You might be under the impression that making beef jerky at home is expensive, complicated, and requires specialized equipment such as a dehydrator. This is not true.
To make beef jerky, you need:
- A freezer
- An oven that can go to 80C/175F
- A sharp knife
That’s it. No dehydrator. No weird fans. No weird inaccessible chemicals.
A freezer, an oven, a knife. And of course some beef. And some marinade. But we’ll get to those later.
The science of it all
Beef Jerky used to be made as a way of preserving meat during the 15th century in South America. The meat would be dehydrated by being cut thinly and left in the sun for long hours. Other times it would be smoked over a low fire instead.
What this does is to remove moisture from the meat, thereby increasing the time it takes for it to go bad. The microorganisms responsible for making meat go rancid thrive in water. By reducing the amount of water in the food, you’re making it less hospitable for these pathogens, thereby increasing its shelf life.
How do you know when it’s dry enough?
The technical explanation involves a metric called water activity. Water activity indicates the amount of water particles in a food item which is not bound to any of the food particles. In an oversimplified way it represents the humidity inside food. A food which has 100% humidity has a water activity of 1.0. Most foods are at 95% humidity, or a water activity of 0.95.
When you dehydrate a food item, the water activity decreases. In the case of beef, pathogens thrive in a water activity above 0.85. According to the FDA, beef jerky is considered safe once its water activity is below 0.85.
Unfortunately, it’s difficult to measure water activity at home. Instead you’ll have to rely on your senses. You can consider beef jerky ready when it darkens, feels tough, and can be bent. If it snaps instead of bending, it has been dried a touch too much.
Which cut of beef to use for beef jerky?
You need a cut of meat which is very lean. Fat remains moist after dehydrating, making it spoil faster. The less fat, the longer the shelf life. Meat from the cow’s round (rear leg) makes for the best jerky as it’s very lean.
You have the choice for top, eye, or bottom round. But honestly, just ask your butcher for his leanest cut, and explain to them what you’re looking for.
Why marinate beef for beef jerky?
Marinating serves two purposes. First, it imparts a lot of flavor into the jerky. Second, an acidic marinade will also make red meat less tough over time as it denatures it.
Do note that if meat is left in acid for too long it will eventually toughen up again. So don’t forget it in the fridge.
Traditionally a pepper marinade and rub is made, but I prefer mine with a bunch of thai flavors. I got my coworkers to taste test it, and they all unanimously approved.
Again. This is a simple recipe which needs very little hands on time, and it’ll save you a lot of money if you make it at home.
Ingredients for 400gr / 14oz of Jerky
1.2kg / 2.7lb of lean beef with all visible fat removed (top round, eye round, bottom round, or flank).
2/3 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup palm sugar (substitute with light brown sugar)
3tbsp fish sauce
1tbsp dried chilli flakes
2 cloves of garlic, minced
- The night before, place the beef into the freezer for 30 minutes. This will allow it to harden up enough for you to slice it.
- While the meat is cooling, grab a small saucepan and place it over high heat. Add the rice vinegar, palm sugar, chilli flakes and fish sauce. Bring to a boil, and let it reduce on medium heat for around 8 minutes, until it thickens slightly. Remove from the heat and let it cool.
- Take the meat out of the freezer, and slice thinly against the grain. You’re looking for cuts that are 1/8″ thick (0.3cm).
- In a large bowl, mix the meat and the marinade. Make sure the marinade has cooled down, as otherwise it will cook the meat.
Cover the bowl, and refrigerate overnight
- Preheat the oven to 80C/175F. Spread the cuts of jerky in a single layer, and place in the oven for 3-4 hours.
Every hour you should check on the meat, and take this opportunity to open the oven to let out some steam. This will reduce the humidity and will help keep the oven dry.
The jerky is ready when the meat is tough enough to bend, but not enough to snap.
- Remove from the oven, and cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container for up to 3 months.