Jerky is easily made in a smoker, oven, food dehydrator, or even left laid out in the sun. But the benefit of making jerky in a smoker is that it creates a great smoky flavor that you can't get any other way. However, it is easy to over-smoke jerky since the meat it is cut very thin before being smoked, so it is important to follow the steps carefully.
The Popularity of Jerky
Jerky is generally long, thin strips of meat that have been dried. Typically, the meat is beef and the traditional method of drying is placing the meat out in the sun. Modern jerky making, however, includes all types of proteins like turkey, salmon, and venison. From the hunters and trappers of old to the hikers of today, jerky has remained popular for hundreds of years, offering a filling snack to people who need to carry some food that can fit in their pocket. Jerky is tough and salty, but lightweight and lasts for a very long time without refrigeration or very much care.
Preparing the Meat
Once you get comfortable with the basics of jerky making, feel free to experiment with the protein and flavors. But for your first attempt, you probably want to keep it simple. Start with a very lean cut of meat; a sirloin tip roast is a good basic protein for jerky because it's generally lean and easy to work with. Trim all the fat from the meat—fat will become rancid fast and will increase the drying times. Then, cut the meat across the grain into 1/4 inch slices.
Flavoring the Meat
There are many different spice mixtures and marinades that will flavor your jerky so pick something that appeals to your sense of taste. You can also keep it simple and sprinkle the meat with salt and pepper before you start smoking. If you are using a spice rub or marinade, combine the ingredients, add the strips of meat, and set in the refrigerator to marinate overnight.
Smoking the Meat
When smoking jerky, you need a low temperature and little smoke; do not use extra smoking chips in your smoker when making jerky. Ideally, the temperature should be just under 150 F/65 C. An electric smoker will introduce a small amount of smoke, but a charcoal or hardwood fire will generate plenty of smoke. You need to smoke your jerky until it is completely dry; depending on the exact method and the climate, this can take between 12 and 72 hours.
Storing the Jerky
Before storing your finished jerky, make sure it is completely dried and cooled; it will give off some moisture as it cools and you don't want any condensation in your stored jerky. Commercially packaged jerky has had all of the oxygen removed and is often vacuum sealed, which allows it to last for years unopened. If you think you will be making a lot of jerky that you want to last a long time, you can purchase food-grade oxygen absorbers and a vacuum sealer. Stored this way, homemade jerky will not last as long as store-bought but will stay fresh for 1 to 2 months in the pantry and up to 6 months in the freezer. It's best to label the package with the type of jerky (including any spices) and the date you dried it.
If you are simply storing the jerky in a sealed container or plastic zip-top bag, it will only last about 1 week when stored in a cool, dark place and 1 to 2 weeks when placed in the refrigerator. Once opened, the jerky should be eaten within a week.
Tips for Successful Smoked Jerky
Trying to run a smoker for more than 12 hours can be a challenge for many people. When it comes to jerky, you are going to get the smoke flavor into the meat in about 3 hours—after this, you can take the jerky out of the smoker and finish it off in a food dehydrator or the oven if you like.
If you are having trouble slicing the meat thin enough, you can freeze the beef ahead of time, which will make for easier cutting; alternatively, you can pound the slices thinner if need be.