Meat and poultry. As long as meats are low in fat content, you can dehydrate meat and poultry. Turkey, chicken and low fat-content ground meats are good choices.
- For jerky prepared from ground beef, use meat that is at least 93% lean.
- For jerky made from poultry, the poultry must be thoroughly cooked before dehydration.
- For whole muscle jerky, trim meat of excess fat and slice no thicker than 1/4”.
- Partially freeze meat to make it easier to slice.
- Slice the meat with the grain if you wish to prepare chewy jerky.
- Pork products are marbled with fat, therefore hard to trim, so they are not considered safe for dehydration in my kitchen.
- Please note: Fats will not break down to dehydrate and will cause rancidity.
- If pork (or wild game) is used to make jerky, the meat should be treated to kill the trichinella parasite (which causes the disease trichinosis) before it is sliced and marinated. To treat the meat, freeze a portion that is 6 inches or less thick at 0ºF or below for at least 30 days. Freezing will not eliminate bacteria from the meat.
Be sure that you understand the correct procedures for dehydrating meats before you begin. Meat and poultry require higher temperatures and special handling for safety. Raw meats can be contaminated with microorganisms that cause disease. These harmful bacteria can easily multiply on moist, high protein foods like meat and poultry and can cause illness if the products are not handled correctly.
According to FDA studies, although the spice and cure (nitrite) in marinades and dry seasoning mixes will help in the destruction of pathogens, marinating meat doesn’t make raw meat safe. “Marination alone did not result in significant reduction of the pathogen compared with whole beef slices that were not marinated,” concluded the study.
Why is temperature important when making jerky? Illnesses due to Salmonella and E. coli from homemade jerky raise questions about the safety of traditional drying methods for making beef and venison jerky. The USDA current recommendation for making jerky safely is to heat meat to 160°F and poultry to 165°F before the dehydrating process. This step assures that any bacteria present will be destroyed by wet heat. But most dehydrator instructions do not include this step, and a dehydrator may not reach temperatures high enough to heat meat to 160°F or 165°F.
After heating to 160°F or 165°F, maintaining a constant dehydrator temperature of at least 150-160 °F during the drying process is important because:
- The process must be fast enough to dry food before it spoils; and
- It must remove enough water that microorganisms are unable to grow.
The danger in dehydrating meat and poultry without cooking it to a safe temperature first is that the appliance will not heat the meat to 160°F and poultry to 165°F — temperatures at which bacteria are destroyed — before the dehydrating process. After drying, bacteria become much more heat resistant.
Within a dehydrator or low-temperature oven, evaporating moisture absorbs most of the heat. Thus, the meat itself does not begin to rise in temperature until most of the moisture has evaporated. Therefore, when the dried meat temperature finally begins to rise, the bacteria have become more heat resistant and are more likely to survive. If these surviving bacteria are pathogenic, they can cause food-borne illness to those consuming the jerky.
Research findings support what the Hotline has been recommending to callers. Additionally, safe handling and preparation methods must always be used, including:
- Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water before and after working with meat products.
- Use clean equipment and utensils.
- Keep meat and poultry refrigerated at 40 °F or slightly below; use or freeze ground beef and poultry within 2 days; whole red meats, within 3 to 5 days.
- Defrost frozen meat in the refrigerator, not on the kitchen counter.
- Marinate meat in the refrigerator. Don’t save marinade to re-use. Marinades are used to tenderize and flavor the jerky before dehydrating it.
- Steam or roast meat to 160 °F and poultry to 165 °F as measured with a food thermometer before dehydrating it.
- Dry meats in a food dehydrator that has an adjustable temperature dial and will maintain a temperature of at least 130-140°F throughout the entire drying process.
I set my oven on its lowest setting to bring the meat up to temp. Preheat the oven to 160°F / 71°C, or the lowest setting it will go.
Testing: In testing the strips for dryness, let them cool at room temperature then slightly bend the beef strip. When bent, an adequately dry jerky does not break in half but should crack instead. The dry strip should exhibit a firm, flexible form that can easily bend completely back on itself without snapping. Dried jerky should not be crumbly but instead display a leathery texture that tastes palatably chewy. The chewy quality of dried jerky should have a nice crunch that breaks easily whenever you bite off a strip. Plus, even if it has a dry surface feel, it should still be tender on the inside.
Another good sign that it is dry is that it leaves no greasy or sticky residue when handled. Even if they are dried meat strips, they should feel that there is a substantial amount of meat packed into them.
Storage. Properly dried jerky will keep at room temperature two weeks in a sealed container. For best results, to increase shelf life and maintain best flavor and quality, refrigerate or freeze jerky.
Over-dried Jerky Fix: If your jerky seems too dry, you can spray it with water and/or wrap in damp paper towels. Refrigerate and pull out as needed.