I’m sure you’ve all heard about the recent report from the WHO proclaiming the dangers of red meat, and even more so, processed meat. Never have so many vegetarians felt so smug. I’m not going to weigh into this debate as it’s been done better many times by many more knowledgeable people than me. (Though I do have my opinions on the subject, so don’t get me started!) Rather, I wanted to take an example of one (probably rightly) demonized food, and tell you about a healthy and delicious alternative that I make regularly. I’m talking about beef jerky.
For those unfamiliar, jerky is a dried meat product fairly common in the US, and to a lesser extent, the UK. It’s somewhat similar to biltong, though South Africans would probably shoot me for saying that. Much the same way an Aussie or Brit would skewer anyone saying marmite and vegemite are the same thing. That’s another debate you won’t catch me weighing into!
Jerky is a salty, chewy little snack that seemingly lasts forever without going off – usually a bad sign with any food. It’s a tasty treat and and good protein/energy kick when you’re on the go hiking, travelling, or whatever. The problem is that it’s generally full of bad stuff. For instance, just a quick check of a common store-bought brand lists the ingredients as:
Beef, sugar, water, soy sauce solids (wheat, soybeans, salt), salt, natural spices and flavoring, hydrolyzed soy protein, monosodium glutamate, garlic powder, guar gum, polysorbate 80, caramel color powder, sodium nitrite.
Hmmm, definitely a lot of stuff in there that I’d rather not be putting in my body. For starters, sugar is the second ingredient! Even the most backwards nutritionists these days are now hip to the fact that sugar, not fat, is the main reason for the obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemics we’re experiencing in the west, so right off the bat we’ve got a big no-no. Then there’s MSG, and sodium nitrite, two other questionable additives found in many processed and cured meat products. And we haven’t even discussed the actual beef, which is most likely the factory farmed, hormone-and-antibiotic-filled misery meat found in most budget carnivorous offerings these days. This, you definitely want no part of!
Okay, so I’m going to step down off my soapbox now, and tell you that it’s actually really easy to make your own version of this moreish snack that is yummy and healthy.
The first, and most important thing you need is some good beef. This is the only expensive ingredient in jerky, as I definitely recommend you spend a bit more to get organic, or at least, grass-fed beef for this. You may ask ‘why grass-fed’? Check out these articles if you want more info on that:
It’s important that the beef doesn’t have much fat in it. Not because the fat is unhealthy, but because the fat doesn’t dry out in the dehydration process. You can always trim any fat off before making the jerky. I often use rump steak, as it’s not super expensive and is usually quite lean.
It’s worth noting here, that you don’t even have to use beef. Venison works really well, too, especially as it’s very lean. I’ve never tried using lamb, but I imagine you’d need to trim the hell out of it, being that it’s generally so nice and fatty. I might give it a go one day, though. Apparently there’s even pork jerky, but it seems it’s necessary to freeze the pork for a period of time before using it to kill the bacteria which can cause trichinosis, so you might want to avoid this if you’re not feeling adventurous.
The first thing you need to do after trimming any excess fat, is slice the meat very thinly against the grain. You’ll need a nice sharp knife for this. I try and keep the slices about 2-3 mm, or ⅛” thick, but it’s okay if it’s thicker than this. It’ll just take longer to make. A good trick for making super thin slices is to freeze the meat a little beforehand. Not so it’s a frozen brick, but so it’s firm enough that it won’t get all squishy when you hold it down to slice it.
Once you’ve got your meat strips, it’s time to marinate them. This is where it gets fun, as you can use tons of different flavourings depending on your tastes. I tend to use a simple mix of soy sauce (or tamari, in my case, as it’s gluten free), sherry vinegar, cayenne pepper and black pepper. I’ll mix these to taste, but if you’re a slave to measurements, I’d say approximately two tablespoons soy, 1 tablespoon vinegar, and a couple of dashes of each of the peppers. Like I said, you can experiment here with whatever works for you (onion and/or garlic powder, Worcestershire sauce, liquid smoke to name a few), but I would avoid anything too chunky or oily, as you’re going to want the meat to be able to dry out with a very low heat.
Mix up the meat and marinade, seal it up and stick it in the fridge. I let it marinate overnight, stirring it up a little now and then to make sure everything is nice and coated. You can probably get away with a few hours of marination, but if you can plan it in advance, the longer the better!
When it’s ready to go, lay the meat strips out on a rack (you may want to have a roasting pan underneath although it shouldn’t drip much) and pop it in the oven. Turn the oven on to its lowest setting, around 50° C/ 125° F, and prop the oven door open about 2 inches or so. This is to let any moisture escape. If your oven door won’t stay open by itself, stick a wooden spoon or something similar in it to hold it open.
How long you’ll need to leave the jerky in the oven will depend on how thin you’ve sliced the meat, as well as your oven. I think fan ovens will dry the jerky faster. My jerky usually takes about 3-4 hours, turning the meat over once during drying, but I’ve read of some people keeping their jerky in for 10 hours. I’m guessing they’ve sliced it much thicker and/or have much lamer ovens.
‘How will I know it’s ready?’ you may ask. Take the tray out and test a few strips by bending them. They should be firm, but flexible. As some slices may be thicker than others, I’ll test each piece, taking out ones that are done, and leaving the rest to continue drying. Leave the finished jerky to cool fully before sealing it up and storing it.
As this jerky doesn’t have any preservatives or sugar, it won’t last nearly as long as the store-bought stuff. I’d aim to eat it all within about a week, so wouldn’t make a massive batch. Refrigeration will prolong the life, but I prefer the taste of jerky at room temperature, so I have it in a covered container in the cupboard.
One technique I came across in my research is adding an extra degree of safety by heating the finished jerky in a preheated oven for 10 minutes at 135° C /275°F . I’m not much of a germaphobe, so haven’t tried it myself, but you can use this method if you have any concerns.
So there you have it. Give me a shout if you’ve got any questions, but now it’s beef jerky time!