This will probably be my last posting on the topic of charcuterie for a little while. I’ve got sausages in the freezer, duck prosciutto in my refrigerator, and now I’ve got a decent stash of beef jerky as well. In other words, since I’m quite well stocked in the preserved meat department, it’s unlikely I’ll be starting anything new in this department for quite some time.
Beef jerky is quite simple to make; all it takes is a hunk of meat and a lot of time. Understandably so, time is what most people don’t have so I can see how one would want to go out and purchase it instead. But consider this: if you make it yourself, you can control the quality of the meat, the amount of salt, and you can flavor it in any way you choose.
So, I started out by purchasing a relatively large amount of lean meat. Why lean? Fat goes rancid over time, so a leaner cut with very little to no fat will last longer. In terms of lean-ness and price, it seems like beef round is typically the way to go. Beef round is the “butt + thigh” cut of the cow. It’s also a tougher cut of meat, so if you’re going to end up taking out most of the water anyway, tenderness is not a concern.
I purchased my beef round from Costco in the section with the large hunks of vacuum packed meat and chose the smallest speciment available, weighing in at 9.44 lbs. Why? At $2.69/lb, and because I have a little of butchery skills under my belt, I could confidently clean it up and trim off all the sinew, silverskin and fat. (I didn’t throw it away – will be tossing this into a stock pot or for making gravy someday). After trimming off all that “stuff”, I had about 7.625 lbs left to work with. By recalculating the price per pound after trimming, I’ve effectively paid $3.33 for the lean meat. (I forgot to check what Costco’s per pound price for the pre-trimmed meat is – I’ll have to update this next time I go).
Slice up the meat as thinly as you can. One method is to par-freeze the meat so it’s firmer and easier to slice into thin pieces – roughly 1/8″. Remember that in the case of making jerky, don’t cut the meat against the grain – cut it with the grain so you end up with nice long meat fibers in the jerky. Marinate with whatever you want – since I had so much meat I did four types. I did one with Chinese five spice (shoyu, chinese five spice, pepper, ginger, garlic), kalbi marinade (shoyu, sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, hot chili flakes, green onion, garlic, ginger, brown sugar), a Thai lemongrass marinade (lime juice, fish sauce, dried lemongrass, salt, pepper, hot chili flakes), and then one “typical” marinade with liquid smoke, shoyu, onion, garlic, paprika, worcestershire sauce. You can flavor with whatever you want, as you can see. Half a cup of marinade will be enough for 1 lb of sliced meat. I like to put the marinade and meat in a ziploc bag and smush it around, and then put it in a pan in the refrigerator just in case there’s a leak. Leave it to marinate overnight.
The next day, set the oven at the lowest temperature setting possible. If you have a dehydrator you could use that. I don’t, so I just set my oven at 180 ºF and propped it open so it woudn’t get too hot. Oh, you think 180 ºF is really low? Well consider this. Think of your meat temperatures – when it comes to beef, 130ºF is rare, 135ºF is medium rare, 140ºF is medium, 145ºF is medium well, and 155ºF well done. Considering that you really want to just dry out the meat, and not cook it, 180ºF will take you beyond well done – it’ll get you to beef leather in no time because the pieces of meat are very thin. When you’re making large roasts, you can set the oven to 325ºF-350ºF because it takes quite a while for that heat to penetrate to the center of the meat.
Lay out your strips of meat on a rack on top of a sheet pan. This is ideal as it allows for better circulation and more even heating. I only had two racks – so I ended up lining a few pans with parchment papers or my Silpats. With those I had to flip each piece over once or twice during the process. Rotate the pans every so often as well. A pound of meat took about 5 sheet pans – my oven was being used at full capacity. For my oven and my setup, it took around 4 hours for the meat to dry out.
It seems like most people just take the meat out when it’s dry and stiff. For me – that’s not quite enough. I want to know how much water I should have removed before I can call it done. The last thing I want is mold or worse, some nasty bug to start growing in it and make me sick. There are guidelines of course, set out for manufacturers of beef jerky on the process and the Aw, or water activity, that is allowed. Unfortunately I don’t have any fancy tools like that, nor are my slices that uniform in thickness or oven temperature so tightly controlled that I can pull a few pieces of meat out and call them representative samples of the whole batch. So instead I did a pre and post weight. As you know, I had 7.625 lbs of meat after trimming. After the drying process, I had a 50-55% weight reduction (I can’t be that exact about it as some sampling occured prior to the weigh-in. Ahem.) Considering that meat is about 75% water, there’s about 20-25% water remaining in the meat. Is that too much? I’m not really sure. I can say that I’ve been eating it all week and I’m still alive and well with no gastric issues. To be on the safer side, I’m storing it in the refrigerator.
In other words, I had roughly 4 lbs of jerky in four different flavors. That is a LOT of jerky (of course it took me only 16 hours to make…. ). Considering my original cost of $25.40 for the entire piece of meat, my jerky cost me roughly $6.35/lb. It doesn’t include utility costs, the cost of the marinade ingredients, or my time, but considering that my neighborhood Trader Joe’s price their jerky at $5.49 per 4 oz bag, I call that a win. 😀