Jerky is one of the many food preservation preparations that has been around as long as humans have had sun and fire to warm their bones. Drying food, especially meat or fish, has been a long-time tradition of hunters. All regions of the world have their own types of jerky. The objective of drying meat is to reduce the moisture content which inhibits the growth of harmful microorganisms and lengthens the shelf life. Jerky probably started as plain old dried meat, then salt was added for longer preservation. Dried spices and or sugars were added to inhibit the growth of harmful microorganisms and to add flavor. Today we either dry cure or marinate our jerky. A few years back we just marinated but today we have curing salts that further the prevention of harmful microorganisms such as botulism. We also have freezers and vacuum chamber sealers used to store jerky for long periods of time which prevents mold from growing on jerky in very humid areas. With time we have developed some pretty sophisticated equipment to dry, cure, and preserve these meats. Rather than use fire or sunlight we’ve got fancy dehydrators, smokers, ovens, grinders, jerky shooters, and much more. It’s pretty convenient to go to a sporting goods store and purchase complete jerky-making kits. I am amazed by the amount of prepared jerky found on the supermarket shelves and I’m even more amazed at the price!
My dad was a very frugal man, he did not waste anything. When we were kids and we butchered our deer we kept all the premium cuts for steaks, chops, roasts, and stew meat. My dad made jerky from the shanks. Which by the way does have more flavor than the tenderloin. Dad was not going to use the good cuts for jerky. Four legs, four shanks, four of us, my dad, myself, and two brothers. Dad didn’t like cleaning all the sinew off the grinder blade when he ground the shanks, so he used that cut for jerky. We each got a shank of jerky and chewed on it all hunting season. One piece of that jerky would last each of us an entire month of chewing, thank God for dental floss. Today, I prefer to use the bottom or outside round of the hind leg for jerky. I cut it with the grain of the meat for a chewier texture and across the grain for a more tender texture. The bottom or outside round can be squared off and sliced into nice strips. My second choice cut of meat for jerky is the Sirloin Tip or Knuckle or “as I call it, the football”. This meat is lean, has only one round circular piece of connective sinew, and can be cut into nice round chips for jerky. Lean meat is the best, if there is too much fat in or on the meat, the fats can go rancid and ruin or sour the meat.
Types of Jerky
There are two basic types of jerky, muscles cut into strips or ground meat pressed into strips and dried. When grinding meat for jerky it is extremely important to get what we call the “bind” -mixing salts with the meat that affects the proteins so the meat becomes very sticky. A lot like why you mix ground meat for sausages, meat loaves, meatballs, etc. So the meat adheres together to form a stick of jerky. Meat mixers work very well for this technique as do food processors, grinders, etc. A jerky shooter is a tool used to compress and shape that ground meat for jerky. Remember 99% of all foodborne illness associated with meat is found with ground meats. That is because it is exposed to cutting boards, people, grinding equipment, air, more people, and more equipment. Many times people use scraps to grind that are not handled properly or are not wholesome to start with. Cutting into a singular muscle that has not been exposed to anything is much safer. Make sure your meat is wholesome, kept cold, and the equipment is kept cold as well. Take every precaution to ensure your ground meats are safe to eat.
The thickness of sliced meat depends on your personal preference but I tend to cut mine about 1/8”-1/4” thick. Most importantly, try to cut the slices uniformly, the same thickness, or else you will get an inconsistent finished product. I prefer to cut the meat while there is still some frost in the meat to achieve consistent thickness. There are tools and jerky slicers that work well for this process.
Marinades and brines are wet cures that use salts, sugars, spices, and sometimes an acid such as vinegars or wines to prevent the growth of harmful organisms. Be careful not to leave meats in marinades that utilize fresh pineapple or papaya for more than a couple of hours. These fruits have enzymes that will literally tenderize the meat into a sawdust texture.
Jerky is a lightweight source of protein; it is always a good time for jerky. Whether I’m hunting, fishing, hiking, or camping, I’ve always got a zip-lock bag of jerky in my day pack. I even keep some sealed bags in our vehicles during fall and winter along with water blankets tire chains etc.
Here’s one jerky recipe that works great for drying and making jerky, if you like more pepper or spice add more fire to spice it up some.