If you ever asked yourself “what is beef jerky?”, or “how is healthy beef jerky made?”, then you have come to the right place! When browsing your cupboards or the local shop for a snack, there are usually many options. Unfortunately, many of these can be unhealthy. When trying to find a healthy and convenient snack, dried meats are the solution! With their rich flavour and protein-filled goodness, dried meats are a firm favourite in homes and pubs across the UK. It is the ideal, healthy snack for whenever you feel peckish. 

What is Beef Jerky?

Beef jerky is slices of lean trimmed beef that is often made by marinating the slices in a curing solution and letting it dry. When you treat them this way, they develop a longer shelf life and a distinctive taste. They are ready to eat, need no extra preparation, and can be stored for months. Due to these perks, beef jerky is an excellent on-the-go snack. 

Beef jerky is a specific type of general snack called jerky. Jerky is any cured meat that has had its moisture reduced to less than 50% of its total. Typically, these are brown and have a rough sort of texture to them. When compared to unprocessed meat, jerky is chewier but with a much more powerful flavour. Whilst beef is the most popular type, there are many other popular varieties out there, such as turkey, chicken, and even salmon! Flavours like hoisin, sriracha, and honey BBQ beef jerky are rapidly gaining popularity across the world, heralding a worldwide shift to flavours that pack a mighty punch. 

The History of Jerky

Humans have been enjoying the taste of dried meats for thousands of years, with early traces of dried meats dating back to the ancient Egyptians. A version of what we enjoy today can be traced to South America, specifically Peru. The Quechua people are known to have developed a type of modern-day jerky around 200 years ago, referring to it as Ch’arki. Ch’arki was produced by drying meat in the hot sun during the day and then freezing it during the cold nights. Typical meats used by the Quechua in this process included iguana and alpaca.

This process of meat drying had distinct advantages for the community, with the biggest being food preservation on a massive scale. Refrigeration as we know it did not exist back then, so if meat was left untreated, it would spoil quickly in the hot climate. By using dried meats, the Quechua could ensure a safely storable, and portable source of protein and nutrition.

When European explorers and colonists arrived in the Americas, they were astonished at the reliability and efficiency of the indigenous meat drying process. European methods of meat storage involved storing meat in salt or brine and often yielded a very poor quality, nutritionally deficient meal. The act of making jerky was a revelation, and the early European visitors learned directly from the indigenous people how to make jerky. These techniques were applied to beef, and beef jerky recipes were born.

Native American Beef Jerky

Whilst jerky wasn’t created by the native Americans, they certainly did have their version of it. Today’s modern dried meats are dry with a rough texture, whereas this version of jerky was infused with mixed berries and different types of ground meat. These small, cake-like snacks were called pemmican. The combination of ingredients helps to give pemmican a longer shelf life, hence why it is compared to modern jerky. The preservation of this meat is what helped the native Americans survive the harsh winter months. Eventually, early settlers learned this food storage technique and adopted it for their food.

How Healthy Beef Jerky is Made

The process of creating healthy cured meat isn’t as hard as history would suggest. With the equipment that’s now available in factories and shops, it has never been easier to produce at scale. This is what creates the rough, tasteful features that we associate with jerky. Let’s dive into the details of a standard beef jerky recipe, where we will look at production, curing of the meat, and food sanitation. 

Required Equipment

One of the first steps in the beef jerky manufacturing process is to strip the meat cutlets of fat. This is important because fat can cause the meat to spoil quickly. In industry, this can be completed by putting the meat in a large centrifuge. By spinning the meat at a very high speed, fat from the meat can be removed with ease. There are other methods to remove fat, such as compression or filtering, but the most common way is through the centrifuge.  

Other pieces of equipment that can be used in the making of jerky are smokers and electric dehydrators. A smoker can be used to help give a meaty, just-off-the-grill flavour and texture. Using charcoal or specific woods (such as hickory or maple, depending on what flavour you seek), a smoker cures the meat, adds flavour, and strips away moisture. Electric dehydrators come equipped with heavy-duty fans, air vents, and built-in electric heaters, making them effective for fast dehydration.

Beef Jerky Ingredients

The main ingredients when creating healthy beef jerky are meat and a curing solution. A usual ingredient that can be added for flavour is salt. It is a key ingredient in most brands of jerky. Other ingredients can include:

  • Soy sauce
  • Ground black pepper
  • Garlic powder
  • Onion powder
  • Liquid smoke
  • Flank steak

Types of Meat

There are many different types of beef that are perfect for jerky. The most common cuts of meat are fillets. These include top round, bottom round, and eye of round. These cuts tick all the boxes for prime meat: they are affordable, economical, and importantly, they taste delicious!

Ground beef is also a popular choice for jerky. This is because the yield from ground beef is very high. For every ⅔ pounds of ground beef, approximately 1 pound of dried meats can be made, which is ideal for saving money and minimising waste!

Basic Beef Jerky Recipe

There are many brilliant beef jerky recipes out there. Many recipes follow the same approach. The meat is usually cut into slices, cured, dried, and packaged. Some variations can include a marinade. The good thing with basic cured meat recipes is that the jerky can be stored for around a month after being cooked. What comes after finding a good, sustainable recipe is to prep and make the jerky. 

Butchery

The first step in a beef jerky recipe is to butcher the meat. At factories and even in people’s homes, the starting meat is usually cut into thin slices. The usual measurement for this is around a quarter of an inch thick. The tool that factories and even specialist butchers often use is a standard meat slicer. 

Different meats require different ways of being butchered. A joint with a bone-in, for example, needs to be finely sliced around the bone, and usually, factories would use a machine for this process. This is to make sure no bone is mixed into the meat. 

With the meat carved into ideally-sized pieces, it is vital to ensure that all of the possible fat has been removed. As we have touched on previously, this can be done with a centrifuge, by compression, or by filtering. This is a vital step to ensure as high a percentage of protein as possible, and also to ensure as long a shelf-life as can be.

Curing Solution Prep

Whether you’re eating your cured meat snack at a garage in Colchester, or at your desk in a London town planning firm, there was likely a curing solution involved in its production. Often, the second step, after butchering the meat, is the preparation of a curing solution. A curing solution is used to increase the shelf-life of the jerky, and to produce a better and stronger taste. A typical curing solution for jerky is made of water, salt and can include preservatives.

By using salt, manufacturers can ensure maximum dehydration of the meat, whilst also imparting flavour. The addition of preservatives, such as sodium nitrate, results in a stabilised shelf life and naturally provides the jerky with a darker, healthier colour. Sometimes another preservative can be used, and this is called sodium ascorbate. This increases the pink of the meat before drying. These preservatives are added only industrially. For people making jerky at home, preservatives are not necessary. 

Curing the Meat

At this point, the meat is usually frozen and cut into chunks with a cutting machine. After this, it is allowed to partially thaw, which releases the juices. The meat is then dipped into the curing solution. The amount of time the beef spends in the curing solution is crucial to the finished product. It has to be in long enough so the liquid can penetrate all the meat but not long enough that it contaminates it. 

Another industrial method of applying the curing solution is through a needle injection, though people at home will usually only use the dipping method. For the needle, the curing solution is injected into the meat, and then the meat is placed into a steel tumbling device that contains more solution. 

If ground meat is used the solution is mixed directly into the meat. Through this, a paste-like substance is created. However, it does have some undesirable characteristics. 

With the curing solution applied successfully to the beef, the step that comes next is the meat drying process.

The Meat Drying Process

The meat drying process is, for the most part, simple. After it has been cured and taken out of the machines, the strips of meat are usually put onto wire mesh trays and placed into a drying oven and cooked. In these ovens, the meat is heated to around 71.1 degrees celsius and then cooled by 50%. Depending on how the meat was cured, this can take up to 12 hours. 

Packaging the Cured Meat

With brilliantly cured and dried meats, all that remains is to package it. There are many different types of packaging used for the distribution of jerky. To preserve its freshness, most jerky goes into a vacuum-sealed bag. Another method of packaging is to remove all the oxygen from a sealed bag and fill it with nitrogen. This removes most possibilities of spoilage (because spoiling bacteria need oxygen to survive), and therefore, it’s becoming a popular method of packaging. 

Some companies also like to freeze the dried meats when they aren’t yet ready to be sold. This type of packaging preserves the meat for weeks and keeps all the flavour compact and tight inside the jerky.

Marinades

A marinade adds an extra dimension to a beef jerky recipe. It can boost the taste and give even the blandest jerky a delicious flavour. By adding a marinade, the process for making the jerky changes a little bit. Instead of taking the beef joint (or whatever meat is being used) straight to the smoker or dehydrator, there is the added step of creating the marinade. 

During the meat cutting process, the person cooking needs to step away from the meat to create the marinade. This has an impact on some of the other steps, as it causes the meat to sit for longer, which in turn makes it exposed for longer. That’s why, when creating a marinade, you need to get it done efficiently. 

The marinade is usually a mixture of ingredients like soy sauce or Worcestershire sauce, and sometimes even maple syrup. By mixing these in a bowl then soaking the meat strips, it means when in the oven or the dehydrator, the meat will cook and dry differently, usually because of the added moisture that the marinade gives it. 

Sanitation is a Must!

Proper sanitary precautions have to be taken because of how easily microbial growths can occur in meat. Ensuring that the people who will eat your beef jerky are safe is vital. Due to working with raw meats and different machinery, it’s vital to keep everything sanitised and clean. The government has strict regulations when it comes to raw materials- certain standards have to be adhered to. 

Tests are usually done on the dried meats themselves to make sure it is safe to eat. The most common being a heat test that destroys any pathogens within the meat. 

There have been many instances where mass-produced meat has caused health problems due to poor sanitary practices. An example of this occurred when Burger King used tainted meat in their burgers, showing how keeping an eye on food safety is a must. 

Food Safety

When following a beef jerky recipe, it is essential to make sure the final, dried meats are safe to consume. The first step is to always make sure the kitchen or wherever the jerky is being cooked is spotless. Every surface and every piece of equipment needs to be sanitised to keep the meat safe. When thawing the meat, it is always best to do it in a refrigerator instead of room temperature. This is to reduce the growth of bacteria. 

One of the most important factors in food safety is the storage method. It is essential in the safety of the food to make sure it’s stored in a cool, dark place or a vacuum-sealed bag for up to 6 months. This means of storage makes jerky an ideal, portable snack for work, whether you’re a plasterer in Ipswich, or a solar panel installer in Suffolk!

How Long does Beef Jerky Last?

If you follow the correct steps, a beef jerky recipe can produce a snack that can last up to 3 months in a cool and dark place, like a cupboard. Even after the initial storing, jerky can last longer when specific rules are followed. Many producers use certain cures on the meat to extend its shelf life, and sometimes, the cured meat can even last up to a year. This is because the high salt content present in the curing solution steers bacteria away and keeps the meat dry. 

A simple fact with the drying stage of jerky is this; the longer you dry the meat, the longer it’ll last. This is because, when dried to the right water content, jerky can remain the same texture and density without getting harder or softer. A lack of oxygen is also the best way to keep dried meats fresh. This is due to the fact that oxygen is used by bacteria, which can in turn spoil meats. By starving these bacteria of oxygen, the spoil phase is slowed down. 

How Healthy is Beef Jerky?

When prepared correctly, dried meats can be an excellent source of lean protein as part of a balanced and healthy diet. As a popular and in-demand snack, jerky is a cured meat that is in many people’s day-to-day eating. 

Since it’s made from raw, lean meat, jerky is for the most part healthy. It’s high in protein and low in carbs. Actually, 28 grams of jerky contains many good nutrients. Some of them being:

  • Vitamin b12
  • Iron
  • Potassium

And many more.

Having many nutrients, long shelf life, and being easily accessible, healthy beef jerky is overall an excellent, convenient snack to eat that can be included as part of a balanced diet. 

Conclusion

At this point, hopefully, if someone asks you “what is beef jerky?” or “how is beef jerky made?”, you’ll be able to answer it like a professional- roll on the pub quiz! Dried meats are healthy, easy-to-eat snacks that have a vast history. From the Egyptians to the native Americans, a form of jerky has followed mankind for centuries and it will continue to do so. A key in the everyday household, jerky is a snack that many people will be eating for years to come, and every day it grows in popularity.  A snack anyone can make, beef jerky is the pinnacle of easy-to-eat food that can last in your cupboards for months. As we say at Tuddys: healthy snacks should be delicious! So browse our exquisite range or get in touch with us today!