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.