Road Trip Food DIY: Making Your Own Beef Jerky
Beef jerky is a staple of the American road trip as well as the American convenience store. I don’t personally like the pre-packaged jerky very much, maybe due to the nitrates or other preservatives that help it last longer. However, rather than mope about and complain or surrender to a jerky-less existence, I made like the Little Red Hen and decided, “I’ll do it myself.”
To make jerky at home, you need these three things: meat, marinade/seasoning, and a way to dehydrate the meat.
When it comes to picking a cut of beef for jerky, the rule of thumb is the leaner, the better. Fat in jerky can go rancid in the end, so go for cuts like top round, bottom round, or eye of round. Often, though, even these lean cuts will have some fat or connective tissue on the outside, so before you get started, cut that off.
There are a ton of seasoning and marinade recipes, so it’s really just a matter of looking around to find one you like. I personally like a peppery, hot, or salty marinade, so I looked at recipes online until I found one I liked.
In general, to dehydrate the meat, unless you have a smoker, there are two typical tools to dehydrate meat: either an actual dehydrator or a regular kitchen oven. The oven is definitely easier to come by, and there are a bunch of different methods to make sure that it doesn’t make a mess while still drying the meat.
My preferred method uses bamboo skewers to hang the strips of jerky through the upper oven grating and covering the lower grate with aluminum foil to catch any dripping marinade.
On the first day, you are generally preparing the meat. Like I mentioned before, start by cutting off any fat or connective tissue and put the meat in the freezer while you prepare the marinade. Let the meat stay in there for somewhere between a half hour and an hour to let it mostly freeze, making it easier to slice.
Once the marinade has been made, it’s time to slice. Use a sharp knife and try to make the slices a quarter-inch thick or thinner. When doing this, keep in mind that if you cut across the grain, it will make your jerky easier to tear apart and chew, and if you cut with the grain, your jerky will be very chewy.
There are jerky slicers available for sale, but I found it easy enough to just slice it myself. Put your sliced meat in the marinade, cover it, and let it sit in the fridge overnight.
After your meat has had plenty of time to marinate, it’s time to put it in your dehydrating device. Again, there are a number of ways to do this—some people just lay the meat in a dehydrator, some put it on oven-safe drying racks set inside baking sheets, and others (like me) skewer the meat at one end and hang it through the oven grates.
No matter the method, according to the USDA you need to make sure the meat reaches at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit inside in order to kill any bacteria. Set your dehydrator or oven to at least that level and once it reaches it, leave the door closed for 10 minutes to allow the meat to heat all the way through.
After that, when using an oven, you need to prop the door open with a wooden spoon for better airflow and leave it for a few hours. I check at 3 hours in, and then again each hour until the jerky is dry enough that is has no shiny spots and tears without breaking when bent.
When it’s done, you can store it in a Ziploc bag for about a week, though if your house is like mine, it won’t last that long.
Daniel Susco is a native of the Dayton-Cincinnati area, and has written on a multitude of subjects. He can discuss Shakespeare, expound on Classical Mythology, and even make witty jokes about Pliny the Elder (More like “Pliny the Rounder,” right?). In his free time, Daniel enjoys reading, cooking, woodworking, and long walks on the beach (just kidding – sunburn is no joke). See more articles by Daniel.