Back in the days before there were refrigerators, there was jerky. Drying meats and seafood into jerky was a necessity in order to preserve food for long periods of time. Now jerky is enjoyed by hikers, campers, and snackers who want a little salty, protein-packed bite.
Take a look at five ways that you can dry meats into jerky: sun-dry, oven-dry, dehydrator, microwave, and smoker. Each method has its pluses and minuses. Perhaps the easiest, most consistent method is using the oven. Learn more about each method.
Although sun-drying is a time-honored technique, it is not recommended for jerky, except for very lean beef, young lamb, or venison. Unless it is heavily salted, sun-drying is also not recommended for fish. Avoid this method altogether when making jerky from any kind of poultry. In order to successfully sun-dry meats, you must live in an arid, hot, sunny area with good breezes. The potential for food poisoning is not worth the risk.
In general, the oven works fairly well for drying all types of jerky. Check out an oven jerky recipe for ways to prepare the meat prior to drying.
For oven-drying jerky, it is important that the heat setting be as low as you can make it. Do not use the broiling element. The lowest bake setting should do the trick with most ovens. If your broiler element comes on even at the lowest bake setting, you can place a cookie sheet or heavy-duty foil on the top shelf to help deflect the heat. If your oven is not vented, leave the oven door ajar by placing a wooden spoon in the opening to hold it open. You may find it necessary to have a fan blowing toward the open door to encourage air circulation. Do not overload the oven. In general, the optimal drying temperature is 140 F.
Dehydrator machines usually have multiple layers of stacking trays. In general, they operate at 140 F but keep in mind that the lower trays will get more heat than the top trays. You will need to keep an eye on your jerky and rotate the trays from top to bottom regularly, at least at one-hour intervals and perhaps even every half hour, depending on the food. As it approaches the final stage, you may need to reduce the heat by 10 degrees to avoid scorching. Meat should be arranged a single layer deep per each tray with no edges overlapping.
Although you will find some recipes for jerky made in the microwave, it is generally not recommended due to uneven heating.
It may be difficult and painstaking to keep a smoker at the constant temperature of 140 F necessary to make jerky, but many love the flavor. Do not use any softwoods such as pine, fir, or conifer.
For more information about making jerky from all types of meats, you might want to consider getting the book, Jerky: Make Your Own Delicious Jerky and Jerky Dishes Using Beef, Venison, Fish, or Fowl.