When our family takes driving trips, we like to have snacks to munch on along the way when fueling stops and hunger pangs don’t align. Beef jerky is a snack I grew up eating, and it’s perfect for traveling. It doesn’t require refrigeration, is loaded with flavor, needs no preparation, and provides a long-lasting energy boost because it’s mostly protein. Jerky also takes a lot of chewing, so a little lasts a long time.
Jerky is a good snack choice for hikers, skiiers, backpackers, people who fish, and other outdoor enthusiasts. Since it’s dried, it weighs relatively little and takes only a small amount of space. It can be broken into bits and used almost like dehydrated bacon in campfire or cookstove dishes, such as pasta. It punches up the flavor, and adds protein and salt at the same time.
But here’s the rub: commercial jerky uses sodium nitrite as a preservative. Nitrite has been linked to the incidence of colon cancer and lung disease, though some more recent findings contradict earlier studies. Some people feel the amount of this chemical in jerky and other cured meats, such as bacon, hot dogs, hams, pastrami, corned beef, some sausages, and some fish, is insignificant. They argue that more dietary nitrites are created by the body itself from eating nitrates (with an “a”) found in vegetables such as lettuce, spinach, celery, and carrots, and even some (polluted) drinking water. Some nitrates are converted to nitrites in the stomach during digestion, though most nitrates are passed naturally out of our systems within a few hours. There is even some research suggesting that some nitrite is actually beneficial and necessary to good health.
Negative opinions on nitrites originated with studies in the 1970s which were highly publicized, perhaps prematurely. On the other hand, more recent more positive research is sometimes tainted with influence from corporate food interests. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of caution. I try to limit my intake of nitrites as much as I can. I don’t worry as much about nitrates, leaving it up to my body whether it converts them to nitrites for nutritional reasons or not. As the saying goes, “your mileage my vary.” I strongly enoucrage you to get online decide for yourself, being very careful to consider the neutrality of information sources.
Sodium nitrite has been used to cure meats for many years. Pioneers used “curing salt” or “pink salt,” which contains nitrites and is still commonly in use today. It also gives cured meats their characteristic reddish color.
Nitrite is used for two reasons: 1) it helps stop the growth of bacteria which can cause food poisoning (botulism); and 2) the inhibition of bacterial growth helps extend the length of time jerky can be stored without spoiling.
Instead of using nitrite, meat can be briefly precooked to a temperature of 160 degrees F. That will kill bacteria (as well as any parasites, a concern especially if you are making jerky from wild game, such as venison). This can be accomplished very easily by plunging thin meat strips (less than 1/4 inch thick) into a boiling brine marinade for just a minute or two. The heat also drives the marinade flavor into the meat quickly, so marinating the raw meat for hours in the refrigerator is not necessary.
If you want to make your own jerky from locally grown ingredients, it’s important to start with a very lean cut of meat. You can use beef, pork, or wild game meat, but poultry will yield an unpleasant texture so is not often used. Fat can go rancid quickly, so leanness is important. If the meat you use contains marbling, it’s best to store the finished jerky in the refrigerator and eat it within a couple of weeks.
Salt is the most important ingredient in the marinade, and it’s important the ratio to the water is right. In fact, you can make jerky with nothing but salt and water and your meat. However, many other ingredients are typically used, such as herbs, cider, or wine, all of which can be obtained from local ingredients. In the past, herbs were often used to add to salt’s antimicrobial effects. Local herbs and spices with antimicrobial action include garlic, ginger, oregano, thyme, rosemary, cayenne pepper, horseradish, onion, celery, and more. Any of these can work well in a jerky marinade.
While there are many methods for making jerky, I like the hot method described in the recipe below. It’s quick, safe, and has a traditional jerky flavor. Cutting the meat thinly can be made easier by partially freezing the meat first. Also, if you don’t have a dehydrator, you can use your oven set to 140 degrees F., if you can, or to the lowest warming temperature. Just spread the strips of meat on cookie sheets which have been lightly oiled or covered with parchment to prevent sticking.
- 2 cups water
- ½ cup of salt
- ¼ cup honey (Red Barn Lavender, Ferndale)
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar (Bellewood Acres, Lynden)
- ⅛ tsp ground habanero pepper (friend's garden, Lummi Island)
- ½ tsp dried oregano (home garden, Lummi Island)
- ½ tsp fresh thyme (home garden, Lummi Island)
- 1 clove garlic, minced (Boxx Berry Farm, Ferndale)
- 2 Tbsp onion, minced (Full Bloom Farm, Lummi Island)
- ½ tsp fresh rosemary, minced (home garden, Lummi Island)
- ½ tsp fresh sage, minced (home garden, Lummi Island)
- 1 lb sirloin steak (or other lean cut of beef), cut into strips no more than ¼ inch thick (Second Wind Farm, Everson)
- Combine all the ingredients except the beef in a saucepan over high heat. Bring to a boil.
- Put small amounts of the sliced beef into the hot marinade just until the color turns gray (1-2 minutes). Do not overcook.
- Drain meat briefly on a towel, and then place on dehydrator racks, being careful not to overlap meat strips.
- Dehydrate at 140 degrees for 4-8 hours, or until a strip cracks when bent, but doesn't break in half.