One of the earliest methods of preserving meat was dehydration; archeologists have found remains of drying racks all over the world, and in practically every culture. Back then, the only reliable option for dehydrating meat was sunlight. In modern times, however, we have better options.
While stand-alone dehydrators are available and can work well, they cost money. If you are considering a dedicated dehydrator, make sure to get one with a fan and not just a heat coil as this feature will significantly reduce drying time. The Elite Gourmet and the Magic Mill are quality products.
If you don't want to buy or cannot afford dedicated dehydrator, don't worry! So long as you have an oven available, you can make jerky at home.
In addition to the oven or dehydrator, you will also need the following:
Flank steak or some other lean, long grain cut of meat
Spices and flavorings. Either wet or dry
A Cork or small block of wood
Preparation is fairly simple. Start by trimming as much fat as possible from the meat. The presence of fat decreases the storage time and increases the chance of the jerky going rancid.
Cut the meat with the grain into strips no more than about 1/8 an inch thick. The grain is what holds the meat together after it’s dried. If it’s cut across the grain, it’s likely to fall apart when handled.
Either dry spices or a wet marinade can be used. Marinades should soak at least 12 (and preferably 24 hours to make sure the flavors get all the way into the strips. Dry spices are quicker, but may not impart as nuanced a flavor. If using dry spices, after applying, force some of the spices into the meat by pressing the strips with the side of a large knife, or placing the strips between two cutting boards and applying pressure.
After the strips are ready to be dried, place a rack in both the highest and lowest positions in the oven. Put a drip tray on the lower rack, and push toothpicks half their length through one end of the strips and use these to hang the strips from the upper rack, over the drip pan. Make sure none of the strips are touching the lower pan, as doing so will delay full dehydration.
Once all the strips are hung, it’s time to start the dehydrating process. Many newer ovens have a dehydrator setting, so use that if available. If not, set the oven to the lowest temperature (usually around 180° Fahrenheit) and prop the oven door open with the cork or small block of wood. This will prevent the oven from switching the heating element off once it reaches that temperature.
Let the oven run for at least three hours before checking. When done, the jerky should be completely dry and leathery. When bent, the pieces of jerky should crack, but not break. Any moisture present increases the risk of developing mold.
Storage can be in any convenient food safe container. If available, a few desiccant packets will prolong freshness. Vacuum sealing is also a good longer term storage solution.
As for how long the jerky will last? I couldn’t say; mine has always been eaten long before it had a chance to spoil.
More details, as well as some spice and marinade recipes, can be found in many places. I still reference an old copy of Home Canning and Preservingfrom 1977 which has long been out of print. Still available books, such as TheDehydrator Bible or TheUltimate Dehydrator Cookbook can provide more information, as well as recipes, for the novice dehydrator.
Thanks for reading. Till next time.
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