Safe Preserving: Making Safe Jerky

jerkyRemember food safety when making jerky. Jerky is a lightweight, dried meat product that is a handy food for backpackers, campers and outdoor sports enthusiasts. It requires no refrigeration. Jerky can be made from almost any lean meat, including beef, pork, venison or smoked turkey breast. (Raw poultry is generally not recommended for use in making jerky because of the texture and flavor of the finished product.)

Preparing the meat.  Raw meats can be contaminated with microorganisms that cause disease. These harmful bacteria can easily multiply in moist, high protein foods like meat and poultry and can cause illness if the products are not handled correctly.

  • If drying pork or wild game, freeze the meat prior to drying. If pork or wild game, such as deer or bear, are used to make jerky, the meat should be frozen to kill the Trichinella parasite before it is sliced and marinated. This parasite causes the disease, trichinosis. To treat the meat, freeze a portion that is 6 inches or less thick at 0°F or below for at least 10 days. Freezing will not eliminate the parasite from the meat, but will kill the parasite so that the meat can be safely dried.
  • Use only lean meat in excellent condition. For jerky prepared from ground meat, use meat that is at least 93% lean. For whole muscle jerky, trim meat of excess fat and slice no thicker than ¼”. Partially freeze meat to make it easier to slice. Slice the meat with the grain if you wish to prepare the chewy jerky preferred by most mid-western consumers. Always choose clean, non‐damaged meat from deer or other wild game.
  • Maintain meat under refrigeration or keep frozen until use. If marinating meat, do so in the refrigerator. Whole muscle jerky is most often marinated in an acidic mixture containing spices and seasoning. Jerky made from ground meat is not marinated, but is mixed with dry spices and cure before forming into strips. Research has shown that the spice and cure (nitrite) in marinades and dry seasoning mixes will help in the destruction of pathogens. Packets of seasoning mix can be purchased from local vendors or online. A local meat processing plant can be a good place to look for reasonably-priced spice mix.
  • Keep raw meats and their juices away from other foods. Store raw meats on a plate or bowl in the refrigerator to catch drips. Wash hands and surfaces with hot soapy water, and rinse with warm water, after handling raw meat. Sanitize cleaned and rinsed cutting boards with a solution of 1 teaspoon bleach per quart of water. Allow to air dry.

Try these research-tested recipes for whole-muscle jerky. Recipes given for 2 pounds of sliced meat. Recipe 1 produces a lightly seasoned jerky; Recipe 2 makes a highly seasoned jerky. Adjust recipes to taste.

Jerky Recipe No. 1. Mix together to prepare brine: 1/2 gallon water, 1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp. salt*, 1/4 cup sugar, 3 Tbsp. liquid smoke, and 1/2 tsp. black pepper. Cut thin meat strips, ¼-inch thick. Freezing the meat slightly before slicing will make this process easier, or ask your local butcher to slice the meat for you. Place meat strips in brine in a refrigerator overnight. Pour off brine and soak in cold tap water for 1 hour. Drain and pat dry. *Morton’s Tender Quick Salt (containing nitrate and nitrite) may be used instead of regular salt. This curing agent will help the meat retain a deep red color even when dried. If using regular salt, expect the meat to be a darker brown-black color when dried.

Jerky Recipe No. 2. Mix together to prepare seasoning: 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce, 1/4 tsp. black pepper, 1/4 tsp. garlic powder, 1/2 tsp. onion powder, and 1 tsp. liquid smoke. Cut thin meat strips, ¼-inch thick. Mix meat strips with seasoning until all surfaces are coated. Let stand 1 hour, or cover and refrigerate overnight.

Dry in a dehydrator or oven. If marinated meat is used, blot dry. Place meat on dehydrator trays or oven cookie sheets. Dry meat at 145°F-155°F. Use only dehydrators with temperature controls. Recommendations for home dehydrators that can be used to make safe jerky can be found in the fact sheet Making Safe Jerky in a Home DehydratorDry meat for at least 4  hours. Meat that is dry will be firm, but flexible. 

For extra safety, heat jerky in an oven after drying. Research done at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has shown that an extra margin of safety (and to meet commercial standards for meat safety) can be achieved by heating dried meat strips in a preheated 275°F oven for 10 minutes. Allow meat to cool, blot to remove excess fat, and package for storage.

Storage. Dried jerky can be stored for 1 to 2 months at room temperature; in the freezer for up to 6 months. Longer storage times can lead to quality deterioration. Vacuum package jerky to extend the shelf life.  Safe preserving! Barb