Against the Grain
Cutting the beef jerky across the grain creates a softer finished texture and a more beefy flavor. This happens because you are cutting across the strands of muscle, which makes them unravel and results in a more tender jerky.
Against the grain cuts can fall apart fairly easily when they are too thin, so slicing a consistent thickness is important. We typically slice jerky about 1/8-inch thick but less than 1/4-inch. This gives us a good compromise between soft chew and enough structure to keep it from falling apart.
With the Grain
Slicing beef with the grain creates a finished product with significantly more chew. Chewier jerky is something people are really divided on. Some people love it and others hate it. We usually will make a batch cut both directions because we can't decide which one is better.
Cuts with the grain can easily become too hard to bite through when using certain cuts of meat. Some people refer to it as chewing gum jerky because of how difficult it is to break up. For some reason, we think that our favorite jerky recipe seasonings taste more pronounced when the meat is cut with the grain, and it may be thanks to a slight difference in beefiness from the cut.
How to Dehydrate Beef Jerky
When you are dehydrating meat to make jerky, you need to get a low and even temperature in dry conditions. This means that you'll need to allow moisture to vent from whatever appliance you are using. A smoker and a dehydrator will vent on their own, but you should crack the oven door open if using that method so that moisture doesn't accumulate and ruin your jerky.
You should start with a temperature of 160-degrees. Arrange your thinly sliced beef in a single layer so that no pieces are touching on the dehydrator trays or hang in the oven or smoker. You also don't want the meat to fold on itself or you'll create unfinished areas that are dangerous and gross.
Start to check the jerky around three hours in. It should begin to look dry at this point. Drop the temperature in the dehydrator to 145 degrees for about an hour, checking every 30-minutes. You are aiming for an internal temperature of at least 165-degrees overall, but that is almost impossible to determine accurately when making jerky. Instead, rely on your senses.
When jerky is sufficiently dry, it will bend and crack, but not break. Breaking is too done. If it doesn't crack, it isn't done and it'll usually feel like undercooked meat. What we like to do is slowly test the pieces of jerky regularly and wait until it is as close to the "too dry" point as possible without going past the point of no return. You can use a moist paper towel in a plastic bag to slightly re-hydrate jerky if it gets a little too done, but this isn't recommended.
The Best Homemade Beef Jerky Recipe
We've got a handful of old family recipes for jerky that are all written up with notes and variations. One thing that we've discovered is that there is a fairly straightforward base recipe that turns out consistently delicious jerky and has the versatility to be a backbone for any creative and wild ideas you might have.
- 1 cup Low sodium soy sauce
- 1 cup Worcestershire sauce
- 2 tsp Liquid smoke
- 1 Pkg Pink Cure or 506 Celery Juice Powder
- 2 Tbsp Garlic powder
- 2 Tbsp Onion powder
- 1 Tbsp Black pepper
- 2 tsp Red pepper flakes
This recipe makes enough marinade for at least twenty five pounds of thinly sliced beef (or any protein you choose, including deer, bison, elk, pork, chicken, goose, caribou, moose, mule deer). This marinade recipe should be adjusted by volume to meet the size of your batch, if your batch is smaller.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the low sodium soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce, whisking to combine while adding the liquid smoke.
- In a small bowl, combine the garlic powder, onion powder, curing agent, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Whisk to combine, then whisk into the liquid marinade.
- In a large resealable bag, place the sliced meat in loosely. Don't overcrowd. It's better to use several bags rather than stuffing it all into one.
- Gently pour the marinade into the bag, working the sliced meat so that it is completely coated and fully submerged. Evacuate the air from the bag and place it in the refrigerator overnight.
- When the marinade has set for at least ten hours, drain the slices but don't rinse them off. Set them on a rack to drip dry for at least a few hours in the refrigerator.
Now that you've got your beef marinaded, it's time to throw it in the dehydrator and turn it into jerky!
Learning how to make beef jerky at home will open up options for getting creative. Homemade jerky has no rules, so you can get wild. We've used pineapple juice in our marinade to help tenderize tough cuts, added whiskey for flavor, and made plenty of sweet and sour recipes to make pork or turkey jerky.
Our recipe for making a jerky marinade is a great way to get started being creative. You can experiment with your own flavors, and we have some of our variations on our blog or on our YouTube channel to check out for inspiration.