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How To Tell When Jerky is Done: Cooking Jerky 101

how to tell when jerky is done, perfect jerky, beef jerky temperature dehydrator

I love jerky because it’s a great source of protein when you’re on those long hiking or camping trips and just need a quick pick-me-up. It’s pretty tasty too, and light enough that you can easily stash away dozens of jerky packs in your bag without weighing yourself down.

dried meat, dried meat snackHowever, store-bought jerky is chock-full of salt and sugar that makes them bad for your health in the long run. Recently, I’ve taken to making my own jerky at home. Not only is homemade jerky cheaper than the store-bought ones, they’re also healthier too, mostly because I have direct control over their fat, salt, and sugar content (i.e. I can make lean, low-sodium jerky if I want to). Once you’ve tasted homemade jerky, you’ll know that the store-bought variety is just a pale, and unhealthier imitation. Fortunately, it’s easy to make this delicacy on your own. 

What’s So Special About Jerky?

With its appealing chewy texture and a savory flavor, jerky is a richly satisfying treat. But it’s much more than just that. Being so lightweight and portable, it’s the ideal snack for long hiking trips. It packs a great deal of protein into every bite, making it nutritious as it is convenient. Perfect for when you need to rest, take on some quick energy, as well as reward yourself for your efforts with such a deliciously tasty treat. 

But you need to be aware, however, that jerky relies on a lot of sodium to give it that the familiar bold flavor that you desire and crave. That’s why it’s best consumed in small amounts – although some long-distance endurance runners and other extreme athletes rely on it to replenish their electrolyte supply during long events or training sessions.

While beef jerky is the most common, other meats can be used too. Turkey, venison, and elk jerky have become more popular in recent years. It’s even possible to make jerky out of fish exotic game meats, such as alligator and alpaca, or even out of fish!  

When buying or even better, making homemade jerky, the choice of meat is ultimately up to you. 

Why You Should Make Your Own Jerky

There are plenty of benefits to making your own jerky. First of all, seasoning and dehydrating meat, yourself will save you money in the long run. Commercially prepared beef jerky can be very expensive, especially if you rely on top-shelf brands. Of course, this is partly because beef is expensive to produce, but when you add on the processing and distribution costs, plus the required profit mark-up for each link of the supply chain, it’s maybe no surprise that the price tag can end up as high as it is. Instead, buy your own beef and spices, and you’ll end up with more jerky and still have more cash left in your wallet.

On the subject of spices, as well as being able to limit the amount of sodium, making your own jerky allows you to control the seasonings. This enables you to alter the flavor to suit your tastes. You can experiment with different styles, as well as meats. You can make mild and savory, hot and spicy, or even sweet and sour jerky if that’s what you prefer. The choice is yours. Once you’ve begun to experiment with different flavor combinations, you’re sure to be hooked.

Being in total control of making your own homemade jerky is of course a good thing.

However, for those who are new to jerky-making, judging when the jerky is ready can be quite confusing. Taking the jerky out of the dehydrator early can give you moist jerky that is prone to spoilage, and taking it out too late can give you jerky that is too dry and tough to chew on.

Time and Temperature

If you want to make good jerky, you better have a food thermometer on hand. This tool will help you keep the temperature inside your dehydrator at a constant level.

When making jerky for the first time, preheat your dehydrator to around 145 degrees Fahrenheit first, for about an hour, to kill off any bacteria that might be growing inside it.

The drying time can range anywhere from four to twelve hours, depending on how thick the cuts of the meat are. The thicker the meat, the longer it should stay inside the dehydrator. Determining the drying time isn’t an exact science since everyone cuts meat differently, so you would need to estimate and take out the meat from time to time to test it for dryness. But as a rule of thumb, most cuts of beef can become completely dried out at the 10-hour mark.

how to make dried meat, salted meatTesting Jerky For Dryness

Take out some of the jerky from the dehydrator using a pair of clean tongs. Wait for a few minutes and let the meat strip cool to room temperature. Once cool, try to bend it. Perfectly dried jerky should not break in half, but rather be flexible enough to be bent at will. Jerky that splits in half means that it’s not perfectly dried out yet, and needs more time in the dehydrator.

Also, check out the texture of the jerky itself. It should not feel soft or greasy to the touch. The surface texture should be dry and leathery, with no hint of moisture whatsoever.

The Perfect Jerky “Mouth Feel”

A crumbly jerky is an overcooked jerky. The ideal texture for beef jerky is gummy and leathery; you should be able to chew on it without much problem, and without feeling as if the meat is too hard to gnaw on.

Having a slight crunch is also acceptable, as long as you can eat the strip comfortably without making your jaw tiring out. Even if it is completely dried out, the inside of the meat should still have a hint of softness to it.

Other Techniques For Making Jerky

The dehydrator is by far the most popular tool for making homemade jerky. And it’s not difficult to see why. They are fairly affordable and easy to find and turn out decent-sized batches. The one drawback to the dehydrator, however, is that it can be difficult to clean. Another option is the pellet smoker. 

There’s nothing quite like cooking outdoors, so what better than being able to prepare your own homemade jerky on the grill? Simply set the smoker to the temperatures outlined below, and follow the rest of your chosen recipe or regular method until the meat has reached the desired temperature and consistency. With a pellet smoker, the built-in thermometer will tell you when the cooking chamber has reached the proper temperature.

Preheat the smoker to 145 degrees and wait for one hour to eliminate any potential bacteria. Add the meat, raise the temperature to 165 degrees and let it cook for at least one hour. This will ensure that the meat is thoroughly cooked before the slower dehydrating process.

For that, lower the temperature to 130-150 degrees. The jerky should be finished cooking anywhere between 4 to 12 hours after you reduce the temperature, depending on how large your pieces are. After 12 hours, most cuts will begin to overcook, so it may be deceptive if they still look unfinished then. If they do, them out and give them a taste test as soon as they’re cool.

Other Important Things To Remember When Making Jerky

dried salted meat, salted meat recipe1. Don’t rush through the drying process. Good jerky takes time, that’s part of the satisfying enjoyment. You can’t just double the heat on the dehydrator and hope to dry the meat out in half the time- it just doesn’t work that way. If you attempt to cut corners this way, you run the risk of having the outside of the meat overcooked, while the inside still has a lot of moisture.

2. With that said, the optimal temperature for cooking jerky is about 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep the internal temperature of the dehydrator at this level, and in most cases, your jerky will turn out just fine. Just make sure to check for doneness from time to time.

3. Properly-made jerky doesn’t need refrigeration. However, if you want to preserve it for longer, you can refrigerate it in an airtight glass or plastic container.

4. Store the jerky by placing the meat strips inside airtight plastic or Ziploc bags. Alternatively, you can have them stored inside airtight glass jars with strong lids. Keeping the jerky stored like this will prevent early spoilage and the growth of bacteria.

5. If you’ve applied a marinade, be sure to drain the meat thoroughly. If the meat is to moist when it’s added to the dehydrator, this can throw off the cooking time.

Final Thoughts

We hope that we’ve shown and explained to you not only the method, but also the benefits of making your own jerky. When you do so, you’ll need to know how to tell when jerky is done. Otherwise, you could end up with a batch of meat that’s overly dry or spoiled. Just follow our simple tips and techniques, and your jerky is sure to be a hit. Enjoy!

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis is a freelance writer and foodie based in Portland, California. Though raised on her mother's homestyle Italian cooking, she has spent most of the last five years traveling and immersing herself in other countries' cuisines. Her work have been published in various publications, both online and offline.

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