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Making Safe Jerky
by Original Author: Anna Harlan, Stone County | Adapted for Blog: Torrie Smith, Carroll County
The crisp fall air has settled in and hunters all over the United States are hoping to add fresh game to their freezers. Enjoying the harvest is simple but many are not fully protecting themselves from harmful pathogens during the jerky making process.
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.)
Avoid contamination when cutting and handling raw meat
Raw meats can be contaminated with microorganisms that cause disease. These harmful bacteria can easily multiply on moist, high protein foods like meat and poultry and can cause illness if the products are not handled correctly. If pork or wild game is used to make jerky, the meat should be treated 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 0ºF or below for at least 30 days. Freezing will not eliminate bacteria from the meat.
When preparing jerky from wild game, it is important to remember that the wound location and skill of the hunter can affect the safety of the meat. If the animal is wounded in such a way that the contents of its gut come in contact with the meat or the hunter’s hands while dressing the meat, fecal bacteria can contaminate the meat. It is best to avoid making jerky from this meat and use it only in ways that it will be thoroughly cooked. Animal carcasses should be rapidly chilled to avoid bacterial growth.
How to safely handle meat when making jerky
Follow these recommendations for safe handling of meat:
- Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and running water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw meats.
- Use clean equipment and utensils.
- Keep meat refrigerated at 40ºF or below.
- Use ground beef within 2 days, red meats within 3 to 5 days or freeze for later use.
- Thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.
- Marinate meat in the refrigerator. Do not save and re-use marinade.
What temperature should meat get to make safe jerky?
The risk of foodborne illness from home-dried jerky can be decreased by allowing the internal temperature of the meat to reach 160ºF, but in such a way as to prevent case hardening. You can use two methods:
- heating meat strips to 160ºF in marinade before drying
- heating the dried jerky in an oven to 160ºF after the drying process is completed
When you heat strips in a marinade before drying, you can reduce drying time. Color and texture will differ from traditional jerky. More on these methods below.
How to prepare meat for jerky
If you are preparing sliced jerky, partially freeze meat to make slicing easier. The thickness of the meat strips will make a difference in the safety of the methods we recommend.
- Slice meat no thicker than ¼ inch.
- Trim and discard all fat from meat because it becomes rancid quickly.
- If a chewy jerky is desired, slice with the grain. S
- lice across the grain if a more tender, brittle jerky is preferred.
Making ground jerky
If using ground meat, one option is to roll out meat using wax paper and a rolling pin. A jerky gun can also be used to form strips or sticks from ground meat. Maintain a common thickness level to promote even drying.
I chose to scoop out one tablespoon of meat and form a ball. Then I rolled out the meat to a thin round that will easily fit inside a quart size freezer bag when dehydrated. I also chose to form large squares of meat that I can cut into strips when the drying process is complete.
You can also use a tenderizer and follow the package directions. The meat can be marinated for flavor and tenderness. Marinade recipes may include oil, salt, spices and acid ingredients such as vinegar, lemon juice, teriyaki, soy sauce or wine. Season your strips with crushed red or black pepper for an extra kick.
- 1 ½ - 2 pounds of lean meat (beef, pork, or venison)
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
- 2 teaspoons hickory smoke flavoring
- ¼ teaspoon each of black pepper and garlic powder
- ½ teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
Combine all ingredients. Place strips or ground meat in a shallow pan and cover with marinade. Cover and refrigerate 1-2 hours or overnight. Products marinated for several hours may be more salty than some people prefer. If you choose to heat the meat prior to drying to decrease the risk of foodborne illness, do so at the end of the marination time. To heat, bring strips and marinade to a boil and boil for 5 minutes before draining and drying. If strips are more than ¼ inch thick, the length of time may need to be increased. If possible, check the temperature of several strips with a metal stem-type thermometer to determine that 160ºF has been reached. See below for method used for ground meat.
Remove meat strips from the marinade and drain on clean, absorbent towels. Arrange strips on dehydrator trays or cake racks placed on baking sheets for oven drying. Place the slices close together, but not touching or overlapping. Place the racks in a dehydrator or oven preheated to 140ºF. Dry until a test piece cracks but does not break when it is bent (10 to 24 hours for samples not heated in marinade). Samples heated in marinade will dry faster. Begin checking samples after 3 hours. Once drying is completed, pat off any beads of oil with clean, absorbent towels and cool. Remove strips from the racks. Cool. Package in glass jars or heavy plastic food storage bags. Vacuum packaging is also a good option.
If the strips or ground meat were not heated in marinade prior to drying, they can be heated in an oven after drying as an added safety measure. Place strips on a baking sheet, close together, but not touching or overlapping. For strips originally cut 1/4 inch thick or less, heat 10 minutes in an oven preheated to 275ºF. (Thicker strips may require longer heating to reach 160ºF.)
Jerky can be made from ground meat using special presses to form or shape the product. Disease-causing microorganisms are more difficult to eliminate in ground meat than in whole meat strips. (If ground meat is used, follow the general tips for safe handling of meat above.) Be sure to follow the dehydrator manufacturer’s directions when heating the product at the end of drying time. Again, an internal temperature of 160ºF is necessary to eliminate disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli O157:H7, if present.
Properly dried jerky will keep at room temperature two weeks in a sealed container. For best results, to increase shelf life and maintain best flavor and quality, refrigerate, or freeze jerky.
This information was extracted from "So Easy to Preserve", 6th ed. 2014. Bulletin 989, Cooperative Extension Service, The University of Georgia, Athens. Revised by Elizabeth L. Andress. Ph.D. and Judy A. Harrison, Ph.D., Extension Foods Specialists.
For more information, contact your local Family and Consumer Sciences Agent at your County Extension Office.