Few things are as tasty and satisfying a good piece of beef jerky. Whether you’re into spicy, black pepper or teriyaki flavored, one thing that everyone can agree on is that store-bought jerky is really expensive. What’s a road tripper to do without this staple of the American highway? The answer: Make your own.
Most people think that to make proper beef jerky you have to buy a big, fancy and expensive food dehydrator. But man has been drying meat without kitchen gadgets for thousands and thousands of years, so if your ancestors could do it, so can you.
Although it’s possible to make great beef jerky by simply hanging your meat in the sun, the easiest method for making it is using an appliance you already have: your home oven. The recipes for the marinade might change, but the cooking method is the same.
2 pounds top round beef
2/3 cup light soy or tamari sauce
1/4 cup regular cola
1/4 cup cider vinegar
1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons freshly cracked black pepper
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
Cotton butcher’s string
First thing you want to do is stick your meat in the freezer to chill while you work on the marinade. This will make the meat easier to slice into thin strips later. Next combine all the ingredients except the butcher’s string in a bowl and mix well. Taste it. If you like your jerky spicier, add more pepper or pepper flakes. If you like it smokier you can add liquid smoke or even a bit of your favorite BBQ sauce.
If you’re wondering what the cola is for, it will help break down the fibers of the meat and make your jerky more tender. It’s a great trick to try on steak marinades as well, just don’t over marinate your meat or it will be mushy.
Next, remove the meat from the freezer. It should be firm but not frozen (20 to 30 minutes is all it takes). Now take your longest, sharpest knife and cut the meat into long, thin strips. The thinner they are the faster they will dry. (Just keep in mind that they will also marinate faster.) Put your meat in the bowl with the mixture, combine thoroughly and cover with plastic wrap. Set the bowl in the fridge for three to four hours.
In the meantime you’ll want to prepare your oven. Remove all but the bottom shelf and cover it with foil to catch the drippings from the meat. Now take your string and tie it around one end of your strips of meat and then tie the other end of the string to the rungs of your top rack (which you’ve removed). Repeat with the other strips of meat making sure that none of them touch. Now carefully slide your rack into the top most slot in your oven. Set the oven temp to warm or to the lowest setting and close the door most of the way. You’ll want to leave it slightly ajar to let out any damp air.
After six to 10 hours, depending on your local humidity, you should have a heap of delicious jerky. Make sure that it is dry and hard but not overly brittle. Store it in an airtight container or freeze it if you don't think you’re going to eat it in the first few weeks.
Dried beef is not a uniquely American creation. The South Africans have been making a version of jerky for hundreds of years, called biltong. Although it is traditionally dried out in a special “biltong box” made of wood and and heated using a light bulb, you can make it every bit as well using the oven method above.
2 pounds bottom round beef
1 1/2 cups rock salt
1/4 cup coarsely ground black pepper
1/4 cup coarsely ground coriander seed
2 cups cider vinegar
The point of American jerky is to get it as thin as possible. Biltong is exactly the opposite. Cut your bottom round into 1/2 inch thick slices and then toss with the rock salt and refrigerate for about an hour. The longer it sits in the salt, the saltier it will be.
Remove the meat from the salt and scrape it off with the back of a knife. Next rinse the meat slices in the cider vinegar and then season each piece with the mixture of coriander seed and black pepper pressing it into the meat slightly if it doesn’t stick. Now tie off the pieces to your oven rack as before, and dry.
Because biltong is much thicker, drying time may be as long as 12 hours. Remove the meat when it is dry and firm but with a bit of give. Because biltong has more moisture, I recommend storing it wrapped in wax paper in the refrigerator.
What do you do with a batch of homemade jerky that might not have turned out so great? Pemmican! Pemmican is a traditional Northwestern food made from ground up jerky, suet (that’s rendered beef fat) and dried fruit. Simply grind your jerky in a meat grinder or food processor and combine with the suet. The ratio of meat to suet should be about three to one. I like to add a bit of dried cherries and even some roasted salted cashews. Then I press them into bars using my hands and wrap them in wax paper. It’s some truly satisfying trail food.
Picking Your Ingredients
Keep in mind that the flavor of your jerky will depend on the quality of your ingredients. I like to use beef from mature, properly raised cows. Try to find a small independent butcher that gets good beef, preferably from local ranchers. Alternatively, you can ask around at work and see if anyone you know is a hunter with a glut of venison. Although venison steak isn’t for everyone, your venison jerky will be very popular!
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—For more delicious, inexpensive recipes, check out MainStreet's food & drink section.