The Ultimate Guide to Beef Jerky
June 07, 2022 | Blog: The Range

The Ultimate Guide to Beef Jerky

This is the guide that you’ve been waiting for, even if you didn’t know it until now.  Consider this the hub for all things related to how to make beef jerky.  Why?  Because you can.  Beef jerky has been around for over 500 years, and even in today’s day and age where we could have any snack or treat known to man, beef jerky still tops the charts.  Healthy, satisfying, and full of room for customization, learning how to make beef jerky the right way is going to add a brand new level to this wonderful, classic treat!  We will cover:

  • The top kitchen tools to make beef jerky
  • How to choose the right meat for your jerky
  • How to prepare meat for the best beef jerky
  • Choosing the seasonings and flavorings for your beef jerky
  • How to make the beef jerky itself

Tools to make beef jerky recipeKitchen tools to make beef jerky

When it comes to making beef jerky properly, the kitchen tools that you choose are essential.  There are some that are required, and some are considered optional.  Regardless of what you fill your kitchen with, focus on having the proper tools in place so that your jerky is always a success!  Otherwise, you’ll simply put in all of the effort with nothing to show for it at the end!


Your essential tools

Regardless of how serious you are about making this tasty and classic snack, these tools are essential for making it.  Doing it without these tools is going to be unsafe, frustrating, and it won’t result in a great treat -- and isn’t that the point?


A sharp knife

A sharp knife is required to make precise and easy cuts of beef or whatever meat you choose to use.  Since the cut will determine the portioning and simple ease of working in the process, a sharp knife that you know, trust, and use comfortably will be perfect.  As well, since everyone with a kitchen has a sharp and dependable knife they love, this isn’t a new purchase!


A meat tenderizer

Even with a great knife that you know and love, you’ll want to tenderize the meat first.  This helps soften it slightly, and it makes it both more malleable so that you can shift it around and slice it comfortably.  This eases the portioning and just the general comfort in separating the meat from its fat, etc.  


Wire racks

Thankfully, these are seen in just about any kitchen with an oven!  These wire racks can be whatever you prefer.  Make sure to have ones that have raised feet.  This helps excess spices and marinades drip off the meat without creating a sticky mess.  It also will be used when you dry the meat out, so make sure it’s oven-safe!


Your optional tools

The tools below are considered optional.  If you aren’t sure that jerky-making is for you long-term, consider sticking with the above.  However, if you are set on the engaging and delicious world of making beef jerky, these tools make the experience easier, better, and much more precise!


Specialized cutting tools

These are tools that make the cutting process easier, safer, and faster.  For those that really dislike prepping and cutting, this could be a great choice for a more enjoyable jerky-making adventure.  Most of the time, these look like a pasta maker blended with a meat slicer.  This makes sense since the goal is to work the meat put into it into uniform strips.  

There are even some options that will tenderize the meat for you, saving you the step and manual effort.  If you are someone who will be making a lot of jerky or is a perfectionist on the portioning of it, then this is something to think about seriously.  It’s well worth the investment.


A dehydrator

You can use your oven to dry out your meat, but a dehydrator is going to give you some serious perks.  The first one is that it is intended to dehydrate rather than “dry out.”  It sounds the same, but there is a difference in the process.  A dehydrator is intentionally drying the meat out carefully.  An oven takes a more versatile approach with classic heat. 

Many people also have a dehydrator already if they make their own trail mix, tea, and so on.  This will just be another use for it!  However, it might not be something to invest in if this is your first time requiring one.


A smoker

This helps infuse extra smoky flavor into your jerky. Since traditional jerky was smoked, and a lot of commercial options use this step, it might be something that you miss if you are making it at home for the first time.  This gives it an authentic flavor that many people skip, too, so you’ll love how much those around you appreciate it!


A jerky gun

If you’ve chosen ground meat for your choice, you’ll find a jerky gun to be a great tool to use.  It helps create uniform strips of your meat, and it also makes it an easier clean-up!  This is only for those who are using ground meat, and it’s useful because the ground texture can be hard to get consistent when trying to compact the meat into strips otherwise!


A rolling pin

This is optional for ground meat jerky as well.  If you’ve used other kinds of meat, this shouldn’t be required.  However, it’s probably helpful to know!   This is used to flatten your meat into thin slices.  This helps the portioning, dehydrating, cooking, and serving process.  It also helps you to stretch your meat out further as far as value for money!  You can choose to skip this step, but it’s a good one to consider seriously.  Plus, any rolling pin will do!

Choosing the right cut of meat

Now that you are familiar with the tools that you’ll need, essential and optional, you’ll want to make sure that you’re starting from the right place as far as the actual meat itself!  There are different kinds of meat (beef, pork, etc.) and also different cuts of meat that you can choose (flank, top round, etc.)

The type of meat and its cut will be personal preferences, of course, but there are also jerky-specific details to focus on!  These factors include flavor and tenderness, amongst others.  Here’s what you need to know!


The best cut for lean jerky

If using lean meat is the top priority in making healthy beef jerky, then the best choice will be a top round.  If you want other options for lean meat in beef, flank steaks are great choices, as are bottom rounds.  These will give you the best choice for a lean quality, but you will have trade-offs in areas like flavor and tenderness.  


The best cut for overall flavor

If the flavor is your priority, a flank steak is going to be your best choice.  While it will be expensive, the full and authentic flavor makes this a favorite choice, and with good reason.  Other options that are a bit more accessible as far as price goes include lifter meat and a sirloin tip.


The best cut for tenderness

Most agree that the eye of round is a great choice when tenderness is your prime concern.  The other options will focus on flavor, lean vs. fatty, etc.  But the eye of round is your go-to choice for tenderness in your beef options.  It also scores well on flavor and lean, though it is a bit inferior to the above options in those areas.


Tips for choosing your cut

In reading that, it’s totally fine to be a bit overwhelmed in making your choice!  After all, they all seem to focus on unique traits and details.  How are you supposed to make an informed choice?  

Firstly, breathe.  You can’t really make a wrong choice other than to not try at all.  Choosing the “wrong” cut is going to be delicious and a great learning experience.  Many will recommend that you try several cuts at first to see what you actually like most.  The results may surprise you!

Generally, you’ll want to start out with something really easy if you’re a beginner.  Ignoring ground meat for a moment (more on this next), going with a pectoral cut is the best choice.  It’s tender, easy to work with, and easy on the budget.  This can make for a great starting point for you to get a feel for how you want to shift to another cut later, too.

Another detail is to consider your personal preferences.  If you know your way around a cow, cut-wise, go ahead and choose the cut that you know you like.  It’s going to be familiar yet still a great point to explore marinades, spices, and more.  Plus, you can easily use it for something else later, should you need it.

Lastly, don’t limit yourself only to beef jerky.  You can enjoy other meat options (more on that below) that will offer delicious and unique flavors that will open you up to new kinds of flavors!  It’s more common than you think when looking in the shops!  


Ground meat for jerky

As mentioned briefly above, you can also consider using ground meat when you want to make jerky.  While it is a far stretch from the original jerky as our ancestors would have made, there are some compelling modern-day advantages to considering it as your choice of meat.

Firstly, ground beef (or other meat) is offered in varying types.  That is lean versus medium, and so on.  You can choose the meat that will offer you the best choice for flavor.  To those who cook regularly with ground meat, this is a great perk.

Another advantage to ground meat for jerky is that you often can get club packs or other kinds of discounts.  This is used for all kinds of cooking, and it is widely available.  When you have a tight budget, this is something to consider when the other cuts or options are out of your price range or comfort range as far as choosing and buying.

Compared to classic strips, ground meat jerky is easy to chew.  For those who find classic jerky tough, this will be a great choice for a different texture that still has the same flavor.  If you’re someone who just wants to try something different from the classic texture of jerky, this also gives you a sideways step.

The only thing to think about when going with ground meat is that using the jerky gun and rolling pin, while not required, are really helpful to help get the uniform look and feel that you’re going for.   If this uniformity is something that matters a lot to you, you might want to look into these accessories or borrow them from a friend!


Other meat choices

As briefly mentioned above, there are other meat choices that you can consider when you want to make something different but still hit the spot as far as the taste and the nutritional value.  Back in the days of classic jerky, beef wasn’t the meat used.  It was bison, deer, and other wildlife that our ancestors would hunt.  In modern times, there are four main types that you can consider for alternatives:


  • Pork
  • Deer
  • Elk
  • Turkey

Pork

You can explore different cuts of the pig, of course, so it gives you lots of exploration when looking at getting your jerky taste just right.  Compared to beef, this will be slightly sweeter, and it’s also going to be tender compared to many of the beef cuts as well.  To those who want both of those traits, pork is a great choice. It also tends to be on sale a bit more, so there’s more exploration there!


Deer

This is going to throw most people, but deer is actually a great choice for jerky!  Not only is it a classic example, since it would have been one of the creatures that Native Americans captured, but it’s also a great choice for nutritional benefits.  Deer jerky is a bit gamey in its flavor, which is wonderful for trying something totally different.  Iy also is flavorful with minimal spices and marinades but dresses up well when you play around with your own recipes.  It is tender and extremely lean, making it one of the best choices purely from the point of view of nutrition.

Elk

Another classic option, this meat choice, is very similar to the deer meat, as it will be extremely lean and tender.  Many really enjoy the taste of elk, too, as it has the same consistency as the deer meat but without the gamey flavor often associated with it—a great choice to try in place of deer if you aren’t a fan of gamey flavor.


Turkey

This is considered a more modern version.  Much like the “turkey bacon” that you’ve heard about, this is amongst the top choices for jerky.  It is very lean and is going to be a great meat choice for those where nutrition is the main factor.  Since there is very little fat to this meant specifically, many will find that it isn’t flavorful, making seasonings critical.  It also tends to be a bit tougher rather than tender.  It is widely available and cost-effective.


Consideration points when purchasing meat for jerky

When hunting specifically for jerky meat, especially as a newbie, it can be unsettling.  From cuts to amounts to choosing the right kind of meat -- it’s overwhelming!  Here are some tips to help you on your journey.  The goal, of course, is to make it as simple and as worthwhile as possible, after all:


  • Fresh meat is always the best: While frozen meat is great for a lot of things, fresh meat is going to be the best choice for making jerky.  That’s when it’s at its most flavorful and its most tender.  Try to always make jerky from a fresh batch of meat, especially if those two details are important to you!

  • Consider the ratio as far as purchasing: One of the easiest pitfalls to deal with is the raw: finished ratio.  Many don’t buy enough meat upfront because they don’t factor in the math.  Generally, it’s agreed that one pound of meat works out to be a ⅓ of a pound when completed.  When purchasing the raw meat, aim for a 3:1 ratio, and remember to confirm that you’ve bought enough for what you want to achieve!

  • Watch for sales, and stock up when you can: Realistically, money is always going to be an issue.  This is especially so if you are trying to make a lot of it and use that 3:1 ratio as your guide.  Once you get a feel for what types and cuts of meat you like most, keep an eye on those sales and stock up when you can!  While you can freeze it and do it later, this is not your best choice (as discussed above).  So, plan your shopping day around your jerky-making schedule and make the best out of a deal!

  • Make friends with a butcher: Seriously, a butcher will be your best friend.  Not only will they be dedicated to helping you get the best deals and the best choices for meat, but they’ll also be your guide to the meat itself.  If you are trying to figure out what you like most, they can ask you targeted questions and guide you through your choices.  Butchers are passionate about the different cuts and types of meat, so they’ll be your best professionals to help you explore the options out there!  

Preparing the meat for beef jerky

Now that you’ve got the basics underway, the time has come to grab your tools and your meat and get to work!  Here is what you need to know when looking at preparing your meat from start to finish.

Firstly, before you do anything else, freeze your meat.  Not entirely, but just enough so that it is stiff enough to cut safely and effectively.  It also makes it easier to handle!  


Whole cuts

The following steps apply in those situations where you are using a whole cut of meat rather than ground meat!  


Get up close and personal with your meat choice

You’ve purchased this delectable piece of meat, so take a few moments to get up close and personal with it.  Where are the fat pieces?  How does the thickness differ?  Are there any parts that you would rather discard?  Which way do the fibers/grain run?  All of these things will matter when you finally grab your knife and get to work.  Take the time to look it over carefully before you dig in.


Trim the fat carefully

Once you’re ready, trim the fat off of the meat itself.  This is a really important step since fat will cause your jerky to spoil quicker.  Get as much off as possible, and take your time to be very precise and particular in how you approach this step.  If it takes you longer than you think it will, it means that you’re going it properly!  


Choose your grain for slicing

Now that your slab of meat is fat-free, you have to figure out how you want to cut it.  Your two options are with the grain or against the grain, and understanding which will offer what perks and how to determine which you are doing will impact the taste and consistency of the meat!

  • WITH the grain: This is commonly the starting point for most people because they determine it to be the easiest choice for cutting.  Cutting with the grain means that your knife will be slicing parallel to the muscle and fibers that you see.  While it might be easier to cut for a beginner who is still getting used to it, keep your end goal in mind.  Slicing with the grain will provide chewy but tough jerky.  If this is what you are going for, then go right ahead!

  • AGAINST the grain: This looks a bit more difficult to those who automatically want to line their knife up with the grain of the meat.  It means that you’ll turn your meat so that the grain is running from left to right and then slice vertically.  Your knife will be perpendicular to fibers rather than parallel.  It will take a bit more practice since you’re cutting into the fibers deliberately, and they will resist it.  However, cutting against the grain is going to give you a softer and easier-to-chew piece of meat.  It also breaks apart easier, which makes for a better chewing experience for those who find chewy beef jerky hard on their teeth and jaw.

Thickness matters

You’re making great progress!  You’re almost ready for the final step, the slicing.  Before you do, however, you need to think about thickness!  Many people go for thick slabs of meat when they slice since they’ll assume that the dehydrating and cooking process will make them thin enough to bite and snack on comfortably without them turning into tiny crisps.

Which is true, to be fair.  However, going with slices that are too thick can make for tougher jerky as far as chewing.  The thick slabs get very hard when dehydrated, so it can be tricker to chew!  As well, the thick slabs also impact the cooking process since this extra thickness means that you’ll have some done before others, complicating the process of cooking itself. 

Most recommend going with ¼” in thickness and keeping each piece as close to that as possible.  Start with this, and then you can adapt it later if you just find that it’s too thin.  If it really concerns you, then have one or two pieces that are thicker or thinner than 1/4”.  Just make sure that you separate them out so that you are ready to adapt the cooking and eating process compared to the larger and unform batch!


Slice using your favorite method

Now you’re finally ready to cut!  Slicing your jerky will be in either one or two stages, depending on your cutting methods.  If you are simply going with a knife, you will slice with or against the grain in uniform ¼” slices, as we’ve already discussed.

If you are using a slicer, you’ll take those uniform slices (still sliced the same way) and feed them through your slicer.  As mentioned above, this is optional and not required.  However, it’s a great way to add extra uniformity and portioning to those who prioritize it.  Just make sure that you feed them through the slicer while visualizing the grain! If you get it wrong the first time, don’t worry.  Just see it as an experiment to have both types in one batch!


Tenderize

Now the fun part: tenderizing!  Take your tenderizer and start whacking your meat slices.  Be thorough!  If you found the slicing stressful and frustrating, this is a great way to get some ay back!  Seriously, though, tenderizing is going to be important for weakening the fibers so that the jerky is softer and richer.  So, it is actually important to do it thoroughly and consistently.  If you have a slicer that tenderizes, too, you’ll skip this step.


Ground meat

The steps below are for those who are going for the ground meat.  The steps are a bit simpler since the meat is already processed a bit for you.


Cutting methods

You’ll still want to slice this into thin strips as much as you can.  You can use a knife to do it and aim for uniform thickness.  Another option on our optional list is the jerky gun.  You feed the ground meet into the cut the same way you’d do with a slicer, and this will offer you uniform tubes of meat!

From there, grab your (optional but recommended) rolling pin and roll the tubes or slices down into thin and uniform flat pieces that will look identical to classic slices of jerky made from classic meat.  Even flattened out, it’ll have the softer consistency that we talked about earlier!


Prepare for cooking

Now that your meat is ready to go, you’ll want to prepare for cooking.  This includes picking your recipe with marinades and seasoning, but also understanding the different steps of the process, including curing and the differences between dehydrators and ovens! 


How to flavor your beef jerky

This part is going to include taking a look at the flavors that you want to go for as someone new to the world of jerky flavors and how you can wade through seasonings, marinades, curing, and even recipes as far as diet preferences.  There’s a lot to learn!


Seasoning and marinating 

You can make beef jerky through seasonings, such as dry rubs or through marinades.  As far as what you want to try, take a moment to think about your taste preferences.  Marinade requires time to let them sink into the meat thoroughly.  They also have a bit of stickiness to them  Seasonings rubs are faster and focus on pure, rich flavor rather than the sticky factor.

It’s a personal choice.  If you are new to flavor totally, stick with a seasoning blend first.  From there, explore marinades!  As you will learn below, there are endless variations!

Curing

Despite how we all think about the idea of salt and watching the amount that we eat for our health, curing your meat with salt is going to be really important when looking at health from a bacterial point of view.  Curing salt is different than traditional salt, and it can be used in place of traditional salt if you want to keep your slat content as low as possible.  

This will provide a better taste and will keep your beef jerky shelf-stable for longer.  It also, of course, has the benefit of killing off bacteria.  Can you skip it?  Sure, you can do that.  Should you skip it?  No, you should not!


Recipes for beginners


Dry rub

As far as choosing your recipes, you’ll want to start simple.  First up on the list is a super simple dry rub recipe.  Commonly referred to as “dry rub beef jerky,” the ingredients are refreshingly simple:


  • Your meat strips 
  • ¼ cup McCormick Grill Mates Steak Rub (r o preferred brand)

Put the rub into the bowl and coat the meat slices thoroughly.  Then cook as desired!  It doesn’t get much easier than that!


Traditional beef jerky

If you want to go with a traditional beef jerky recipe, this calls for a marinade, though it is a simple one.  It’ll be a great way to start simple with marinades, too!  Your ingredients will be:

  • Your meat strips
  • ¾ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • ¾ cup soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika, or to taste
  • 1 tablespoon honey, or more to taste
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder

Whisk together the marinade and then put it into a wide bowl.  Add in beef and make sure everything is coated completely.  Cover the bowl and marinate for 3 hours, or overnight. Before cooking, put beef slices on paper towels.  Blot thoroughly.  Then prepare to cook as desired.

Teriyaki Jerky 

For something with a  bit more “zing” to it, you can make a teriyaki jerky!  While it takes longer, it’s well worth it for those who love the taste:


  • Your meat
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • ½ cup dark brown sugar
  • ¼ cup rice vinegar
  • 1 inch knob fresh ginger sliced
  • 4 cloves garlic sliced
  • 1 Tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 Tablespoon sesame seeds
  • 1 teaspoon black pepper

You’ll follow the same steps: put the whisked marinade into a bowl, add the meat in, and coat.  Cover it and, for this one, marinate for 8-24 hours.  The longer you go, the richer the taste!  You can then cook in a smoker for that added appeal or in an oven or dehydrator as preferred.  Make sure you don’t cut the marinating time short!


Spicy Jerky

While a bit more complicated, this is a must-try for those who just can’t get enough spicy food!  Take a look at your ingredients:


  • Your meat of choice

Dry:

  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 tablespoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper, or to taste

Marinade:

  • ½ cup brown sugar
  • ⅔ cup soy sauce
  • ¼ cup teriyaki sauce
  • ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
  • ⅓ cup balsamic vinegar
  • 5 tablespoons liquid smoke flavoring
  • ½ cup pineapple juice
  • 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, or to taste

Coat your meat in the dry rub, as above.  Then place in the refrigerator.  In a saucepan, heat the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer.  After the brown sugar is dissolved, refrigerate until it is cool.  

Pout the cooled marinade over the meat already seasoned, and gently mix by hand.  Cover the bowl and marinate for at least 3 hours.  Blot, then cook as preferred.


Keto-friendly Jerky

If you are following a keto diet, you’ll want to try this fun and really delicious keto-friendly

Jerky for a fun snack:


  • Your strips of meat
  • 1-liter diet Dr. Pepper
  • 1 Tbsp lemon juice
  • 3/4 cup brown sweetener
  • 1 tbsp coarse black pepper
  • 2 tbsp coarse salt
  • 1/2 tsp dried rosemary
  • 2 garlic cloves thinly sliced
  • 1/2 tsp steak spice

Add all ingredients to a bowl and whisk.  Add in meat strips and marinate, covered, for 12-24 hours.  Remove and blot, and then add on some extra seasonings.  Salt and pepper are both great options.  You can skip this step if you want to try it as-is.


The sky is the limit

As mentioned above, this is just a small fraction of the sheer amount of information out there in recipes.  Play around with it and see what you prefer most!  It’s a fun way to explore new flavors and combinations, too, so go wild!


Cooking/Drying methods compared

When it comes to the actual production process, there are several options.  It comes down to what you have in your home and what you most want to focus on for convenience and texture!  The main choices are:


  • An oven
  • A dehydrator
  • A smoker
  • An air fryer

An oven

You’ve already got one, so why not use it, right?  Here are the pros and cons of helping you make your decision.


Pros

  • It’s fast
  • It blends flavors together well

Cons

  • Temperature control is a bit lacking
  • Can dry out parts of your jerky
  • May lose some nutrition lvalue

A dehydrator

This is probably the most preferred option amongst experienced jerky makers and eaters, though it is an investment if you don’t use it for anything else.


Pros

  • Consistent drying
  • Good temperature control
  • Lots of space for your jerky

Cons

  • They can be hard to make room for and store
  • They take longer than other methods

A smoker

A great choice for those that love the smoky flavor of jerky, this is a serious contender with pros and cons.


Pros

  • Intense and unmatched flavor
  • Compact
  • Great for multiple recipes and uses

Cons

  • Not the best temperature regulation
  • Take a long time to cook

An air fryer

These are much more popular in kitchens these days, so it’s a contender to consider seriously for jerky:


Pros

  • Many uses and easy to store
  • Fast and consistent

Cons

  • Can only be a single layer, so makes less
  • Takes some practice to get it right

You’ll want to choose the cooking method that works best for you and your needs.  An oven is a great starting point, and then you can explore from there!


How to store jerky properly

Most jerky will keep for about two weeks, though some will keep longer.  Your options will vary from a Ziploc bag to a mason jar to a vacuum-sealed bag.  The Ziploc is convenient for bringing with you when you travel.  The mason jar has a great airtight seal.  The vacuum-sealed bag will give you months of storage as long as you don’t open it!  Great for prepping and storing.  Start with whatever you have on hand and experiment!  

Keep your jerky in a cool and dark, dry place.  Or in the fridge.  Just let it warm up before biting it into the strips!


Tips for serving your jerky

Serving your jerky to friends and family is a special final endpoint, but it isn't without consideration!  Keep these points in mind:


  • Make a variety plate as an appetizer
  • Make several chewy/vs. soft choices
  • Go for thin and small strips
  • Ask for, and accept feedback

Pretty straightforward, right?  However, following these tips will help you make your jerky the best it can be!  You’ll be the talk of the neighborhood -- in a good way!

So, with all of that said and done, the only thing that remains is to grab your supplies and your appetite and start your new and exciting, nutritious journey! If you find yourself in a time-pinch and crave a grass fed organic jerky option - grab a bag of Country Archer today.

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