Like All Preserving, Making Beef Jerky Is An Ancient Culinary Art
While we mostly see it prepackaged and sealed tight in platsic, Beef Jerky is actually the descendent of a very old form of cooking. The art of salting, smoking, drying, and curing meat and fish is an ancient art, practiced by our ancestors to preserve protein. They did it by necessity, as protein was hard to come by in preindustrial society, and while these skills were once possessed by nearly everyone, today they are confined to a few areas, barbeque being the most notable, and have become the specialized domain of big business.
Mass marketed Jerky isn’t bad. It’s salty, chewy and slightly addictive. If you are stopping at a gas station on a long trip, it’s not your worst option– but it’s a far cry from the jerky of the past. Recent years have also seen the rise of artisanal jerky, which is small batch, is less processed and actually tastes like it was once meat. But it is also more expensive, so the obvious solution is making your own jerky. Luckily, making beef jerky is easy. (It’s also a really good way to impress your friends.) Best of all, with the exception of the beef, most of what you need is already in your kitchen.
Any lean cut will work for jerky. I prefer top round or bottom round, sometimes sold as London Broil (although that is more strictly a cooking method, not a cut of meat). I also prefer grass-fed, as it tends to be lower in fat, and in my opinion has more flavor, but that is an argument for another day. Don’t be afraid to buy a few pounds when it goes on sale, as jerky will last for a long time.
Before cutting, throw the beef in the freezer for 20 minutes, as this will firm it up and make it easier to cut. Make sure you trim off any excess fat. Slice thinly against the grain (if you need to save time, ask your butcher to slice it for you– most will happily help). Remember when cutting to try to make the slices as uniform as possible. However, if you purchase an oddly-shaped piece of meat, prioritize using the whole piece of meat over the final product looking pretty.
The nice thing about a jerky marinade is that you can use almost any liquid. Some of the liquids I’ve used over the years: soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, vinegar, beer, Worcestershire sauce, a host of various BBQ brands, as well as most forms of hot sauces. But, a good place to start is a mix of 50/50 soy sauce and teriyaki sauce, with a splash of Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce depending on the desired level of spice and umami. Mix together with whatever spices you are using and leave for at least 4 hours, up to overnight. A nice way to split up the labor is to cut and marinate the jerky before you go to bed, and then throw it in the oven in the morning.
A similar logic can be applied to spices. Almost anything from your spice drawer can be used on beef jerky. I like a mix of turmeric and cayenne, along with a generous helping of black pepper.
Cooking is by far the easiest part of the process when it comes to making jerky. You can use a dehydrator, oven, or even a smoker. Simply set your oven/cooking appliance to 160 degrees and lay the slices on a lined baking sheet. Wait 6-8 hours. When the jerky is done depends on how crispy/chewy you like it. My father, for example, likes his Jerky “medium rare” which means only cooked for 3-4 hours, with a little bit of visible moisture. It doesn’t last as long, but is delicious while it’s around. As with any recipe, the cooking times are rough, so they depend on how you slice the meat and how your oven works. Only time and familiarity with your appliances can you make the perfect jerky.
Congratulations. You are done. Put it in a ziplock bag and enjoy your jerky. It should keep for up to six months– but I doubt any good jerky will last that long.