Beef jerky is an addictive form of seasoned, dried meat that serves as a great snack. Once you have the technique down, the opportunities to experiment with different seasonings and varieties are endless. Making your own beef jerky does take some time, but is well worth the effort! In this step-by-step guide, we will highlight that process, including some suggestions of the best meat for beef jerky.
Similar to making your own bone broth, barbecue sauce or bacon, you will be amazed at the difference in quality when you make your own beef jerky, especially you pay attention to each step. One of the main reasons to make beef jerky at home is that you can control exactly what goes into the flavoring. Maybe you like it extra spicy, or perhaps you prefer no sugar in the recipe. Either way, experimenting with the seasoning is one of the best parts of the process. Making it at home also means you can ensure the quality of meat you use is up to your standards. In the end, you will also save money by making your own as compared to buying a similar quality product at a specialty shop.
The two main things you’ll need to make delicious beef jerky at home are a sharp knife to slice your meat and a food dehydrator. I’ve had a Nesco food dehydrator for years and have used it for drying mushrooms, peppers, fruit, herbs and a variety of other ingredients. The benefit of having a dehydrator is the control of lower temperatures and airflow. If you don’t already own a food dehydrator, you might try seeing if a friend or relative has one you can borrow.
You can also use a home oven to dry your meat, although in my opinion, the results are not quite as good. Most ovens do not go low enough or provide decent airflow. If you are using your oven to make jerky, you can address some of these shortcomings by using a convection oven, propping the door open or setting up a fan to aid in the drying process. Each of these solutions makes it a bit harder to control the consistency of your finished jerky, but it is possible. At well under $100, a food dehydrator is a worthwhile investment and may inspire you to try drying other types of food.
There are a few things to keep in mind to select the best cut of meat for beef jerky. First, you’ll want to use a leaner cut of meat to ensure a consistent yield, texture and shelf life. Having a little fat won’t be an issue, but it’s generally best to stick with the leaner cuts. This is one reason that you may see grass-fed beef jerky on store shelves, since grass-fed beef tends to have less fat than grain-fed meat. You can even use lean ground beef to make jerky, although you will probably prefer the texture of sliced beef.
The other primary consideration is cost. Since drying your meat will drastically reduce the weight of the finished product, you’ll probably want to use a less expensive cut. So although flank steak makes a great beef jerky, it costs more than $10 per pound, so we’d recommend going with a cut like the eye of round. This muscle comes from the leg and has the ideal circumference and grain to make great beef jerky. If you want to sample the tastiest beef in all of the state of Texas, you might want to try out our Augustus Ranch beef bundle which includes three packs of beef eye of round roast, perfect for this application!
Here’s where things get really interesting. Dry or wet, spicy or sweet, let your imagination go wild on the seasoning. It’s best to start with a base recipe first so that you know the end product will be predictable. The more you make beef jerky at home, the more you can tweak the recipe to your liking. Salt is the only truly necessary ingredient to start with as it helps protect and preserve the meat in addition to the drying process (loss of water means stability). Many beef jerky products use pink salt, also known as curing salt, sodium nitrate or sodium nitrite. This curing salt does add a particular flavor, in addition to providing extra protection against harmful bacteria. If you are making these products at home in small batches, curing salt is probably unnecessary. As long as you pay attention to each step, drying temperature and proper storage, safety should not be an issue.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Marinating Time: 12 – 48 hours
Drying Time: 4 – 8 hours depending on slice thickness and equipment used.
May We Suggest: Nesco Food Dehydrator – this dehydrator is consistent, well-reviewed, and affordable. You can also purchase additional trays to increase the amount of drying capacity.
This recipe produces enough marinade for about five to six pounds of meat. The level of heat of your marinade will depend on your chiles. I buy roasted Hatch chiles every year during the peak of the season and freeze enough to use year-round. Texas produces some seriously hot peppers! Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce would also be a great option. We are using two pieces eye of round, about 2½ pounds each for this recipe, to highlight the differences in slicing the meat. The dehydrator I’ve recommended should come with five trays, enough space for 2-3 pounds eye of round (sliced). So you will need to either dehydrate the second batch after the first is done or plan on dehydrating the second batch the following day.
Step 1: Prepare the marinade and meat. First, before anything else, you will want to make sure the meat is ready to slice. Trim any excess exterior fat from the eye of round so that it’s mostly lean. Put the eye of round into the freezer while you prepare the marinade. Partially freezing the meat will make it stiffer, which will make it easier to slice. While your meat is in the freezer, combine all of the marinade ingredients into a blender or food processor and blend until it becomes a smooth, well-mixed paste. It should be slightly thick, but wet enough to coat all the meat evenly.
Step 2: Slice the meat. Using a sharp knife, slice your meat. There are two ways to do so. Try both, so that you can decide which one you prefer. The first method is slicing against the muscle grain, the second method is slicing with the grain. To determine which direction you are using to cut your meat, look closely at the direction in the meat’s muscle fibers. Slicing against the grain (figure A ,on the left) will provide a more tender jerky, while slicing with the grain (figure B) will produce a chewier texture, which may be fine for you. In fact, some people prefer a chewier texture that requires you to really bite into the jerky. Slice your meat into for ¼ to ⅓ inch pieces, but make sure not to slice them more than ½ inch thick. The reason this matters is that thicker the slice, the longer it will take to dehydrate. There will be some variability here, because it’s hard to make each slice the exact same thickness, but do the best you can to be consistent with the slices. If the meat becomes too soft and difficult to work with, put it back in the freezer to stiffen it up before proceeding.
Step 3: Marinate the meat. I recommend marinating your meat in a large Ziploc bag, although any non-reactive container will do. For an even coating, first combine the slices with the marinade in a mixing bowl. Evenly distribute the marinade and make sure each piece of meat gets coated, then place the meat into a sealable Ziploc bag and remove as much air from the bag as possible. For this recipe, I’ve used two pieces eye of round and sliced each piece as noted in Step 2. Marinate the two batches in separate bags to keep track of the different ways of cutting the meat. You can marinate the meat in your refrigerator for up to 48 hours in advance if you really want the marinade to soak in. Or since we’ve made two separate batches, dehydrate one batch after 24 hours and the second after 48 hours to experiment with the difference in marinating time on your final product.
Step 4: Start the drying process. After a minimum of 12 to 24 hours of marinating time, take your first batch of meat our of your refrigerator. Place the slices onto the trays, one at a time, and make sure they are laid flat without any folds and not overlapping. We want the air to circulate and touch all parts of each slice for even drying. The jerky setting on the recommended dehydrator will dry the meat at 160 degrees with air circulation, which is about perfect. This will take anywhere from four hours up to 8 or more, depending on how thinly and consistently you’ve sliced the meat. In this recipe, it took me about 4 ½ hours for the first batch to finish. I recommend reversing the order of trays about halfway through the drying process to ensure even drying. The dehydrator is designed to circulate air evenly but since it is a top-down design, I do notice the top tray sometimes dries a bit faster.
Step 5: Testing for doneness. We’re looking for a texture that is mostly dry, but does not simply break in half when folded. With some experience, you will be able to tell when a piece still feels wet versus being just dry enough to pull and rest. When you bend the piece in half slowly, it should start to tear at the bend, as seen in the photo to the left. If it doesn’t really tear and the piece returns to the flat shape when letting go of the bend, it likely needs more time. If it cleanly breaks in half when bending, it’s probably gone too far, but still fine to eat (though on the drier side). Some pieces may take longer than others or have slightly thicker parts that still need a little drying time. Be patient, and your efforts will be rewarded with delicious beef jerky! There may be a tendency to over-dry the first time around, but you will get the hang of it.
Step 6: Cooling and storing the beef jerky. Once the drying process is finished, lay your jerky out to cool. It’s perfectly fine to eat at this point, and you may find yourself compulsively eating half of the batch before the end of the day if you aren’t careful! We want the jerky to cool to room temperature before being stored in a bag or jar. If your beef jerky is placed into a container before it is fully cooled, there could be some sweating and moisture buildup within the container, which could affect your jerky’s shelf life. We’ve taken the trouble of eliminating moisture, so it’s best to keep it dry once you have finished the drying process. Once cooled, your beef jerky can be stored in a sealed bag or jar for a couple of weeks to a month. For even more of a storage life, you can store it in the refrigerator. Some folks even store it in the freezer if you don’t go through it quickly enough, but that’s never been an issue for me. I’ll pull a small Ziploc bag from the fridge and throw it in my bag for a great snack at any time during the day!