Jerky update: Improvisation

In my recent series of posts on making beef jerky, I noted that when I make ground meat jerky, I generally use commercial seasonings, the kind which come with a nitrite cure, because of of the slightly-greater chance of contamination when working with ground beef.

I also said that the generic jerky seasonings which are sold by dehydrator manufacturers on the shelf next to the dehydrator tend to be a little ordinary. Often, they don’t even claim to be a particular flavor, just “jerky seasoning.”

I wanted to make some ground meat jerky today. I found two pounds of very-lean ground beef on sale at the supermarket. I knew I had two remaining packets of generic dehydrator-maker jerky seasoning at home. This was not the NESCO / American Harvest product, but rather from Oster (although, for all I know, the same supplier makes the seasoning for both companies).

While looking through the spice aisle, I saw that Kroger had several of McCormick’s line of “Grill Mates” dry seasonings on sale. There was one called … drum roll, please … “Molasses Bacon.” That, to me, sounded like a jerky flavor.

I bought the McCormick seasoning on sale. I used the cure packets – and only the cure packets – from the Oster seasonings, and instead of using the seasoning packets I added the molasses bacon seasoning, plus a little red pepper flake. I didn’t feel bad about wasting the seasoning packets because they were kind of old anyway. And I know that I’ve got the cure in there as a preservative.

One tip I forgot to give you during the jerky series is that you can get a rough, imperfect approximation of how a jerky seasoning or marinade recipe is going to taste by taking a tiny bit of the seasoned or marinated meat and cooking it in the microwave for a few seconds.  I did that test, and I think this is going to be some good jerky  — interesting, anyway. Hopefully, it will be done before I leave for Hee Haw tonight, and I can snack while I’m on my feet for much of the evening.

Ro-Tel it on the Mountain

I love sun-dried tomatoes, and use them in dishes, but sometimes find myself snacking on the kind that are packed dry in a plastic bag. (I’m not talking about the kind that are packed in a jar in olive oil.) The trouble is, they’re kind of expensive to be used as a snack.

Anyway, I had a couple of cans of Ro-Tel extra hot diced tomatoes, 89 cents each at United Grocery Outlet. I had a use for one of them – I added it a box of deluxe mac and cheese. But as I looked at the two cans, sitting there, I had an idea. What would happen if I drained the Ro-Tel and spread them out on a roll-up sheet and dried it in my dehydrator?

What happens is that you get little shards of very hot “sun”-dried tomatoes. The quantity is quite small, so it’s not too much of a savings over the sun-dried tomatoes in the bag. but they taste great. I can also think of some recipe uses for them – salad dressings, bread and other places where the concentrated tomato flavor and the peppery kick would be a benefit.

Unfortunately, I’ve already had to pay the price for what I ate of the mac and cheese, so I won’t be snacking too much on the little shards tonight. The process concentrates not only the flavor but the heat; the regular Ro-Tel would probably have been plenty hot enough, and I may try that next time.

By the way, when I drained the Ro-Tel – both the can I used in the mac and cheese and the can I dehydrated – I saved the liquid, and added it to the bottle of tomato juice I had in the fridge. It would have worked equally well with V-8, which I have in the fridge much more often. It added a great spicy kick.

Jerky Basics, Part 5: Wrapping up

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.

Jerky Basics:

Jerky Basics, Part 4: Slice of life

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.

Jerky Basics:

Jerky Basics, Part 3: The daily grind

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 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.

Jerky Basics:

Jerky Basics, Part 2: A Good Day To Dry

Can you make jerky without a dehydrator? Yes, you can. You can use a smoker, for one thing – but if you have a smoker, you probably already know a lot more than I do about its capabilities. But there are also other ways.

One way to make jerky is in the oven. Depending on the type of jerky you’re making, you can lay the strips horizontally across your oven racks, or use skewers to dangle them vertically between the rungs of a rack. There are also specially-made racks designed for hanging jerky in an oven.

The oven is kept at a very low temperature, and the door is usually propped open to allow moisture to escape.

Another method is the one demonstrated by Alton Brown on his Food Network series “Good Eats.” Alton does not like using heat on his jerky – he prefers the rare flavor to the cooked flavor. But regular dehydrators, if you ran them on a low-temperature setting, just don’t have enough power to dry the meat quickly with air power alone. And it’s important to dry the meat as quickly as you can in order to prevent spoilage. Alton’s solution is to use inexpensive furnace filters, connected by bungee cord to a box fan. I’ve wanted to try this ever since I first saw Alton do it on TV. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m going to one of these days.

Here, from the Food Network web site, is a heavily-edited version of that episode of “Good Eats,” including Alton’s marinade recipe (which we’ll revisit in a later installment) and a look at his ingenious drying system.

So there are alternatives to a dehydrator. But I like my dehydrator – and I can use it not only for beef jerky, but for things like apple chips or banana chips. If I have extra onions, I can dry them. I can make fruit leather (a homemade version of the product sold in stores as Fruit Roll-Ups). For some people, a dehydrator is a kitchen gimmick. For me, it’s a useful tool, although I probably don’t use it as often as I ought.

Dehydrators are available year-round at Walmart – but at Christmastime, they generally have a larger selection. That’s not necessarily a good thing, because some of the added options are super-low-cost dehydrators in the $30 range. These do not have temperature controls. If you see a dehydrator without a temperature control, you know it’s set hot – for jerky-making. In fact, some are now set a few degrees higher than they used to be in order to hit the USDA-recommended temperature of 160 degrees for jerky-making.

The trouble is that without a temperature control, the dehydrator will be less-than-perfect for other tasks – banana chips, apple chips, herbs, fruit leathers and what have you. The packaging may claim the cheap dehydrator will still be versatile enough to do all those things, but trust me – they won’t turn out as well without the proper temperature setting for each job. And if you only use the dehydrator for jerky, it becomes a gadget instead of a tool. Spend a few dollars extra and get a dehydrator with a variable temperature setting.

I can’t give you a comprehensive comparison of various dehydrators; I’ve only owned three, and two of them have been essentially the same model. So please don’t take this as a comprehensive review. Also, let me say that this is not any sort of sponsored post and I have no connection to NESCO/American Harvest. (This site is a member of the Amazon Affiliates Program, and I’m including affiliate links for some of the mentioned products, but that won’t influence my reviews.)

Many of the more expensive, high-end dehydrators have trays in the form of drawers. I’ve not used one of these. All of my dehydrators have been the kind with stackable trays. The benefit of this is that the size of the dehydrator changes with the amount of jerky or other product you are drying. Check online before you buy – find out how many trays the dehydrator comes with and how many it will support. For example, my current dehydrator – a Nesco FD-60 Snackmaster Express – comes with four trays, but it’s powerful enough to work with as many as 12 trays. My previous dehydrator was also an FD-60, and I still have two trays from that one, so I can run with as many as six trays. The trays can also be bought as expansion kits.

The trays in the FD-60 use a plastic grate. I believe some of the higher-end dehydrators use screens.

The trouble with the plastic trays, as I discovered, is that they’re fragile. If you scrub them too hard, they’ll crack – and, eventually, break. I had so many broken trays that replacing them would have cost nearly as much as buying a brand new FD-60. I’ve learned my lesson. The owner’s manual to the new FD-60 advises you to simply soak the trays in soapy water, and then use a soft brush only if absolutely necessary to remove a few stubborn bits of stuck-on food. You can wash the trays in a dishwasher (which I don’t have), as long as you remove them before the drying cycle.

I think my two surviving “old” trays were actually expansion trays I bought separately, and so they were slightly newer than the others.

The FD-60 has the fan and heating element on top of the stack; some other units have it on the bottom. One benefit to having the motor on top is that there’s no way for wet items to drip into it, but I don’t think it’s a major issue either way. NESCO claims its trays force the air to blow horizontally across each tray, preventing the air streams from various trays from mixing together, and allowing you to dry various types of items together at the same time. I haven’t really tried this much, and there are limits to it anyway because, as previously noted, different items may require different temperatures anyway. NESCO also claims its system eliminates the need to rotate trays. Some dehydrators that blow vertically tend to give more attention to the trays closest to the motor, and so occasionally you have to shuffle the trays in order to ensure even drying.

Many dehydrators, including the FD-60, come with a fruit leather tray, a plastic sheet that’s used for drying fruit leathers into Fruit Roll-Up-style snacks. Just as with the trays, you can also buy additional sheets separately.

In a future post, we’ll talk about the differences between whole muscle (sliced) and ground meat jerky. But since we’re talking about equipment here, I’ll go ahead and mention another jerky accessory: a jerky gun. Depending on your interests or background, I can compare this to either a) a caulking gun or b) a cookie press. It’s a ratchet-driven gun that you use to extrude seasoned and cured ground meat into a thin strip for jerky-making. It’s the best way to make ground meat jerky. If you don’t have one, you can roll out the ground meat between sheets of wax paper, then cut it into individual strips, but it’s tricky to move the strips of jerky from a countertop or table onto the dehydrator without them falling apart. With the jerky gun, you can just extrude the strips directly onto the tray – no transportation necessary. The gun comes with tips to produce various types of strips (or even sticks, which will look like Slim Jims but have a completely different consistency). If you do have a cookie press, of course, you may have an existing die or nozzle that will work.

If you prefer whole muscle jerky, Hi Mountain Jerky makes an ingenious cutting board with a recessed inset which allows you to slice the meat at a consistent thickness. You set the piece of meat in the inset, then rest the knife blade on the raised edges on either side and draw it across horizontally, making a slice off the bottom exactly as thick as the recess is deep. There’s a 1/4” recess on one side of the board and a 3/8” recess on the other, so you can pick the size jerky you want to make. I haven’t used it, but it seems like a great idea. When you’re dehydrating jerky – or most other things – consistent thickness is important because it means everything will get done at the same time.

Now that we’ve talked about equipment, in the next installment we’ll talk about actually making jerky.

Jerky Basics:

Jerky Basics, Part 1: An Overview

Regular readers of this blog are used to hearing about my jerky-making. I thought it would be fun to take some of what I’ve learned over the years, along with links to people who know a lot more than I do, and put all of the information in one place. So this is the first of a special series of jerky-related posts, which I hope will be interesting and useful.

I love jerky. What’s not to love? It’s salty, and smoky, and chewy, and (often) peppery, and just generally a wonderful snack. When properly made, it’s low-fat and high-protein (it’s nowhere near low-sodium, of course, so you can’t exactly call it health food).

Multiple sources I’ve found online suggest that the word “jerky” came from the Quechua word “ch’arki,” which the Spanish invaders turned into “charque.” Jerky began with the native Americans, and it was a way of preserving meat and making it easily transportable. Today, we think of salt and smoke as flavor elements, but the salt is actually there as a preservative, and the early jerky was dried over a fire, the smoke helping to keep away insects. Even the peppery flavor of jerky may relate to ancient people recognizing capsaicin’s natural anti-microbial properties.

In its finished form, jerky is well-preserved because it’s a quite inhospitable place for microbes. There’s little moisture, and that moisture is a hyper-saturated syrup of salt, sugar, and possibly other ingredients such as nitrite cures. The trouble comes in getting a nice, refrigerated piece of raw meat from point A to point B in a safe manner while preserving the expected flavor profiles. Jerky-making takes time, and time increases the risk of spoilage if you don’t handle the meat correctly.

There are differences of opinion about what’s safe and what’s tasty. The USDA insists that jerky be heated to a minimum of 160 degrees, essentially cooking it, before it is dried. But some sources, such as wildlife writer A.D. Livingston and Food Network personality Alton Brown, say that the flavor of cooked jerky is different and that carefully-sourced and carefully-handled meat can be dried at lower temperatures to preserve more of the rare beef flavor.

Jerky’s been around for ages, but its renewed popularity in the past decade or two stems from high-protein diet fads and from the easy availability of electric dehydrators. I use a dehydrator to make jerky, and so that’s most of what I’ll talk about here, but there are other methods, and I’ll mention them as well.

Making your own jerky has several advantages. It’s fun; it costs a lot less per ounce than store-bought jerky (although you may end up eating more of it, which eliminates some of the savings), and it lets you control flavors and ingredients.

First, let’s define what jerky is. Jerky can be made from a variety of meats, not just beef and venison. The selection of usable meats increases if you’re willing to cook the meat before drying it. Beef, of course, is readily available everywhere, and venison jerky is popular because it gives hunters a way to dispose of excess meat. A couple of years ago, a high-school classmate of mine had a large amount of venison and offered, if I would make it into jerky, to let me keep half of the finished product. I’d have done it as a favor to him, although I much prefer beef jerky to venison jerky. In any case, he never followed through.

Most of what I’ll write here applies equally well to beef and venison jerky, so if you’ve got venison, you’re in business.

Jerky, in its simplest form, is meat that has been flavored and/or cured, and then dried. It does not have to be — and should not be — completely dessicated or rock-hard. It should have enough moisture to remain chewable.

Beef sticks, like Slim Jims, are not beef jerky. They’re a form of sausage, made with a casing, and are much higher in fat than jerky. Jerky-makers try to avoid fat as much as possible.

There are two different types of jerky: whole muscle, or sliced, jerky, and ground meat jerky. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, which we’ll explore.

That’s a quick overview to get us started. In the next installment, I’ll talk about equipment.

Jerky Basics:

Back in the drying business

The other day, I posted about the sad shape into which the trays of my dehydrator had fallen. I planned to find a dehydrator at Goodwill or pick up a new one later this summer.

I got an e-mail from a good friend out of state (I’m not sure if she’d want me to identify her, so I’ll leave it out for now) who asked if she could give me a dehydrator. I turned her down, but she offered again. I looked at Goodwill, and they had every type of kitchen gadget except dehydrators, and then, feeling guilty about it, I accepted. This was the source of my Facebook post the other day about having better friends than I deserve.

The dehydrator arrived today. It’s basically the same model I used to have, but with a couple of tweaks and improvements. I’m thrilled! I had to break it in, and (like most dehydrators) it came with sample packets of the dry cure and seasoning you use for ground meat jerky. So I went and bought some ground beef and some slightly-green bananas (which work better for banana chips). The beef jerky should be done before I go to bed tonight, and I’ll put some banana chips in overnight. NESCO claims that the air flow in its trays prevents flavor-mixing, so in theory you can dry sweet and savory items at the same time. But  you can’t do beef and bananas at the same time because they take different temperatures. As I stated in the previous post, you should never buy a dehydrator without a temperature control; if it’s set hot enough for jerky, which is probable, it’s too hot for a lot of other uses, such as banana chips.

By the way, the standard for “hot enough for jerky” has crept up slightly. My old dehydrator’s top setting, used for jerky, was 155 degrees; this one is 160 degrees, which is what the USDA recommends for dried meat. However, the salt, sugar, and acid in jerky seasonings and marinades, and the fact that you’re removing most of the moisture, go a long way towards reducing the risk. I’ve never had any problem with homemade jerky, my own or anyone else’s. Alton Brown on his show “Good Eats” recommends using no heat at all – he jury-rigs a box fan and furnace filters to provide enough airflow to dry the meat quickly without adding heat (see the video below). I have to admit that I’ve sometimes used slightly lower-than-recommended heat settings on jerky, especially if I was letting it run overnight and didn’t want to get it jaw-breakingly dry.

Anyway, I’m going to make some jerky for my benefactor, but I’m not sending any from tonight’s batch. The ground meat jerky seasonings that come with dehydrators, and that are sold next to the dehydrators at Walmart, are OK but usally kind of boring. I will wait and make some whole-muscle jerky using my normal marinade (which is based on Alton Brown’s, as seen below), and send that, or else I’ll make some ground meat jerky using Hi Mountain Jerky seasonings, which are excellent. They are sometimes found at Walmart, but usually over in the grocery section rather than next to the dehydrators.

I am just thrilled to have the dehydrator. I have a few extra sweet onions kicking around, and tomorrow I may try drying them out before they sprout on me.

Crumbling jerky infrastructure

I found a type of lean roast with lengthwise grain – perfect for jerky, but normally too expensive – on sale for half price at the grocery store today.

The jerky is in my dehydrator right now, but as I put it there I realized into what poor shape my dehydrator has fallen. The problem is not the part with the fan and heating element – the problem is with the plastic trays that allow air to circulate around the food. They’re made of plastic, tricky to clean, and I’ve had my dehyrdator so long, and used it so often, that they’re starting to fall apart. I had to throw one away today, and several others have holes in them (I just laid strips of jerky over the holes).

You can get replacement / expansion trays; the dehydrator originally came with four trays, if I recall correctly, and I bought a two-pack of expansion trays twice. At its peak, it had eight trays. Now it’s down to five, almost all of them in poor shape.

It would cost $38 to buy six new trays on Amazon. That’s somewhere between the cost of the cheapest Nesco dehydrator on Amazon and the next-to-cheapest, which is the one I own. So I probably need to just bite the bullet and get a new dehydrator. It may be a couple of months before I can get to it.

Unfortunately, the cheapest dehydrator – $30 – does not have a temperature control. That means it’s permanently set to the maximum temperature, which means it’s OK for beef jerky, but too hot (no matter what the instructions say) to do banana chips, apple chips or things like that. And sometimes, especially if I’m letting a batch of jerky in the dehydrator run overnight, I want to turn it down to a little lower than the recommended jerky setting.

Maybe I’ll check Goodwill; I’m sure there are people who’ve bought dehydrators and used them once or twice before getting tired of them.

Unnecessary food review

Ever buy some goofy new food item just because you have a coupon for it?

Well, my purchase in that category this week was Kraft Fresh Take03079CF, a seemingly-ridiculous product idea that actually turned out … not half bad.

You find it in the refrigerated section next to the cheese. It’s basically a big zip-top bag with two sections – one containing a shredded cheese mix, the other a seasoned breadcrumb mix. There are several different flavor varieties, differing in the types of cheese and the way the breadcrumbs are seasoned. The idea is that when you open the bag, you break the seal between the two compartments, and you shake the cheese and breadcrumbs together. Then, you use the zip-top bag full of cheese-and-breadcrumb mixture to bread pieces of chicken, pork or fish, just as you would with Shake ‘N Bake. Because of the size and texture of the cheese shreds, they warn you that the breading won’t completely cover the meat, but you do the best you can and then sprinkle and pat the excess on top once the pieces are on a greased baking sheet. That actually ends up giving you pretty good coverage on top, and as long as you don’t look at the bottom (why would you?) you’re good to go.

Then, you bake – just as you would with Shake ‘N Bake.

I had some chicken thighs at home. When I opened the package to see the directions inside, they were for pork chops, fish or boneless chicken breasts. I figured that if I skinned and deboned the thighs and watched for doneness, they’d work just as well, and they did. The cheese gives the crust a different texture than breadcrumbs alone would give, and it’s actually quite good. Of course, it could probably be done just as well, and more cheaply, by buying shredded cheese and breadcrumbs separately, and adding your own seasonings, but that’s an experiment for some other time. (These breadcrumbs were more heavily seasoned, and towards more specific flavors, than the “seasoned breadcrumbs” you buy in the store.)

I’m not very hungry tonight, owing to the huge breakfast-for-lunch I had at Cracker Barrel in Florence, Ala., following the UNA Spring Football Game, but I had one of the thighs with a little bit of rice just now (I cooked the rice with the bones and stray bits of chicken thigh) and I’ll save the others for lunch tomorrow and Monday.

Does the title of the review mean that the food is unnecessary or that the review is unnecessary? I shall leave that to you to decide.