Foodborne illnesses are no joke, and that goes especially for meat-loving bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. That’s why homemade jerky aficionados need to know how to make beef jerky safely.
Preparing and storing your jerky in accordance with food safety guidelines will make it last longer and keep you healthy, too. And it’s not as daunting a task as you might think!
Here are our top five tips for safe jerky making.
Making Safe Beef Jerky: Five Easy Tips
1. Keep Your Meat Cold Until Cooking Time
It can be tempting to thaw your beef on the kitchen counter so you can get around to making (and eating) your jerky sooner.
But letting your beef get up to room temperature is a recipe for bacterial disaster. Within hours or even minutes, dormant bacteria will wake up and new bacteria will begin to colonize your meat.
Recent history provides us with ample cautionary tales. In late 2019, nine people were hospitalized and one died after eating ground beef contaminated with salmonella.
And several months earlier, over 200 people reportedly contracted E. coli after eating contaminated beef.
So to keep bacteria at bay, always thaw and marinate your meat in the fridge, keeping it at 36-40 degrees F. And don’t remove it until you’re ready to prepare or dehydrate it!
2. Clean Your Kitchen and Tools
A dirty kitchen isn’t just unsightly and unpleasant to be in. It’s also a food safety hazard, especially when you’re working with meat.
To be on the safe side, always clean your kitchen and your tools before making beef jerky. That means sanitizing your countertops and cutting boards, thoroughly cleaning your knives and washing your dehydrator trays religiously.
And always wash your hands with soap and water before and after handling raw meat. Never touch your mouth or face with unwashed hands after handling raw meat, and clean your knives and cutting boards before using them with other food.
3. Use Curing Salt in Your Jerky Recipes
Not all beef jerky recipes call for curing salt, and if you’re organically-inclined, you may feel hesitant to use it or other preservatives when preparing your food.
But if you’re worried about foodborne illness, adding curing salt to your beef jerky can play a big role in stopping bacteria and making your jerky safer and longer-lasting.
Curing salt slows the growth of the harmful botulinum bacteria and other anaerobic bacteria. Botulinum causes botulism, a serious illness, and is difficult to kill, but curing salt makes your meat inhospitable for this dastardly bacteria.
Used properly, curing salt has no detrimental effects on human health and makes your jerky much safer to eat.
Read more about best curing salt for beef jerky!
4. Always Heat Your Jerky to 160 Degrees F
You need to keep your meat cold while it’s raw, but there’s a minimum temperature it must reach while you’re dehydrating it: 160 degrees F (or 165 degrees F for poultry jerky).
The USDA recommends heating your beef to 160 degrees at the beginning of the drying process. That’s because dried meat is more heat resistant, so it may not get hot enough to kill all the bacteria if you heat it up after drying.
If your food dehydrator can reach 160 degrees, then no extra labor on your part is needed. Just arrange your beef on the trays and let the dehydrator do its job.
But if your dehydrator doesn’t get that hot, you’ll need to precook your beef in the oven before putting it in the dehydrator.
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F, then put your marinated beef in for around 10 minutes (thicker slices will take longer). You may want to wrap a slice around an oven thermometer to confirm that the beef has reached an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
And if you’re using chicken or turkey for your jerky, heat it in a 300 degree oven until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees. Poultry often heats up faster than beef, so you may need less than 10 minutes to precook it.
This brief pre-cook will kill any harmful bacteria in your meat without affecting the texture or flavor of the final jerky.
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5. Store or Freeze Your Jerky Appropriately
Once your jerky is fully dried, it should be free from harmful bacteria and safe to eat. But unless you store it properly, it won’t remain safe for very long.
Although dried meat is much less appealing to bacteria than raw meat, it’s still susceptible to contamination. This is especially true if it’s stored in a warm, humid environment, where bacteria thrive.
If you plan to consume all your jerky within a week, you can store it in a sealed container in a cool, dry place. Find a spot in a cupboard or pantry away from sinks, stoves and other sources of heat and moisture.
For longer-term storage, freezing is the best option. Ideally, you’ll vacuum seal your jerky before freezing it, but you can also use a freezer-safe container with an airtight seal.
Beef jerky will keep for up to six months in a sealed container in the freezer. As with raw meat, just make sure to thaw it in the fridge (not on the counter!) before eating it.
Last update on 2020-05-31