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Forget everything you’ve ever learned about food safety and the proper handling of meat. Ignore the sound advice you heard in cooking school. Disregard that appalling silly VHS training tape you watched before working in that restaurant. Throw all your ideas of sanitary food prep to the wind. The age-old process of making jerky is in direct opposition with the modern ideals of the time and temperature of safe meat storage.
We’re going to take raw meat, trim off the fat, dry it out in the sun — and somehow, almost magically — it’s going to be safe to eat later.
So whether you’re a hunter, a protein lover, or a hard-core prepper, knowing how to handle raw meat is an important skill. But what if you’ve harvested a larger animal than you can eat in one sitting? Or several animals at once? How do you make sure your precious protein lasts longer? In this article, we’re going to bring back a skill that’s an oldie but a goodie, we’re going to show you how to make your own traditional-style jerky.
All it takes is fresh raw meat and a dry day to learn some invaluable jerky-making skills. And if you haven’t figured out yet that jerky production is a good skill to know, just ponder how you’d store meat in a grid-down or wilderness setting. No freezer or pressure canner is likely to be available. This leaves drying as you’re only real preservation solution. Don’t worry about homespun jerky being some horrible archaic food, like acorn mush. We’ve all slavered over the savory goodness of jerky. And with a little care and attention, you can make good jerky, too. Hungry for it yet? Let’s prepare some now.
The actual word “jerky” is believed to come from the Quechua word “ch’arki,” meaning salted, dried meat. However, jerky has had many names across the time and diverse locations it has been made. Bull cheese, biltong, jerk, meat floss, kilishi, and other colorful names have been applied to this traditional staple food item. But don’t think this is just some primitive tribal snack. Beef jerky has even been approved as astronaut food! NASA has supplied hungry space shuttle crews with this tasty, compact, high-protein snack since the 1990s. Here’s what you’ll need to start making jerky on your own.
Firewood: Hickory, mesquite, maple, and many other classic food-smoking woods are excellent choices for your firewood and smoke producers. Stay away from woods that produce a resinous black smoke, like pine, firm, and spruce. Also do your research to find out if you have any toxic woods in your area, and don’t use those for cooking or smoking.
Fire-Starter: It’s your call on this one. It could be the humble Bic lighter or a bow and drill set.
Meat: What kind of meat is jerky meat? It’s whatever meat you have. Deer and beef are excellent, but virtually any edible animal will work. Just pay attention to the fat. It must all be removed before drying the meat. It must also be raw to safely last through long-term storage.
The Rack: A free-standing tripod with cross bars is my favorite type of jerky rack, though many things can work. Hang the strips from a handy branch or dangle them from a string. Set them on a window screen, oven rack, or dishwasher rack that you have taken outside. You could even lay the meat on rocks, concrete, bricks, or some other absorptive surface, though dangling in the air is usually the fastest way to dry the meat.
Spices, Seasonings, and Preservatives: Salt, pepper, vinegar, garlic powder, soy sauce, a wide range of spices and many other items have been used to flavor jerky and assist in the preservation of it.
Once your decisions have been made and your ingredients rallied, it’s time to go to work. It’s the hope of all jerky makers that the weather will cooperate on jerky day, but if not — there are options. Follow these steps and you’ll make your ancestors proud!
Step 1: Start off with fresh, raw meat and cut it into thin strips. As you work, remove all visible fat and throw it into a stew or find some other good use for those valuable calories. Most people prefer tender jerky, which usually comes from cuts that are perpendicular to the muscle fiber (perpendicular to the bone that was in the meat). Other jerky makers, however, prefer to cut with the grain of the muscle (in the direction that it once stretched and contracted). Try some both ways on your first batch to see which you prefer.
Step 2: Add salt, sugar, spices, and/or vinegar to the meat. This can be done by sprinkling dry ingredients, soaking, or wiping on wet ingredients. The meat could also be soaked in a marinade or brine at this time. Make sure there is no oil in the marinade, as it will go rancid in the finished product. Some of these items, like the pepper, are just there for taste.
Other items, however, are there to help preserve the meat. Salt, sugar, and vinegar do a great job in discouraging the growth of bacteria, the primary organism behind spoilage. Salt creates a saline environment in the meat, which keeps harmful organisms from taking over. And vinegar creates an acidic environment, which helps to keep the bacterial hordes at bay. If you don’t have any flavorings or preserving agents, move on to step three.
Step 3: Hang the meat on your rack, string it up with twine, or lay it out to dry. Do this in the sun, preferably on a dry and breezy day — and a few feet downwind of a tiny smoky fire. It’s best if the frame or string of drying meat is mobile. This allows you to move the meat into the smoke if the wind shifts, and chase the sun as it travels. And never leave your jerky unattended, for a variety of reasons.
Step 4: Dry the meat until it begins to feel stiff and leathery. On a rack or flat surface, turn each piece so that any damp shady spots get exposed to sunlight. Continue drying, keeping the meat in the smoke, but not directly over the heat. Dry the meat until it becomes brittle when bent. Red meat will turn purplish-brown. White meat will turn grayish-pink.
If the weather takes a turn on jerky day or your meat hasn’t dried all the way before dark, move all the meat into shelter and finish the drying process the next day. Don’t leave it out overnight. The dampness is bad, but the scavengers are worse. It’s probably going to be gone in the morning. In extended wet weather, you’ll have to dry the meat with the heat of the fire. This will buy you a few days of storage before it spoils, as will using cooked meat for jerky in the first place. But it’s not safe to store cooked, dried salted meat past one week.
Step 5: Store the finished jerky in a dry paper bag, cloth sack, wooden box, or some other breathable container. This keeps the jerky from sweating and helps it to last longer. If the weather is cool and dry, jerky like this may last for weeks or months. In humid weather, eat it as soon as you can, but stop using it if the meat becomes moldy or takes on a bad smell. Trust your eyes and nose when storing jerky under questionable damp conditions.
You were warned that safe food handling ideals would be thrown out the window in this article, and they certainly were — by allowing raw meat to lie about in warm weather. But consider the fact that many ancestral cultures used jerky as a valuable staple food item, trade good, pet food, and even as a currency. So if your power goes out while you have a deep chest freezer full of steaks, now you know what to do with your rapidly melting investment of meat — make a mountain of jerky!
Regardless of whether you are a bushwhacker, homesteader, or urban survivalist, the skill of jerky making has some serious benefits and there’s no better time to start honing your skills than right now. Grab the rack out of your oven, hang salted meat all over it, and set it on a sunny balcony or deck to become the salty little jerky bits that they were meant to be. Enjoy!
Maggots! These little devils really add the “yuck” factor to the jerky-making process, but don’t throw your precious food source away just because it’s started moving again. Flies and their larvae are nuisances during the early stages of the jerky process, but they are easily repelled by using smoke or increasing your smoke output. Just remember to keep the meat bathed in smoke, yet away from the heat. Cooked meat spoils much faster than raw meat. And if some tenacious flies do make it past the smoke screen, simply wipe off the egg clusters (or moving maggots) and return the meat to the drying rack. You may not spot them at first, as the egg masses tend to get deposited underneath the jerky strips, but you’ll usually find them when you turn the jerky over for the first time while drying. Then, once the meat gets a crusty skin on it, the flies tend to leave it alone anyway.
Don’t feel like cattle and deer are the only creatures that can transform into jerky. Any raw meat from any edible animal species can be dried and preserved using the techniques listed here. But not all jerky is equal. The red meat and white meat mammals are certainly prime candidates for jerky, but edible birds, reptiles, and fish can turn into jerky as well. They may not be as appetizing as dried red meat, but they do work.
Fish jerky, wild turkey jerky, snapping turtle jerky, gator jerky, whatever jerky — all can provide nourishment, but perhaps not the dining experience you were hoping to receive. Freshwater fish jerky is probably the worst, being fairly awful under ideal conditions. While deer, beef, elk, moose, buffalo, and similar animals are global favorites and should be your top choice — if choice is an option. If not, then turn whatever beast you have into a salty spicy jerky. If you dial up the seasonings, it really dials down the gag reflex.
When eating jerk, you’re eating raw meat. This can bother some people. Around my camp, there is one bonus step before jerky consumption — this is some form of cooking. An easy and tasty way is to impale the dried meat strip on a pointy stick and toast it briefly over the campfire. This changes the color and the flavor (in a good way), and it kills any live organisms that are lingering on the jerky’s surface or inside it. This extra step could be considered paranoid, but in many ways, it just feels right. Another common use for jerky is in soups, broth, and stew. The jerky can be pounded with a clean dry rock, until it is pulverized. Add this powder to hot water and simmer for half an hour. The resulting broth is full of somewhat tender slivers of meat and very welcomed on a cold day.