Jerky is delicious and can be very nutritious.
Unfortunately, most store-bought brands of jerky are unhealthy and expensive.
Not only is it much more economical to make your own jerky, but you can avoid the harmful MSG, high-sodium levels, nitrates, preservatives, fillers and additives prevalent in store-bought packages by making your own jerky at home.
By making your own jerky, you’ll also kill off any bacteria that thrive in the moisture in the meat. By dehydrating your meat, you’re basically curing it (along with salt or sugar) to prevent spoilage.
If you’re in a hurry:
The best overall dehydrator for jerky is the Excalibur 3926TB
If you’re on a budget, check out the Nesco Snackmaster Pro
Benefits of Homemade Jerky
Making jerky is also a great educational activity that will engage the whole family. By making your own jerky at home, you can enjoy a high-protein snack whenever you want.
It’s easy to store, and it doesn’t require refrigeration. It’s also a favorite snack of many because it’s not messy. Oh, and did I mention it’s delicious?
Additionally, jerky is compatible with many special diets like keto and gluten-free. It’s low in saturated fats, calories, and carbohydrates. It makes the perfect snack for kids, campers, hikers, disaster preppers, and travelers. It’s also a great tactical snack for those in the field.
Making your own jerky can also be practiced in other ways. For example, if you’re like me, you like to shop for great sales. Grocery stores often sell meats that are near their expiration dates at a much lower price than their normal cost.
Indeed, you tend to get great deals when you purchase products that are close to expiration. I’ll buy a large package of meat that’s on sale for a recipe I have in mind, but I usually end up with more meat than I need. Since the meat is close to its expiration date, I end up having to freeze whatever leftovers remain. However, I hate freezing meat!
Making your own jerky is a common-sense way to preserve excess meat and greatly extend its shelf-life. The practice of making jerky is fun, economic, and practical, but it is also very old.
Some Important Dehydrator Features for Making Jerky
There are several things you’ll want to keep in mind when purchasing your dehydrator. First off, there’s
Most electric dehydrators are very affordable. These kitchen appliances can last many years or even a lifetime if taken care of.
You’ll probably want to get a dehydrator that has an adjustable temperature dial. Different meats may dry at slightly different temperatures. Also, different types of meats have a different moisture content. Hence, some meats will naturally take longer than others to dry.
Another nice to have feature is a timer. With a timer, you can set it and forget it. If your model doesn’t have a timer, you’ll want to use an alarm clock so you don’t accidentally overdry your meat.
I prefer dehydrator models that have transparent doors. This will prevent you from having to constantly open the door to check drying progress.
Perhaps you’ll also want to consider size. How much meat will you likely be dehydrating at once? Further, what about cleanup? Most electric dehydrators are designed with easy cleanup in mind. The drying trays of most electric dehydrators are dishwasher friendly. Knowing what features are important to you will help you select the right model.
Best Electric Dehydrators to Make Your Own Jerky
Excalibur 3926TB 9-Tray Electric Food Dehydrator
The Excalibur 3926TB is my number one recommended dehydrator for making jerky. Though it is the most expensive, keep in mind that you get what you pay for! Other dehydrators may be cheaper than this one, but the functionality of the Excalibur is second-to-none!
With this dehydrator, you will have more than 15 square feet of total drying space. That amount of space is unheard of in an electric dehydrator. To put that into context, that average oven has only roughly 5-6 square feet of total surface area.
The 9-tray drying system allows you to dry many different items at once. You can dry several or types of meat together or take advantage of sales at the supermarket meat counter and make a large batch of jerky. This model is effective and convenient.
The poly-screen tray insert stops your food from sticking to the surface. It also comes with a large, 7-inch top-mounted fan that blows powerfully and evenly. Time and temperature are adjustable with the built-in 26-hour timer and thermostat.
Cleanup is a breeze! Each of the trays and the poly-screen tray insert are dishwasher safe. The Excalibur 3926TB 9-Tray Electric Food Dehydrator is ideal for people how are serious about dehydrating food regularly. This is an investment that will pay off over and over again.
Nesco FD-75A Snackmaster Pro Food Dehydrator
The Nesco Snackmaster Pro is a great alternative to the Excalibur if money is an issue for you. It about ⅓ of the cost, the Nesco FD-75A Snackmaster Pro Food Dehydrator contains some of the same features at a cheaper price.
This model also comes with an adjustable thermostat, allowing you to dry a variety of foods at just the right temperature. Unfortunately, this model doesn’t have a timer like the Excalibur 3926TB does. You’ll need to monitor your contents closely to avoid over drying.
The Nesco FD-75A Snackmaster Pro also displays a top-mounted fan that uses patented Converga-Flow drying technology where the hot air is forced down the exterior pressurized chamber and not through the trays. This technology will help your meat dehydrate uniformly and will eliminate the need for constant tray rotation.
Check price of the Nesco on Amazon.
Nesco FD-28JX Jerky Xpress Dehydrator Kit
The Nesco FD-38JX Jerky Xpress Dehydrator is by far the cheapest efficient dehydrator available for making jerky. It comes in handy for people who plan to dry small amounts of meat at once or plan on using a dehydrator sparingly.
This dehydrator has a simple 4-tray assembly, each tray with slightly more than a 1 square foot of drying surface. It’s small and stores easily. However, it operates at a lesser wattage and does not have an adjustable thermostat or timer. Rather, it operates at a fixed temperature. Be sure to preheat the jerky in the oven to an internal temperature of 160°F before dehydrating.
The lid has a fan-driven powerhead that blows hot air down, drying your meat quickly and evenly. The Nesco FD-28JX Jerky Xpress also comes with a jerky gun with three attachments and spice/cure packets for flavoring your meat. Like the last dehydrator, this model is ideal for individuals who plan to use their dehydrator sparingly and plan to dry small amounts of meat at once.
Check price of the Nesco FD-28JX on Amazon.
Chefman 9 Tray Food Dehydrator
This medium-priced dehydrator is perfect for those who are looking for a balance between high quality and low cost. The Chefman Food Dehydrator Machine comes in two different sizes and price options: 6-tray or 9-tray.
The trays for this dehydrator are spacious and made of BPA-free plastic. It includes several trays and the large surface area allow for drying many different foods at once.
The Chefman Food Dehydrator Machine takes the cake for easy operation. The digital touch settings allow you to manually adjust your temperature range from 95°-158°. The countdown timer can be set up to 19.5 hours so you can set it and forget it. If you’re anxious like me, don’t worry! The Chefman has a fully transparent door so you can observe and monitor your contents as they dry.
This model operates at 600 watts providing plenty of power to get the job done right and quickly. The design of the airflow system allows for perfectly uniform dehydrating without overheating. Chefman also operates a site called Club Chefman which has recipes and tutorials to help get you started.
Need a slightly smaller unit? Check the price of the Chefman 6 tray dehydrator on Amazon.
Now that you’ve selected a dehydrator, here’s a little background on jerky.
Where Does Jerky Come from?
The origins of jerky are truly unknown, but making jerky is thought to be quite an ancient tradition. Jerky is traceable to the Americas at least as early as the 1500s, during the time of the Inca empire. The term “jerky” is derived from the Quechuan word “Ch’arki” (to burn meat).
During this era, making jerky was not done for preference, fun, convenience, or anything else. Making jerky was done solely for the purpose of meat preservation. After a large kill, excess meat would spoil rapidly if not preserved immediately. This is especially true in South America, where the Quechuan people lived. Yet, during this period, jerky was being made in North America as well as South America.
This practice was especially common in the colder climates of North America where crops die and animals hibernate during the winter months. A bountiful supply of jerky could easily feed a large family throughout the winter. Though we can only trace the origins of jerky in America to the 1500s, it doesn’t mean jerky wasn’t being made before then.
In fact, on the other side of the world, archaeology has revealed that the Ancient Egyptians preserved their meats by sun-drying them, making their own form of jerky. The Ancient Egyptians are well-known for preserving foods. Many excavated tombs have been found to contain jerky, surprisingly still intact.
What Kind of Meats Can be Used to Make Jerky?
Just about any kind of meat can be used to make great tasting jerky. Jerky is made through the process of “dehydrating.” Dehydrating simply means removing the moisture from the meat, and we will review four of the very best meat dehydrators on the market today.
Meanwhile, here are some examples of different kinds of meats that can be used to make healthy and delicious jerky:
- Filet mignon
- Fish: Salmon, Tuna, Trout
- Flank Steak
- Rump Roast
- Wild boar.
This is not an exhaustive list, but this list should help you generate some ideas of meats you’d like to use for jerky. You can even use ground meat if you have a jerky gun.
Most meats require similar preparation when cutting, drying, and storing. Yet, it is important that you thoroughly research your meat for specific handling and preparation requirements. For example, wild game may need to be handled and dried differently than most other meats due to an elevated risk of contamination that wild game has.
The Standard Process of Making Your Own Jerky
When first starting out, I recommend finding a good basic recipe and following it closely. Once you’re comfortable with the process of dehydrating meat and you’ve made a couple of batches of jerky successfully, you can experiment a bit if you’re inclined to do so.
To start, you should only use lean cuts of meat. You’ll want to cut your meat as uniformly as possible. Doing so will ensure uniformity when dehydrating. Do not use slices of meat that have marbling or fat. Fat will turn rancid very quickly and spoil your jerky.
Be sure to cut your strips long and thin. The thicker your cuts, the more difficult they will be to dry evenly and the longer they will take to dry. A good rule is that each strip should be no thicker than a ½ inch thick. Also, you’ll need to slice against the grain of your meat so the finished product is easy to chew.
Keep in mind that it takes 3-5 pounds of fresh meat to make 1 pound of jerky. Before drying your meat, you’ll want to bathe your fresh meat in marinade inside of a large Ziploc bag.
You should always let your meat marinate for a minimum of 24 hours for best results. Be sure to get your marinade ready first. Then cut your meat. Soak it in your marinade in the refrigerator overnight if you have vacuum-seal bags. Vacuum-seal bags will infuse the marinade into the meat quickly. If not, I usually marinate my meat for 2-3 days in a bowl with a sheet of plastic wrap pressed down to keep air from contaminating the meat as it marinates.
Though I recommend sticking to your recipes at first, feel free to experiment with your marinade. Don’t be afraid to mix it up and be creative. Try different ingredients to find a marinade that perfectly matches your desired flavor profile.
Here are some ideas for making a delicious marinade:
- Soy Sauce
- Tamari Sauce
- Apple Cider
- Worcestershire sauce
- Teriyaki sauce
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Fish Sauce
- Dijon Mustard
- Sesame Oil
- Bbq sauce
- Garlic Powder or minced garlic
- Onion Powder
- Seasoned Salt
- Cayenne Pepper
- Black Pepper
- Brown Sugar
- Corn Syrup
- Blackstrap Molasses
Dehydrating Your Meat
Always remember the three mortal enemies of dehydrated food:
When storing your dehydrated foods, you’ll want to keep these enemies in mind. I recommend storing your dehydrated meat in airtight containers such as mason jars in a cupboard or pantry.
Mason jars will keep your jerky fresher longer than bags will and will fend off its mortal enemies better. Also, placing date dots on your mason jars will allow you to use your oldest jerky first and keep you aware of each jar’s age/expiration.
Most meats take 4-6 hours to dehydrate. Times vary based on moisture content, the thickness of cuts, altitude, and more. Again, it is important to do a brief but thorough research first. A quick google search can yield incredible results.
There are different ways you can make jerky. You can sun-dry your meat as the Inuits did, you can dehydrate your meat in an oven, or you can do what I did – get an electric dehydrator!
Sun-drying meat was practical for our ancestors but isn’t sensible for most people today. Ovens usually don’t have a low enough temperature setting, as most meats are dehydrated between 110’-150’. Plus, most ovens don’t have fans inside them, and you’ll need to have hot air blowing evenly over the meat.
Hence, sun-drying and oven-drying your meat is not recommended. An electric dehydrator is a great tool for the job.
When dehydrating your meat, be sure that each cut of meat is separate on the drying trays. No two pieces of meat should be touching each other.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re dehydrating your meat in a well-ventilated room. If you’ve never made jerky before, you will find that the process of removing moisture from meat causes a powerful odor to permeate the area it’s being cured.
As with anything in life, practice makes perfect. The more batches you make, the more of a pro jerky maker you will become. Be sure to visit my blog for more great tips and insights. Happy dryin’.