We beef jerky lovers can talk for hours about jerky-making techniques and secrets: the best tools, the most tender cuts, the optimal temperatures, the safest storage methods…
But one topic that often gets overlooked is the marinade — specifically, the length of time the beef should marinate before dehydration.
Sure, you’ll see recipes with suggested marination times of several hours to several days. But that’s a huge range, and a novice jerky maker may not yet have the know-how to narrow it down.
So just how long should beef jerky be marinated? What are the pros and cons of longer and shorter marinations?
Let’s answer these burning questions — and learn how proper timing can take your beef jerky from good to glorious.
Beef Jerky Marination Times: Everything You Need to Know
What Is Marination?
When you eat beef jerky, you’re not just tasting the beef. You’re also tasting various seasonings, sauces, spices, and herbs that accentuate the beef’s natural flavor.
These extra flavors are imparted by a marinade: a saucy or soupy concoction of ingredients that are absorbed by the beef before dehydration.
Marinating beef for jerky is as easy as whipping up the marinade, adding the beef, and storing the whole shebang in the fridge while the meat absorbs the liquid.
But as simple as it sounds, marination can make or break your batch of beef jerky. And if you want to perfect your recipe, you’ll need to perfect your marination process — including the amount of time you marinate your beef.
How Long Should Beef Jerky Be Marinated?
Though it would be convenient if there was one simple answer to this question, there’s no universal marination time for beef jerky.
There are simply too many variables: the cut of beef, the thickness of the slices, the type of marinade, the density of the marinade, the desired flavor intensity…
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We’ll explore these factors more closely in a minute, but for now, we’ll give you a ballpark answer: generally, beef jerky should be marinated for 4 to 24 hours. The longer the marination, the stronger the flavor.
For many beef jerky makers, the sweet spot for marination is between 16 and 18 hours.
What Happens if Beef Jerky Isn’t Marinated Long Enough?
As any chef will tell you, patience is key when cooking anything. Food often moves at its own pace, with flavors deepening over time in a process that can’t be sped up.
That’s certainly true of marinating beef for jerky. That dense meat needs to sit in the marinade for a while before it opens up and starts absorbing it, similar to how a dry sponge needs to be held under the faucet for a minute before it becomes absorbent.
So while it may be tempting to pull your marinating beef out of the fridge after an hour or two and start dehydrating your jerky, your end result will likely disappoint. Your beef hasn’t had enough time to really soak up the flavors of the marinade — if you taste them at all, they’ll be very weak and overpowered by the flavor of the beef itself.
The end result: bland jerky and a batch of mostly-wasted marinade down the drain.
What Happens if Beef Jerky Is Marinated for Too Long?
With marinades, it’s better to go too long than too short. Leaving your beef in the marinade for longer will intensify the flavors, which is generally a good thing.
Those explosive flavors are the reason why some jerky makers leave their beef in the marinade for up to 24 hours. And some like to marinate for even longer — up to 48 hours!
But any longer than that, and you may be asking for trouble.
The USDA says that while it’s safe to leave your beef marinating for longer than 24 hours, the marinade can start to break down the protein fibers in the beef after 2 days. Acidic ingredients like citrus accelerate the process, as does vinegar.
This results in soppy, mushy beef that doesn’t exactly whet the appetite — and may make a mess of your dehydrator.
Does Salt Affect the Marination Time for Beef Jerky?
Marination times should be limited if you’re using a salty marinade with ingredients like soy sauce.
That’s because the marination process draws salt into the beef while removing water. Leaving the beef in the marinade for too long will make it too salty to eat — and even if you do eat it, those ultra-high sodium levels will wreak havoc on your kidneys.
The sweet spot for salty marinades is typically around 12 hours. Anything longer than 24 hours will almost certainly result in too-salty jerky.
Does the Cut of Beef Affect Marination Time for Beef Jerky?
Generally, marination times for beef vary by the cut used. Some cuts are denser than others, requiring more time for the marinade to really permeate the meat.
But because making jerky requires the beef to be cut into thin strips, the cut affects the marinade time much less than it would if you were marinating a larger piece of meat.
However, the density of the beef can still affect marination.
Round cuts — top round, bottom round and eye of round — and flank steak are popular choices for jerky making. These cuts are very dense, so their marination times may trend towards the upper end of the range given by your recipe.
But sirloin tip and similar cuts, while also great for jerky, aren’t as dense. The marinade will penetrate the meat more quickly, so you can get the same intensity of flavor with a shorter marination time.
Does the Thickness of the Beef Strips Affect Marination Time for Jerky?
Most jerky recipes call for beef sliced into strips between ⅛ and ¼” thick. The exact thickness is largely a matter of personal preference, but if you’re pressed for time, thinner strips may be better: they take less time to fully absorb the marinade.
Thicker strips can absorb a greater volume of marinade, but they also need more time to do so.
Plus, depending on the size of your marination container and the amount of marinade you make, thicker strips may not be fully submerged in the marinade. Thinner strips, on the other hand, can be placed in a shallower pool of marinade and still absorb it from all sides, speeding up the process.
Can Beef Jerky Spoil While Marinating?
Preventing your beef from spoiling requires careful temperature control. Temperatures between 40° and 140° F allow harmful bacteria to grow, resulting in food poisoning and potentially deadly illness.
And while the salts and alcohols in the marinade act as preservatives to prolong the beef’s freshness, they won’t protect it indefinitely, especially in warmer temperatures.
This is why marination needs to occur in the fridge — at room temperature, the marinating beef would begin to spoil within an hour or two.
At fridge temperatures below 40°, though, beef should be able to marinate safely in an airtight container for up to 5 days, provided that it hasn’t reached dangerous temperatures beforehand. After that, though, it may spoil regardless of temperature, so if you’ve forgotten it in the fridge for a week, you’re better off tossing it and starting over.
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