Jerky, the ultimate road food. Meat snack. Beef leather. Chewy, savory, spicy, sweet, it’s my favorite thing to gnaw on ever since I ate biltong, the Mother of All Jerkies, in Zimbabwe 20 years ago. Making your own jerky at home is a snap: Slice, brine, dry, eat.
But making good jerky, I mean really good jerky, is harder than that.
I’ve made jerky a lot in recent years, and I’ve come to learn that nuances matter a lot when you are making jerky. How thick do you slice the meat? Across the grain or with it? What do you marinate it in? Or do you do a dry cure instead? How long is enough? How long is too long? Dry in an oven or dehydrator? Again, how long?
Slice thickness determines whether you will have chewy jerky or the really brittle stuff you need to moisten with your saliva before you can even begin to eat it; this latter stuff will last forever at room temperature.
Across the grain makes it easier to tear with your teeth, but the shorter strands are a little less satisfying as you gnaw them. Slicing with the grain can make for a challenging chew, but the fun lasts longer this way.
Brining, marinating or dry curing is virtually freestyle.
So long as you have ample salt (or something salty, like soy or Worcestershire) you’re in business. Long-time readers of this site know I am not normally a fan of marinating meats because marinades penetrate only about 1/4 inch into the meat per day.
But considering that I prefer to slice my meat for jerky about 1/4 inch anyway, marinating works in this case. How long? Longer than you think you might need. Seasonings in jerky tend to fade a lot with the drying process, so you really want it to get in there.
As for the drying process, a dehydrator beats an oven hands down. Even a low oven cooks the meat a bit too much, leaving it crispy. Of course, if you like crispy, go for it.
Through a fair bit of trial and error I’ve come up with this recipe for venison jerky. It’s not complicated, which is a bonus, and it really packs a lot of flavor into the meat.
The key to this is the chipotle in adobo. Don’t worry, it sounds more esoteric than it really is. It’s basically smoked jalapenos canned in a rich, spicy adobo sauce. There are several makers of this magical stuff, and the little cans are widely available in Latin markets and in really any supermarket that has a “Hispanic” section. If all else fails, you can buy chipotles in adobo online.
You do need some curing salt to make this jerky with 100% safety. I use Instacure No. 1, which protects the meat as it slowly cooks in the dehydrator. You don’t need this if you use an oven, but since I dehydrate at 145°F to 155°F, which is in the danger zone for bacteria, I use the nitrite.
The end result is a chewy, slightly thick jerky loaded with an almost “spicy BBQ” flavor. It’s an addicting flavor — I ate three pieces one after the other, unconsciously, as I was trying to evaluate the flavor. That instinctive taking another bite is always a good sign.
Want to do a different route? Use my recipe for duck jerky and substitute venison. Works great.
- 5 to 7 pounds venison roast
- 1 cup soy sauce
- 2/3 cup sugar
- 1 cup chopped onion
- 1 head garlic, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 7- ounce can of chipotles in adobo
- Juice of 2 limes
- 1 teaspoon of Instacure No. 1
- 2 tablespoons salt
- Put the soy, sugar, onion, garlic, chipotles and the adobo sauce, lime juice, curing salt and enough water to fill the can of chipotles into the blender and blend until smooth. Taste it (it will be a bit zippy), and add salt if you need it -- the marinade should taste pretty salty.
- Cut the venison roast against the grain into roughly 1/4 inch slices.
- Mix the marinade into the meat really well. The slices are going to want to stick to each other, so you need to use your hands (wear gloves if you are very sensitive to chiles) to make sure each side of every slice gets well coated with this marinade. It's enough for a full 7 pounds of meat. Pack the mixture into a non-reactive (plastic, ceramic, stainless steel) container, cover and refrigerate for at least 24 hours, and up to 48 hours. How long you take it depends on your personal salt tolerance and on whether you plan on storing the finished jerky for months or not. If not, go less salty.
- When you are ready, lay the meat on dehydrator trays in one layer. Don't let the slices of meat touch. Set the dehydrator to 160°F for 2 hours, then drop the temperature down to 145°F until the jerky is ready. You know this because the jerky is still sorta pliable, but when you bend it, the meat starts to fracture and crack a little -- this is how I like my jerky. All told, the jerky should be ready in about 6 hours. You can, if you are planning to store this at room temperature for a long time, dry it until the meat is brittle.
- If you are using an oven, set the oven as low as it will go and use something to prop open the door, which lets air circulate inside the oven. If you have a convection oven, use it.
- Store it in the fridge for uh... a long time. Or freeze it until the Second Coming. I vacuum seal packages of it and take them on road trips. They've been fine for weeks at room temperature this way.
If you want to try another flavor of jerky, use my duck jerky recipe and sub in venison.