Sunday, February 6, 2011

Jerky Making Tips and Techniques

Making Deer Jerky: Some Tips

Frankfort, Kentucky - Every year I look forward to making deer jerky. The scent of spicy marinade fills my kitchen as I thaw, cut, soak and dry, gradually emptying my freezer full of deer meat. I beam like a kid on Christmas morning when I lift the top of the dehydrator, revealing tray after tray of perfectly dried strips of venison. I pack the cooled jerky into plastic bags with various marinade labels, and can't wait to give them to friends, family and co-workers.

If I seem over-enthusiastic about making jerky, it's probably because I can't cook. My attempts have led to small kitchen fires, burnt breakfast pastries and even my Mom's classic dinner-table comment, "Well, at least we have a good dessert."

My point is, if I can make jerky, anyone can. 
Entire books are written on this subject, and there are many ways to do it well. But there are a few things I wish I'd known when I started. Through trial and error I've learned to use a lot of meat, clean it well, cut it consistently, marinade it for just a few hours, and dry it longer than it seems to need.

It takes a lot of deer meat to make a small amount of jerky. Ever heard the saying that our bodies are mostly water? The same is true of deer. Ten pounds of venison becomes about two pounds of jerky after drying. So set aside plenty of meat if you plan to share. It's amazing how quickly your jerky will disappear. People love this stuff.

The cleaner your meat, the better your jerky will taste. Remove the whitish membrane, or 'silver seam', from the outside of the meat, as well as all the gristle and sinew that you can cut off. If you don't plan to make jerky right away, wrap the meat tightly in butcher paper and freeze it, then move it to the refrigerator a couple of days before you're ready to begin. Meat that is still partially frozen is far easier to cut than completely thawed meat.

I use only the large muscle groups like hams and shoulders for jerky. Large sections of meat are easier to cut and dry more consistently than smaller, more irregularly shaped pieces. Save the small cuts for stew or hamburger meat, and the tenderloins for steaks.

Be consistent in your cutting, making all strips the same thickness. It's a pain to remove jerky from the oven or dehydrator in shifts, but that's exactly what you'll be doing if your meat isn't a uniform thickness.

If you like brittle jerky, cut across the grain. If you want chewier jerky, cut with the grain. Some people prefer to turn their venison into hamburger first, then use a jerky gun to make uniform strips. I prefer the texture of cut jerky, but either method can yield good results.

Soak the cut strips of meat in marinade for a few hours to overnight, depending on how strong you want the marinade flavor. Turn the meat several times while it soaks. Marinating too long can overwhelm the taste or lead to mushy, stringy meat.

An oven works just fine for jerky making, and many people prefer this method. I prefer a dehydrator. It takes a lot of the guess-work out of the process. I know exactly how long it will take to dry a quarter-inch thick piece of venison, and I know that every piece is drying at the same temperature. Besides, making jerky is messy, and I can throw my dehydrator racks in the dishwasher. I'd rather dress a deer than chisel dried, caked-on marinade out of my oven.

Dry the jerky a bit longer than it seems to need. The jerky's surface should crack when you bend it, but the piece should not break apart. Moisture will build up during storage, and pulling it too soon will result in sticky jerky within a day.

Good boy! Mmmm! That's good!

For marinade recipes, storage tips and more, buy a good jerky-making book or search online. There's plenty of information out there to create this convenient, high-protein snack. Best of all, even the worst cook can make great deer jerky.

Author Hayley Lynch is an award-winning writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. She is an avid hunter and shotgun shooter.

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