In the previous installment, we discussed ground meat jerky, and some of its advantages and disadvantages. But the traditional form of jerky is whole muscle, or sliced, jerky, made from slices of meat.
Because sliced meat is a little safer to work with, for reasons discussed in the previous post, there are plenty of recipes that don’t involve nitrite cures. You can play around a little more with the marinade.
To make whole muscle jerky, look for a lean cut of meat. For traditional jerky, you’ll want to slice it with the grain, so you want a piece where the grain runs lengthwise. Generally, I generally wait and make jerky when I happen to find a suitable piece of meat on sale. The last batch of sliced jerky I made was with an eye of round roast, on half-price sale because it was near the sell-by date. I brought it straight home, made jerky with it, and took in the compliments from my co-workers the next day.
You want to slice the jerky about 1/4” thick. The more uniform the slices are, the more evenly they’ll all dry. You will be helped by placing the roast in the freezer for 45 minutes or so before slicing it. You don’t want it to freeze solid, only to firm up a bit. As I pointed out in a previous installment, Hi Mountain Jerky Seasonings makes a special recessed cutting board for slicing jerky. If you do end up with unusually thick or thin pieces, try to keep all of the thick ones together on one tray, and likewise with the thin ones. If you have a stackable-tray dehydrator, you can pull each tray as it reaches the desired doneness and then keep the other trays going.
Slicing across the grain will result in a more crumbly texture, not the traditional chewy texture. This might be an advantage for people with dentures or dental problems; and it’s also recommended if you’re making the jerky specifically for use as an ingredient in dishes (for example, to cook with on a camping trip). If you’re making the jerky as a cooking ingredient, you may want to flavor it in a more neutral fashion than if you’re making it for a snack.
When the meat is sliced, it’s time to marinate it. That’s one disadvantage of sliced jerky; it takes more time.
My favorite marinade is based on the one Alton Brown used in an episode of his TV show “Good Eats.” It’s a great basic recipe with a lot of room for experimentation. As Alton explained on the show, the point is to have enough salt, sugar and (in this case) a little bit of acid, in order to make the finished jerky an inhospitable place for microbes. All of those things add flavor, of course, but they’re also there as preservatives. I’ve seen a few recipes for low-sodium jerky, but not many. The salt needs to be there as a preservative. If you’re on a low-salt diet, avoid jerky or make it a very rare treat.
Alton’s recipe is based on a 1:1 ratio of soy sauce to Worcestershire sauce, along with a little honey, onion powder, black pepper, red pepper flake and liquid smoke. The soy sauce (and, to a lesser extent, the Worcestershire) bring the salt; the honey brings sugar, and is also hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs moisture. The honey, in the finished product, serves as insurance against the jerky drying out so completely that it will break your teeth. Sugar might sound like microbe food, and in some concentrations it is, but in a highly-concentrated form like honey it’s not a good place for microbes. That’s why honey, in previous generations, was sometimes used to treat wounds. (Honey is, however, hospitable to one particular strain of bacteria, which is why it should not be fed to infants.)
The Worcestershire sauce contains a little vinegar, also helping to make the final product microbe-unfriendly. The liquid smoke is used because smoke is an expected flavor for jerky, going back to the days when meat was dried over a fire.
Alton’s basic recipe lends itself to experimentation. I’ve been out of onion powder and used garlic powder, or grated a raw onion into the marinade. I’ve substituted molasses for the honey with great success. You could easily substitute your favorite hot sauce for the red pepper flake, or leave it out if you don’t want your jerky to have a kick.
Teriyaki sauce, of course, is another great jerky marinade, and it’s available in the Asian food section of your supermarket.
I have two cookbooks with tons of creative jerky recipes.
The first one I bought is “Jerky,” by outdoors writer A.D. Livingston. Livingston is an iconoclast. He rejects the USDA’s recommendation that jerky be heated to 160 degrees, preferring the rare beef flavor of jerky prepared at lower temperatures. That doesn’t bother me – Alton Brown says the same thing, and I’ve already told you about his box fan-based system for drying jerky without heat. But Livingston even includes recipes for sun-dried and other air-dried jerky, which gives me the willies just thinking about it. Livingston is, however, insistent on getting jerky meat from a known and trusted source, and he’s sharply critical of USDA regulation of the corporate meat processors which supply supermarkets.
Anyway, safety concerns aside, Livingston includes lots of great recipes for jerky marinades, nitrite-free seasonings for ground meat jerky, and recipes using jerky as an ingredient. Many of the dehydrator recipes are for 10 pounds of meat, which is about five times what I usally make, but I’m sure they could be scaled down. He also includes recipes for fish jerky and other unexpected meats.
A little less adventurous than Livingston’s book is “Just Jerky,” by Mary Bell. Bell has written a series of dehydrator-related books. She has tons of great recipes, even including a few vegetarian recipes for a jerky-like snack. (Livingston, I suspect, would be horrified at the thought.) I want to try the Bloody Mary beef jerky, which uses V-8 and vodka as marinade ingredients. Like Livingston, she has recipes for non-traditional meats and recipes using jerky as an ingredient.
As discussed yesterday, you can also use a dry seasoning and cure mix to treat sliced jerky, by sprinkling and tossing it liberally with the seasoning and then wrapping it up. Using this method takes even longer than marinating, however; it takes 24 hours for the dry cure to penetrate the meat.
Once the meat has marinated for the amount of time prescribed by the recipe, blot it dry (unless the recipe says otherwise) and lay it onto the dehydrator trays. There have been a few times I’ve skipped the blotting step, giving me a little bit of extra flavor from the marinade on the surface. But that’s messy, and with some marinades it results in a kind of gummy coating to the jerky. Normally, you want to marinate so that the flavor is inside the meat, not on it.
As with ground meat jerky, you want a finished product that is dry but not rock-hard. It should splinter when you bend it in half, but not break in two. (Let a piece cool completely before testing it.)
In the next installment, we’ll wrap things up, and sweep up some random loose ends.