Monday, December 1, 2008

Gifts From the Kitchen Part I -- Jerky

Welcome to part I of our gifts from your kitchen series. While we will focus on the usual sweet stuff later in the season, the first few posts will deal with savory gifts. I think these make a lot of sense. After all, everyone is usually inundated with cookies and candies during the holidays. Something savory really stands out.

I've included beef jerky as a gift basket component many times over the years and it always receives rave reviews.

I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who have no idea you can make delicious beef jerky (or turkey jerky, or salmon or any number of others) at home, without using any special tools or gadgets. Still others think the process is so time consuming and difficult, it isn't worth the bother. How wrong they are. Making jerky is really quite simple and can be done in any oven. While the meat does take between 5-12 hours to dry, it requires little to no attention during that period.

Drying meats has been used for centuries as a means of preserving it. Campers and backpackers like jerky because it packs small, requires no refrigeration and can be used in cooking as well as for snacks.

Unlike other marinades, those for jerky usually eliminate oil from the mix entirely. The marinade recipe below is a good all-purpose jerky marinade, but use it as a rough guideline. Experiment with your own concoctions. If you don't like things spicy, leave out the crushed red peppers. Like things sweet? Add honey. Let your imagination be your guide.

about 3 pounds of meat (see instructions below)
2/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
2/3 cup soy sauce
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder

Optional Ingredients:
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
2-3 teaspoons Tabasco sauce
2-3 teaspoons crushed red peppers
2-3 teaspoons sesame seeds

The recipe above is enough for about 3 pounds of meat, which will dehydrate down to about 16-18 ounces (Yow! Now you know why it's so expensive to buy Jerky.) While beef is what most people are familiar with, just about any firm meat can be made into jerky. If there are any hunters in your family, try venison. Turkey breast or firm fish such as salmon or ahi tuna also make excellent snacks. Simply slice your choice of meat thin (usually 1/8") with the grain (see photos). This is a bit more tricky with fish, so I highly recommend freezing it halfway first. In fact, partial freezing will make slicing all meats easier.

As for beef, my personal cut of choice is London Broil, although many people like to use brisket or flank steak as well. You can, however, regular find some super sales at the supermarket on London Broil, making it an especially frugal way to make a lot of jerky.

Note: You can also use ground meats for jerky in which case you can forego the marinade and use a dry spice rub instead, you can find instructions at the bottom of the page at this link.

Mix all marinade ingredients together in a large (gallon size or larger) plastic zipper bag. Add sliced meat and refrigerate, turning and mixing every hour or two. Hearty meats like beef and venison should be marinated overnight. For turkey, salmon or tuna, 3-4 hours is usually plenty.

When ready to begin drying, place a sheet of aluminum foil on the bottom of the oven to aid in cleanup. Drain meat in a colander and pat dry with paper towels (the drier the better at this point). Set oven at lowest temperature setting and carefully place meat slices directly onto oven racks. Leave the oven door open a crack to allow moisture to escape.

Drying times vary due to oven differences and meat size. Perfect jerky is firm and dry and not at all spongy. However, if your jerky is so dry it breaks in two easily, it's probably over-dried.

Jerky Making Tips:
  • It's easier to slice the meat thinly if it is slightly frozen.
  • Generally speaking, the leaner the meat, the better for jerky. Remove ALL visible fat!
  • For peppery jerky, sprinkle with pepper right after placing on the drying rack. This pepper will "stick" to the jerky.
Other Options
  • If you've ever been the proud recipient of one of those amazing Ronco Food Dehydrators you see touted on TV during the holidays, now is the time to haul it out. You can easily make jerky in it and avoid the oven.
  • You can also dry jerky in a meat smoker (in this case, definitely eliminate the liquid smoke from the marinade recipe or your meat will taste like it has been in a fire). Mesquite works well for most meats. Also, be sure NOT to fill the smoker bowl with water or any other liquid. The point of making jerky is to DRY the meat.

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