The biggest problem with beef jerky is that it always gets in my freaking teeth. Every time i crave a sweet, salty, spicy, tangy chew of dried meat, I know I’m going to need to bring floss along. A lot of floss. But even arduous minutes spent with my hands fingers in my mouth (that sounds weird) hasn’t been able to deter me from buying beef jerky of every brand, meat origin, and flavor. The problem is, beef jerky is really expensive. Like I-can’t-afford-to-eat-this-stuff-every-day expensive. And that’s just not acceptable. I mean, it’s just dehydrated meat, right? How hard could it be?
Soy sauce make a perfect brine for beef, but a 5% solution of salt in water works too. Most aromatic compounds in a brine penetrate well, but be chocolate and capsaicin (from hot peppers) can be troublesome. The oven method works great, the microwave can substitute, but only if you’re desperate for a quick fix. Aim for three layers of taste: a glaze, a chew, and a finish. My recipes are here and here.
Getting the Texture Right
There are two major variables that determine the texture of jerky – meat fiber and moisture content.
There are two ways to turn muscle fiber into jerky. You can either simply cut off a chunk of meat, season it, and dehydrate it, or you can chop off many little chunks of meat, then glue them together into a new meat chunk. Lest you food snobs reading this turn up your nose to the chopped-then-glued method, let me point out that many great dried sausages use this exact approach. At their best, chopped and formed products result in a softer texture while still delivering hefty chunks of chewy fiber. Unfortunately, with commercial manufacturers, the cut-it-up-and-glue-it-together tactic is typically employed to charge premium prices for cheap cuts, additives, and fillers. When in doubt, go with jerky that looks like meat.
With moisture, jerky is best designed to be either “tender” or “chewy”. Asian pork jerky is a good example of a tender jerky. The tenderness comes from the high sugar content, which, like salt, denatures the proteins in meat, resulting in greater water retention. Since sugar is a preservative as well, sweet jerky can be made with shorter cooking times, kept more moist, and taste good without being too salty. Sweet Singaporean pork jerky is made this way.
Chewy jerky is the more traditional jerky – to make it, beef is simply dehydrated until it loses practically all its water content. The jerky should be so dry that the muscle fibers crack and flake when you fold the meat. Both chewy and tender jerky have their merits; now the question was how I could create those textures in my kitchen.
I’ve been reading Modernist Cuisine a lot lately and one idea it recommends is using a microwave oven to make jerky. Microwaves heat food by exciting water particles. So as water content drops, the machine supplies less and less cooking, and so food should get nicely dehydrated without being burnt to a crisp. The book recommends doing six pieces at a time at 50% power, flipping the meat over every minute. This actually works decently, but as you can imagine, the constant flipping, waiting, and drooling get old fast. Plus, making six pieces of jerky at a time is like brewing a single ounce of coffee – delicious, but fleeting.
After messing around with a few different microwave batches, I found that microwaving about a half pound of jerky at 30% power for 9 minutes, then flipping and finishing for another 9 minutes worked best. Microwaves can vary greatly; mine cooks at 1000W. Make sure not to put the beef on paper towels or plates. The moisture soaks into the porous material and the microwave burns the paper.
I was pretty satisfied with my results; the jerky was tasty and definitely worth the effort. But upon closer inspection, I realized that no matter how I tried, I couldn’t adequately control the doneness of each piece. My jerky ranged in texture from “tender” to “chewy” all the way down to “charcoal”. It seemed like the last few minutes mattered the most, and so I was forced once again to perch in front of my microwave, watching my jerky like an over-protective mother, evacuating strips of jerky moments before they became hopelessly dry. The whole point of using a microwave was to cut down on the amount of time it would take to make jerky at home, but this technique was getting to be far more labor-intensive than I had bargained for.
Conventional Oven Tests
After my debacle using a microwave, I went back to using a tried and true method: oven dehydrating. I tried many different combinations of methods using a conventional oven to dehydrate and came up with the following insights:
- keep the door open. wedge a kitchen towel into the oven opening to trap as much heat as possible while letting moisture escape
- use a cooling rack. If you don’t, liquid collects on the sheet pan and keeps one side soggy. This is true even if you flip halfway.
- start hot, end cool. Evaporation decreases temperature, so an oven set to 200F/93C results in 180F/82C meat for the first two hours or so, speeding up the cooking process. Bring the oven down lower and lower as moisture evacuates. A lower temperature means it will be easier to engage perfect doneness at the end of the process.
- finish in open air or in the fridge. Minutes in a hot oven can mean the difference between chewy goodness and cruchy dog food. Try finishing the jerky at room temperature. A cool, dry, room continues to slowly dehydrate the jerky overnight. Certain parts of your refrigerator can also be dry enough to finish the dehydration process if your living space is too humid. See the bottom of this post for tips on storage.
After cooking about 10 lbs of jerky using various methods, I can safely vouch for the standard oven method as both effective and easy to control.
Getting the Salt Level Right
Salt holds the key to optimum transfer of flavors in jerky. Too little salt and the jerky tastes like cardboard. Too much salt burns the tongue with a cominbation of metallic and bitter off-flavors. Looking around the internet, I found that a large number of jerky recipes I found called not for salt, but for soy sauce, the ubiquitous fermented condiment most often used in Asian cuisines, but more and more often appearing in Western creations.
To be fair, soy sauce has a lot going for it. I’m a big fan of fermented flavors in general and the fishiness/MSG-qualities of soy sauce specifically. But I don’t think jerky recipes call for soy sauce just because it tastes good. There’s about 5.7 g of sodium per 100g of soy sauce, or roughly 5% by volume (I’m assuming some of the sodium is paired with glutamate to form MSG). When I scouted out the numbers on some commercial brands of beef jerky, they came in at about 2% sodium, by weight. Beef by itself does contain sodium, but in insignificant amounts compared to what we’re adding in order to get the desired saltiness in the finished jerky.
If you crunch the numbers, it quickly becomes apparent why soy sauce is a good choice for beef jerky:
Start with 2 lbs beef and 2/3 cup (~5 oz) soy sauce (Alton Brown’s recipe). That translates into 907g beef, 157g soy sauce. 5% of 157g is 7.85 g sodium. If the soy sauce and beef are allowed to come to equilibrium, the sodium concentration will be sitting at 7.85g sodium/(907g beef+157g soy sauce)=0.7%. Take the beef out and dehydrate it, leaving the extra soy sauce behind. The beef will shrink to between a third and a half its original size, meaning the sodium concentration will be right in the range we want it – between 1.4 and 2%.
More importantly, if you did the same recipe, and only added 1.5 lbs of beef, the end salt concentration would be between 1.8 and 2.4%. With 2 lbs of beef and a 1/2 cup of soy sauce, you’d be looking at 1.1-1.7%. Soy sauce is salt dissolved in liquid and liquid helps to buffer recipes against measurement mistakes.
I tried a number of variations of jerky both using salt and soy sauce, and found that in the jerky I made with granulated salt, I had much harder time controlling salinity. Think about it this way: for 2 lbs of beef, the appropriate range of dry salt to achieve 1-2% end salinity would be in the range 4.5-9 grams, or between 3/4 and and 1.5 teaspoons of kosher salt. A small measurement mistake in cases like this can spell disaster, even if you have the uncanny ability very evenly distribute a single teaspoon of salt. If soy sauce must absolutely be avoided, I would recommend diluting whatever salt you plan to add in water first to make a 5% by weight solution of salty water.
Soaking beef in a saltwater solution is known as brining. When you brine a piece of meat, the salt from the brine penetrates into the muscle fibers through osmosis. There, the salt (and to some extent, sugar, if the brine contains sugar) denatures the proteins in the meat, allowing the proteins to hold more moisture than they would normally be able to. The meat then absorbs more of the surrounding water and any flavor molecules that have been dissolved into it.
There is some debate as to what types of flavor molecules can be absorbed; it seems to depend on water-solubility and whether the molecules are small enough to penetrate cell walls, though there are also questions about the role of polarity and interstitial spaces. Most aromatic compounds I’ve used flavor meat well; the two I’ve had trouble with are chocolate and capsaicin. I tried a number of different concentrations of each and found that the flavor making it into the actual meat was always lacking. I think the trouble with capsaicin is that its long hydrocarbon tail makes it insoluble in cold water. A large structure also means it is less able to penetrate cell walls. With chocolate, the cause could be any number of factors, from water solubility to the effect of cocoa butter on diffusion. I will ask Naveen and update when possible.
Developing Multiple Layers of Taste
Although salt is the most important component of jerky seasoning, by itself salt lacks the unique flavors that differentiate one jerky from another. In designing a jerky flavor, it’s important to consider the experience of the eater. A person experiences three distinct phases of pleasure when chewing jerky. First, the jerky makes contact with the saliva of the tongue. The water and enzymes of the mouth immediately begin dissolving the external spices and reduced sugars that coat the outside of the jerky. These notes excite the mouth, causing glands to release more saliva, which will in turn make the jerky seem more juicy as eating continues.
As the eater begins to chew, the spices that have diffused into the meat along with the brine of either salt or soy sauce become more pronounced. The sweetness of the initial glaze remains, but it’s dissipating into ever-increasing levels of drool. The flavor of beef intensifies, as the trace amounts of fat marbled throughout the meat are broken into by teeth and the hydrophobic flavor compounds dissolved within are released.
In the third stage, the physical manifestations of jerky have departed the mouth, but its essence remains. The aftertaste can be a simple echo of the flavor combinations recently experienced, or a distinct sensation that complements the other flavor experiences of the jerky.
Here is a great video that shows how some truly fanatic folks obsess over the flavor of their jerky.
I used the three-phases-of-taste approach to develop two recipes:
Sweet and Sour Asian Orange Jerky
Salmonella is one the more hardy and dangerous types of bacteria that appears in processed meat. Chicken must be held for an hour and a half at 136F/57.8C to kill enough salmonella to make it safe to eat. Dehydrating beef in a dedicated dehydrator takes its temperature up to about 130-140F/54-60C, though the actual surface temperature will be initially be lower, due to evaporative cooling. Still, the lower moisture and high salt levels will also help to deactivate bacteria, so beef dehydrated in this way will be safe.
The biggest threat from beef jerky comes from improper storage. If the meat is allowed to rehydrate (say, because you stored it in a humid room), then bacteria will find it and feast upon its flesh. Make sure to let jerky fresh out of the oven cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container so steam does not build up and cause mold or bacterial growth. For long term storage, keep the jerky in the fridge in a plastic bag. I noticed some textural changes because some of that rendered fat solidifies at refrigerator temperatures. Let chilled jerky come to room temperature uncovered so condensation has a chance to dry off. Freezing works for long term storage.
Cooks Illustrated guide to brining.
Cooking for Engineers post on brining.
eGullet discussion on brining.
Beef Jerky blog’s tips for storing jerky.