There are essentially two common methods of preserving jerky: drying and smoking, which are not mutually exclusive. Drying meat in a smoker will add a smoky flavor to the meat, but a smoker can also add smokiness without dehydration. The various methodologies for creating jerky are as follows:
Oven-drying: Conventionally, ovens ware the best for drying all types of jerky at home (and even commercially). However it is important that you maintain the proper heat level at all times. Many ovens actually cycle heat up and down to average the temperature setting on the dial. If you have an oven that has a steady temperature, use it. If not, it won’t ruin your jerky, but just keep an eye on it. Do not put too much in the oven at once, which can restrict proper air flow. In general, optimum drying temperature is 140 degrees F.
Sun-drying: The way of the ancients. While sun-drying has been around for a long time, it is not a good methodology for jerky today, except for lean beef, young lamb, or venison. Fish should also not be sun-dried unless it is heavily salted, although without proper experience, this can still be a risky venture. Never sun-dry any kind of poultry. To successfully sun-dry meats, you should live in an arid, hot, sunny and windy area, optimal conditions that are not easy to find. The potential for food poisoning is not worth risking using this method unless you are an experienced jerky maker and truly understand what is required. Basically, don’t try this at home, kids.
Microwave: This is not recommended. While there are recipes out there for microwaved jerky, it generally won’t come out thee way you want it to. Microwaves do not create a dry, convective environment so don’t expect jerky from this method.
Dehydrating: Dehydrators often have multiple layers of stacking trays. They can operate at 140 degrees Fahrenheit, but remember that the lower trays will get more exposure to heat than the top ones. Therefore, you may need to keep an eye on your jerky and rotate the trays from top to bottom periodically, at hourly or half-hourly intervals, depending on what you are making into jerky. Towards the end, you may may want to reduce the heat to prevent over-drying, depending on the dehydrator. The meat should be arranged a single layer deep on each tray without any pieces overlapping or touching.
Smoking: Smoking is a form of drying that offers additional flavor to the final product without the extreme dehydration that is found in some jerky. While a smoker can create a softer, more pliant jerky if that is your goal, the true benefit of smoking meat is the depth of flavor one can achieve as one varies the environment. Drier environments can also be achieved using a smoker, so they can offer great flexibility in terms of the final product. If you decide to use a smoker do not use any soft woods such as pine, fir or conifer due to the potentially dangerous compounds present in these types of wood. Alder chips or apple wood are excellent choices for wild game as the flavors compliment each other nicely.
Curing alone is also considered a type of jerking, although traditionally jerky is dehydrated via warm dry air. Salt or sugar can also extract moisture from meat via the osmotic process, and some fantastic foods are made as a result of this methodology. Gravlax, which is Swedish cured salmon, is a classic example of a cured meat that can also technically be considered a type of jerky, although it’s not the kind of thing you would throw in your pack for a long trip.
Jerky is not without its risks, however. While commercially produced jerky is generally required to follow certain legal guidelines that reduce the risks to almost nil, making jerky at home us another beast altogether. Meat that is not handled or stored properly can become a host for many different types of sickness-inducing bacteria, and sanitary precautions should not be ignored. Contamination may cause serious illness or worse, and previously contaminated meat is not guaranteed to be safe at the level of heat applied to the meat during the jerky making process. Know where your meat comes from and be sure that it is safe to use for jerky. Observe all safety requirements and keep in mind that your final product will not be pasteurized. Making jerky at home can be a fun and rewarding experience, but always be mindful of proper safety.
Jerky Safety Information:
While it should be no surprise that the handling and consumption of raw meats carries with it certain risks, we strongly recommend that anyone who chooses to make jerky at home review the USDA Fact Sheet on jerky safety before undertaking home jerky production. It is a short read but home jerky makers should familiarize themselves with the inherent risks and adopt means to mitigate them while making homemade jerky.