How To Tell When Jerky Is Done: A Guide To Perfect Jerky

If you’ve ever tasted homemade jerky, you know that the store-bought variety is nothing but a pale imitation. Fortunately, it’s easy to make this delicacy on your own. Read on to learn how to tell when jerky is done, along with a host of other tips for making your very own dehydrated meat products.

What’s So Special About Jerky?

With its appealing chewy texture and savory flavor, beef jerky is a richly satisfying snack. Because it’s so lightweight and portable, it’s the ideal companion for long hiking trips. It also packs a great deal of protein into every bite, making it nutritious as well as convenient.

Be aware, however, that jerky relies on a heavy dose of sodium to give it the bold flavor that you know and crave. That’s why it’s best consumed in small doses—although some endurance runners and other extreme athletes rely on it to replenish their electrolyte supply during long training sessions.

While beef jerky is the most common of the bunch, other meats can be used to create this tasty treat. Turkey, venison, and elk jerky have seen a sharp uptick in popularity in the last few decades. It’s even possible to make jerky out of fish or exotic game meats, such as alligator and alpaca. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be sticking with beef jerky, but the choice of meat is ultimately up to you.

Why You Should Make Your Own Jerky

There are plenty of benefits to seasoning and dehydrating your own jerky.

First of all, doing so will save you money in the long run. Commercially prepared beef jerky can be prohibitively pricey, especially if you rely on top-shelf brands. To be fair, this is partly because beef is expensive to produce, but the processing and distribution costs contribute to the high price tags as well. If you buy your own beef and spices, you’ll end up with more jerky and more cash in your pocket.

On the subject of spices, making your own jerky allows you to control the seasonings. This means you can alter the flavor to suit your tastes. You can make teriyaki jerky, hot and spicy jerky, or jerky that’s flavored with cracked black pepper. Once you’ve begun to experiment with different flavor combinations, you’re sure to be hooked.

Techniques for Making Beef Jerky

The dehydrator is the most popular tool for making homemade jerky. These are fairly affordable and easy to find, and capable of turning out decent-sized batches. The only drawback is that they can be difficult to clean, but in all fairness, the same is true of our next option: the pellet smoker.

We love to cook outdoors, so when we’re testing a new recipe, we’re always tempted to find out if it can be made using the grill. In the case of beef jerky, the answer is a decided yes. Simply set the smoker to the temperatures outlined in How To Tell When Jerky is Done: Tips & Techniques, below. Follow the rest of your chosen recipe until the meat has reached the desired temperature and consistency.

Here are more tips on making beef jerky in a pellet smoker.

How To Tell When Jerky is Done: Tips & Techniques

1. Use a food thermometer.

A good food thermometer is an invaluable tool for the home chef. If you’re using a pellet smoker, then you’re all set—the built-in thermometer will tell you when the cooking chamber has reached the proper temperature. For dehydrators, invest in an inexpensive dial-style thermometer to make sure the unit is heating properly.

When making jerky, preheat the unit to 145 degrees, then wait for one hour to eliminate any potential bacteria. Once you add the meat, raise the temperature to 165 degrees and let the meat cook for at least one hour. This will ensure that the meat is thoroughly cooked before it’s subjected the slower dehydrating process.

To finish dehydrating the meat, 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.

Note that after 12 hours, most cuts will begin to overcook. If they still look unfinished once they’ve reached this threshold, we would recommend taking them out and giving them a taste test as soon as they’re cool (see below).

2. Test the texture.

Using a pair of heatproof tongs, carefully remove the jerky from the smoker or dehydrator. Let dry on a rack or a clean kitchen towel until it’s cooled to room temperature.

Pick up a piece of jerky and attempt to bend it. It should be flexible enough not to break when you apply light pressure. If it tears, then it isn’t ready yet. If it cracks in your fingers, then it’s overcooked.

3. Take a look at the surface.

The exterior of your beef jerky should be dry and leathery. If the surface is glistening and soft, it isn’t ready to be taken out of the dehydrator yet. It also needs more time if it leaves a sticky or greasy residue behind on your fingers when you handle it.

4. Perform a taste test.

Once you’re reasonably certain that the jerky is done, the best way to test it is to take that first bite. You want it to be chewy, yet not so tough that it’s difficult to eat. When the meat is overly tough, it means that it hasn’t quite achieved jerky status yet. Meanwhile, if it crumbles in your mouth like a cracker, it’s obviously spent too much time in the dehydrator.

As you can probably tell, learning how to tell when jerky is done is largely a process of trial and error. Once you’ve made a few batches, you’ll be better able to judge its quality based on look and touch, rather than taste.

Other Considerations

  • Don’t rush the process. Good beef jerky takes time—you can’t just increase the temperature so you can enjoy the results sooner. If you attempt to cut corners this way, the exterior will be overcooked while the inside of the meat is too moist.
  • Jerky doesn’t need to be refrigerated, but it will last longer when kept in the fridge in an airtight glass or plastic container. Ziploc baggies are another option for storing jerky.
  • If you’ve applied a marinade, be sure to drain the meat thoroughly. If the meat is too moist when it’s added to the dehydrator, this can throw off the cooking time.

Final Thoughts

If you’re going to experiment with making your own jerky, you’ll need to know how to tell when jerky is done. Otherwise, you could end up with a batch of meat that’s either prone to spoilage or overly dry. When you use one of our simple techniques, your jerky is sure to be a success.

Happy grilling!

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