There are two main types of jerky: whole muscle a/k/a sliced jerky, and ground meat jerky. In whole muscle jerky, a hunk of meat is cut into slices – say, 1/4” thick – and then marinated, or packed with dry cures and seasonings, for an extended period before being dried. The resulting product is often irregular, because of the shape of the original roast or other cut of meat. If cut with the grain, as traditional, it’s pleasantly chewy; if cut across the grain, it’s much more crumbly.
Ground meat jerky, as you’ve no doubt figured out, is made from ground meat. The meat is mixed with seasonings and cures and then shaped into strips or sticks before being dried.
Each has its own good and bad points. Ground meat jerky is quick and inexpensive, and it can be made, if you’re careful, into uniform pieces. It’s easier to chew than traditionally-made whole muscle jerky. Dehydrators often come with a packet or two of ground meat jerky seasoning, and so ground meat jerky may be the very first kind that most people make.
On the down side, ground meat carries slightly more risk of contamination. As I said in the first post of this series, I’ve never had a problem with jerky, my own or anyone else’s, and I wouldn’t be telling you how to make it if I thought it was at all dangerous. But, as with any human activity, you need to know the risks and do what is reasonably possible to reduce them.
The trouble is that many (not all) of the microorganisms that can cause problems with meat are aerobic. They thrive in the presence of oxygen. They tend to live on the outside of a piece of meat. That’s why you can serve a steak rare with little hesitation; by searing the outside, you’ve taken care of most of the potential problems.
But the process of grinding up meat mixes air and microorganisms all through it. In the unlikely event that the meat is contaminated, grinding it makes the situation worse by aerating and redistributing. So you have to be more careful with ground meat. (That’s why some restaurants which will cook you a rare steak won’t cook you a rare burger.)
When I make whole muscle jerky, I use a marinade, and I can have fun adjusting and tweaking the ingredients, within certain limits. But when I make ground meat jerky, I tend to use commercial jerky seasonings. These seasonings contain not only salt and sugar (which have their own preservative effect) but also sodium nitrite, a preservative which helps kill some types of microorganisms. Sodium nitrite can be toxic in high amounts, so you should never add more than called for in the instructions. If the instructions call for one packet per pound of meat, and you’re only using half a pound of meat, don’t use the whole cure packet. Nitrites are used in a number of processed meats, not only for their preservative qualities but because they preserve a reddish or pinkish color which is desired in some types of meat products. Ground meat jerky made with a nitrite cure is noticeably more reddish in color than whole muscle jerky made without it. Nitrite also helps inhibit rancidity, making meat products last longer.
Most commercial seasoning products come in two parts – the seasonings are kept separate from the cure (which is a very tiny amount of nitrites bulked up with salt and sugar). When you get ready to make the jerky, the two components are mixed together in the proper proportions right before they are added to the meat.
There are some recipes for ground meat jerky cure which use Morton’s Tender Quick, a nitrite / nitrate cure mixed with salt and sugar.
As best I can tell from online research, the worst aspect of nitrites is that they can turn into chemicals called nitrosamines when cooked at high heat, especially when meat is charred or overcooked. Nitrosamines have been linked with cancer. But jerky isn’t cooked at high heat, and so nitrosamines should not be an issue. The University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation says that nitrites are safe for use in curing and smoking. The University of Minnesota Extension says you get more nitrite in your diet from vegetables than from processed meats, and also downplays the nitrosamine threat. Even so, nitrite cures should be used carefully, only according to the manufacturer’s directions. Also, I am not a physician, chemist or medical researcher, and I should not be the final word on any of these issues.
If you’re hesitant, and want to avoid using a nitrite cure, you can always consider grinding your own meat just before making the jerky, or getting your ground meat from a trusted butcher or the processor used by your local cattle farmers. You can get crank-style meat grinders, or if you have a big KitchenAid stand mixer, you can get a meat-grinder attachment for it.
Wherever you get your ground meat, you need it to be as lean as humanly possible. In any kind of jerky, fat is the enemy. Fat picks up off flavors and goes rancid long before muscle does, limiting the jerky’s shelf life. In a steak or a burger, the fat is an important flavor component, and so well-marbled beef is desirable. But for jerky, fat is harmful and unnecessary. Leaner is better. If your supermarket sells “diet lean” ground beef, that’s what you want. If you decide to grind your own, start with the leanest cuts possible and trim them completely of fat.
The jerky seasoning mixes that come with your dehydrator are often also sold separately near the dehydrator on store shelves. They’re fine, but somewhat ordinary. NESCO’s seasoning products are now provided by a company called Open Country Campware, and you can order refills and a variety of other flavors from the company’s web site. I don’t know whether this is a new alliance or whether Open Country has been providing the product all along and is only now getting some credit for it, and the ability to deal directly with customers. I haven’t tried any of Open Country’s other flavors.
When it comes to commercial jerky seasonings, my hands-down recommendation is Hi Mountain Jerky Seasonings. I’ve tried several of their flavors, and they’re all delicious. You can sometimes find them at Walmart, but in the grocery section, not near the dehydrators or the NESCO/Open Country product. Some outdoor sporting goods places also carry them. You can order them online, from the manufacturer or from Amazon.com. A box includes bulk packets of the seasoning and the cure, plus a little shaker bottle in which you can mix the two as needed. Hi Mountain also includes directions for using the dry cure to season sliced jerky. You sprinkle the seasoning/cure mixture liberally over the strips of meat, pack them together and wrap the pile tightly in plastic wrap, keeping out as much air as possible. You keep the meat in the refrigerator for 24 hours while the dry seasoning penetrates it. Note, however, that the ratio of seasoning to cure for sliced jerky is slightly different from the ratio for ground meat jerky. They have clear and detailed instructions for each.
The NESCO/Open Country product can also be used to season sliced jerky, but their instructions call for dissolving it in water, turning it into a liquid marinade.
When making ground meat jerky, you must be certain to thoroughly mix the seasoning and cure throughout the meat. The best tools for doing this are clean hands. When making burgers or meatloaf, you’re sometimes cautioned not to overwork the ground beef, or it will dry out. Obviously, that’s not a concern here — the meat is going to dry out regardless! — and it’s critical that every part of the meat be properly seasoned and cured, and that there are no little clumps of seasoning or cure lurking about as unhappy surprises. Mix thoroughly (and then wash your hands).
One advantage of ground meat jerky is that you can put it into the dehydrator immediately after adding the cure and seasonings. You don’t have to wait for the marinade or cure to penetrate the meat, as you do when making sliced jerky. Hi Mountain does recommend letting the ground meat mixture rest for an hour before dehydrating, but I’ve ignored this advice with no ill effect. I also don’t like Hi Mountain’s suggestion of adding a little ice water to the ground meat along with the jerky seasoning. They say it reduces shrinkage, but I think it also changes the jerky’s texture and thickness.
In yesterday’s installment on jerky-making equipment, I discussed the jerky gun which you can use to produce uniform strips of ground meat jerky, and I strongly recommend it. You can make the jerky in strips or sticks. Keep in mind, as I’ve already stated, that if you produce sticks, they will be sticks of jerky, and not Slim Jims. Slim Jims are a form of sausage, containing a lot of fat and with a soft, mushy texture once you get through the casing. A stick of jerky produced in that same diameter will be a lot firmer and chewier than a Slim Jim is. I like Slim Jims as much as the next guy, but they are not jerky, and (due to the fat) they’re a lot worse for you than jerky.
As ground meat jerky dries, beads of grease will sometimes form on the surface, especially if you’re using something other than the very leanest ground meat. When you check on the jerky from time to time, you can blot these beads off with a paper towel as it dries. Also be sure to do this at the end of drying, before the jerky cools off. You may want to layer the warm jerky on a couple of layers of paper towel, then cover them with a few layers, some more jerky, some more paper towels, and so on. Press down on the stack to make sure the paper towel makes good contact with the jerky and blot up as much of the grease as possible while it’s warm and easy to absorb.
To test for doneness, take a piece out of the dehydrator and let it cool completely before checking it. Ground meat jerky should not be limp or squishy, nor should it be rock-hard. If you fold a piece in half, it should crease but not break. It should be chewy and no longer moist.
I still remember when some friends got their first dehydrator and eagerly gave me a sample of their jerky – which was way underdone, still quite soft. I ate it, but I didn’t like it.
Tomorrow, we’ll talk about whole muscle jerky.