I discussed doneness for both ground meat jerky and whole muscle jerky, but it occurs to me that I didn’t say much about how long it would take. There’s really no telling. In a hot dehydrator, in low humidity, the jerky can be done in just four hours. If the heat setting is lower, or if the jerky is thicker, or if it’s really humid, it can take a lot longer. Until you become familiar with the process, you might want to do it on a weekend when you’re at home for a long period of time and can check for doneness often.
If I put jerky in the dehydrator before going to bed I will turn the temperature down a bit, maybe to 145 degrees instead of 155 or 160. The USDA doesn’t have to know. I don’t want to run the risk of the jerky getting too dry and becoming rock-hard.
OK, so you’ve made your jerky. What about storage?
I have to admit I have very little experience with long-term storage of my homemade jerky. I have very little experience with three-day storage of my homemade jerky. Usually, I take it to work, and I eat more than I should and my co-workers eat the rest.
If you are, in fact, making large quantities, all of the experts recommend storing it in the fridge or freezer for as long as you can, and then taking it out when you get ready to use it, take it on a trip, or what have you.
You do need to let the jerky cool completely before putting it into a closed container, since it may be a little steamy fresh out of the dehydrator. But then, put it in an airtight container, so that the fat in the jerky doesn’t pick up any funky flavors, and throw it in the fridge until you’re ready to take it somewhere.
As mentioned in the previous installment, you can find recipes for using your jerky as an ingredient in cooking, for camping trips or just as a novel ingredient. If you know ahead of time that this is the intended use for your jerky, cut the beef across the grain and use a very basic marinade. Jerky cut across the grain can be more easily crumbled into things.
This isn’t jerky-related, but since I’ve encouraged you to buy a dehydrator, let me say a few words about banana chips.
Check the package of commercially-available apple or banana chips, and you’ll find oil as a key ingredient. They’ve either been fried, or – if they were dehydrated – oil was sprayed onto them for some reason, such as to get seasonings to stick to the outside or to keep the product from re-absorbing moisture. When you make these products yourself, you know what they do or don’t contain.
I love making homemade banana chips. You want to start with slightly-green bananas, which turn out much better as chips than fully ripe ones. Get a bowl of cold water, not a huge amount but enough that you think it will be sufficient to cover all of the banana chips. Add some Fruit Fresh, which you can find in the canning or baking aisle of your local supermarket. (It’s basically Vitamin C and sugar.) The last batch I made, I also added just a little bit of honey to the water, and I think it made a difference in the finished product. If you don’t have Fruit Fresh, try adding some lemon juice and a little bit more honey.
Slice the bananas, trying to make the slices as consistent as possible. If you want super-consistent slices, which will all be ready at the same time, you can use a hard-boiled-egg slicer, one of those hinged contraptions with a lot of little wires. Cut the banana into egg-sized pieces and then use the egg slicer on each piece. The chips will shrink, so if you are cutting by hand, I suggest you cut them on the bias (making ovals instead of circles) so that you have a slightly-larger finished product. Then again, if you plan to use the banana chips in trail mix the smaller circles might be what you want. Put the slices into the water as soon as you cut them. The Fruit Fresh will help keep them from turning brown. Swirl them around in the mixture and separate any slices that are clinging to each other, so that they can get the benefit of the Fruit Fresh or lemon juice. Pull the pieces, one by one, out of the water and put them on the trays of your dehydrator.
Be sure and use the fruit and veggie setting on your dehydrator, something like 135 degrees. Banana chips will take longer than beef jerky; they’re a good overnight project. Put them on late at night and they’ll probably be ready in the morning, unless it’s really, really humid or you cut the chips way too thickly. Here, even more than with jerky, you must let a piece cool before checking for doneness. A piece that is flexible when warm from the dehydrator may turn out to be crunchy, which is what you want, once it’s cooled off.
The bananas will stick to your dehydrator trays. Try to peel them off gently so that you don’t break the tray. I should probably try spraying the trays with Pam (maybe that’s why the commercially-made chips have oil on them!) Even better, you can use the “clean-a-screen” flexible inserts, sold separately, which lay right on top of the trays and are used for very small, gooey or sticky foods. I haven’t tried these, but they make perfect sense. You can just lift off the screen and flex it to peel off the sticky items.
Your dehydrator will probably come with instructions for drying various other fruits and vegetables. Some may need to be blanched in order to dry properly. Next time you need half an onion for a recipe, slice the other half and lay it on one tray in the dehydrator. Once it’s dry, you can crush it into homemade onion powder, or break it into small pieces to add to recipes, soups and what have you.
So there you have it. I’ve blithered for four and a half whole posts about beef jerky. I hope it’s been helpful, and I hope you’ll think about making jerky. I think you’ll enjoy it.