June 28, 2022
It’s that special time of year when we take inventory of what’s left in the freezer and try to figure out how we will make room for all upcoming fall harvests. The more we start digging, the more chunks of gray meat we find. If you’re looking for ideas on what to do with those freezer-burnt roasts and pounds and pounds of chub bags with meat the color and texture of your cat’s hair balls, I have one word: Jerky.
WHAT KIND OF GAME TO USE TO MAKE JERKY
Venison, for starters, is perfect for making jerky. Its lean nature, with virtually no fat, means it’s less likely to spoil over time. And when I say venison, I mean: mule deer and whitetail, of course, but also other antlered beasts such as elk, caribou, antelope, moose, etc. Sure, you can use wild bear or boar, too. Waterfowl? Of course. Upland birds like pheasant? Absolutely. You’ll just to need to get creative if using birds and hoping to make whole-muscle jerky, as you’ll want your pieces to resemble, as closely as possible, the size of jerky you might get from cutting a whitetail sirloin tip. This may mean butterflying breasts and cutting against the grain to create the right-sized pieces.
Get creative. Any game is fair game when it comes to making jerky.
WHOLE MUSCLE VERSUS SNACK STICKS
I consider both these jerky. One is made from sliced whole muscle (such as your sirloin tip, and top and bottom round roasts), while the other is made from ground game. For snack sticks, to avoid having them taste like dry shredded newspaper, I do recommend adding ground pork (from the pork shoulder) for approximately 25 percent of total meat (1 pound of ground pork for every 3 pounds of ground venison).
HOW TO CONTEND WITH FREEZER BURN
For your whole cuts, treat freezer burn like silver skin. While the meat is still mostly frozen, use a fillet knife to trim off slivers of silver skin, fascia, fat, and any freezer-burnt portions. Do a sliver at a time until you reach ruby-red goodness. For ground game, if it’s gray, it usually means oxygen reached it. Not a major deal. Also, as a reminder, for making jerky, you’re dehydrating it anyways (so dehydration due to freezer burn isn’t such a major factor in the end).
WHAT CUT TO USE FOR WHOLE MUSCLE JERKY
I am a big proponent of your sirloin tip, top round, or bottom round here. Yes, you can even use eye of round. Backstrap and tenderloins are better served for other dishes, in my opinion. You can also use trim or even cut strips from the neck—just know they may be tougher (even for jerky). I recommend cutting against the grain (knife perpendicular to muscle striations), otherwise you may end up with stringy, chewy jerky (but that could be what you’re going for).
Make sure to trim your whole muscles of silver skin, fat, and fascia. None of that stuff tastes good, generally speaking, plus fat will cause jerky to spoil quicker once it oxidizes.
To slice, you can use a slicer for uniform pieces or a sharp knife, if you’re consistent. I recommend slicing to perhaps a smidge over a quarter-inch width for best results in the end.
TO CURE OR NOT TO CURE
This decision is up to you, but there are some factors to consider. Curing meat prevents botulism (common food poisoning) and overall hinders bacteria growth, meaning it preserves meat for substantially longer.
However, some people prefer to intake as little synthetic sodium nitrite (found in Insta Cure/pink curing salt) as possible, as too much can be harmful to one’s overall health.
Your bacon, your hams, your corned beef, typically speaking—all these contain nitrites and nitrates. If this concerns you, please consider doing a bit of research on what the USDA has to say.
Celery juice powder is also an option for naturally occurring nitrites (for purposes of curing), though it’s more expensive, sometimes harder to find, and technically, according to the USDA, does not "cure" meat. Nevertheless, both celery juice powder and insta cures turn meat pink and add that "cured flavor," so that is perhaps another factor when deciding to add.
GENERAL RATIOS: For Insta Cure #1, use 00.2% per total amount of meat. Example: 1 pound (453 grams) would require .032 ounce (.9 grams) though most people apply a 1 teaspoon per 5 pounds. For 1 gallon of water, 1/2 cup of insta cure #1 is recommended. Celery juice powder calls for 00.45% to 00.9%, though I opt for 00.6% of total meat weight. NOTE: It is possible for curing salts and celery juice powder nitrite contents to vary, so be sure to read instructions on whatever packet you purchase.
HOW LONG TO CURE: For making snack sticks with ground game, allegedly 4 hours minimum is required but I would recommend 6-24 hours. For whole muscle slices, an Insta Cure #1 will penetrate a quarter inch every 24 hours (so for my recommended width of a little over a quarter inch, 24 hours should be ideal).
DRY RUBS AND MARINADES
Generally speaking, I am a big proponent of dry spicing my jerky prior to smoking or dehydrating. If you’re going to use a marinade, make sure all liquids add something in terms of flavor to your meat. For example, a mix of some whisky, cherry juice, and pureed chipotles in adobe sauce would serve as a good marinade. Don’t just mix a premade rub with tap water, as that water will denature your meat and not in a good way.
However, if you’re concerned your game is overly freezer burnt and none of the troubleshooting advice above helped, a marinade of some sort might be your best friend to help tenderize tough segments of protein.
But I, typically speaking, prefer dry spices, which still add flavor while maintaining the integrity of the meat and its overall texture. I’m also a sucker for caking on very coarse freshly cracked black pepper just before adding to the smoker or dehydrator (so consider picking up a solid pepper mill in addition to a smoker or dehydrator, if you don’t already own one).
There is a large selection of premade jerky rubs on the market but below is a simple homemade rub I use for both whole muscle and snack sticks.
Per 4 pounds:
- 1 tablespoon brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1-1/2 teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon ground mustard
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon granulated garlic
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 teaspoon ground celery seed
- 1 teaspoon insta cure #1
*Note if using a 2-pound roast to make whole-muscle jerky, you would divide the above amounts in half. Also, if you’re a big pepper fan, you would still crack fresh black pepper overtop prior to adding to trays, after letting the meat sit the above rub for 24 hours.
If making snack sticks, also add the following:
- 1/2 cup ice-cold sherry cooking wine
- 1/3 cup non-fat milk powder
But jerky is a journey, not a destination. For purposes of spicing, feel welcome to follow the above guidelines, but experiment on your own and find what you like best. My only word of caution: Don’t oversalt. Don’t exceed 1.5% of your meat’s weight in salt. Keep in mind liquids such as soy sauce also contain high levels of sodium, so adjust accordingly.
THE FINER POINTS OF SNACK STICKS
Treat them like sausage, is my best advice. What this means: Mix your meat when it’s ice cold to facilitate protein extraction. Adding a bit of ice-cold liquid helps with this, while non-fat milk powder, though optional, will serve as a binder. When your protein and fat molecules form a chemical bond, less fat leaks out during smoking or dehydration. Though you’re technically dehydrating your game, you don’t want it to taste overly dry.
For those with a bunch of pre-packaged ground game in the freezer, this is a perfect solution. Simply pick up a package of ground pork (not breakfast sausage) from the store, 1 pound per 3 pounds of ground game. Some folks use casings to stuff when making snack sticks but I enjoy using a jerky gun (it’s also fun for the whole family) and you still get that nice casing-like exterior in the end. Once done, you want to shock your snack sticks by adding them to an ice-water bath for a few minutes to cool the sticks and settle the fat in place. This also helps to shrink the exterior quickly and gives you that nice outer shell.
SMOKER VERSUS DEHYDRATOR
This may be a matter of personal preference but I do contend a dehydrator is more consistent and creates a more uniformly dehydrated final product. When you introduce smoke, whether in a smoker or pellet grill, the fan on that piece of equipment is trying to regulate smoke in addition to temperature, whereas a dehydrator is designed to only have to handle temperature. My happy medium: 1 hour on the smoker or pellet grill at 160 followed by remainder of time in the dehydrator. After all, smoke allegedly has trouble penetrating meat warmer than 140 degrees, so basically any time after the first hour or two is more or less wasted in terms of smoke—better to finish off on a device better equipped to dehydrate, is my take.
CAN YOU USE AN OVEN TO MAKE JERKY?
Yes, but I don’t recommend it. Dehydrators aren’t that expensive and you’ll save money in the long run versus buying jerky from the gas station. However, if using an oven, I recommend setting the temp as low as it will go and keep door propped open to allow moisture to escape. Hang meat from long bamboo skewers or toothpicks laid across racks (meat ideally won’t touch oven racks) and rotate racks every couple hours. Line bottom with aluminum foil to catch drippings. At 200 degrees, it may take 3-4 hours to finish jerky. At 160, perhaps 4-5 hours.
HOW TO KNOW WHEN IT’S DONE
Once again, this one is somewhat of personal preference. If you’re like me, only a taste test will suffice. If too soft, it’s underdone. Let it continue to dehydrate for another hour at 140-150. If too tough, pull immediately. Others prefer the bend test, which will tell you if your jerky is underdone.
Once you think your jerky is done, you can remove and let cool for a few minutes then try bending. Meat should bend in the middle without breaking. If it’s breaks, it’s underdone. If it snaps to reveal white muscle fibers, some would suggest this is overdone, though I personally prefer my jerky more toward overdone, as I like that leathery texture.
- GENERAL WHOLE MUSCLE DEHYDRATOR TIMES: For 1/4-inch slices, 2 hours at 160, 3-4 hours at 140 or 150 (depending on preferred texture)
- GENERAL WHOLE MUSCLE SMOKER TIMES: For 1/4 slices, 4 to 4-1/2 hours at 160
- GENERAL SNACK STICK SMOKER AND DEHYDRATOR TIMES: 4 to 4-1/2 hours at 160
STORAGE AND PRESERVATION
When cured and vacuum-sealed (with a tight seal) jerky will last in a cool dry place (back of cupboard, for example) for 1-2 months. In the refrigerator, it’ll last for several months, and then for 2-3 years in the freezer. Snack sticks, because of fat content, will have a shorter shelf life of 2-3 weeks outside fridge and 3-6 months in fridge. In the freezer, it will also stay good for 2-3 years.
If not cured, you’re talking a couple weeks in the fridge, if that, though, if frozen, same as any other meat, your jerky will stay preserved for easily a couple years.
TAKING YOUR JERKY AFIELD
Obviously a big perk to making your own jerky from old game is taking it afield to fuel you while you hunt for new game. Please note that moisture can build up in a bag, especially during earlier-season hunts, and that will lead to condensation, which will lead to spoilage. Consider storing your jerky in a cool, dry pack, while keeping it somewhere that will remain out of the sun. Perhaps consider investing in desiccant packets, which will prevent moisture from collecting. Just don’t throw back those packets along with a handful jerky.
Reach out to me on Instagram (@WildGameJack) with any questions or comments.