Thursday, October 17, 2019

Essential Beef Jerky

This recipe produces jerky with a good balance of salty, savory, sweet, smoky, and spicy. It's great on its own, and a good foundation for further experimentation.

For more heat, I recommend topping the meat slices with pepper flakes or ground black pepper when dehydrating, as opposed to altering the marinade.

Read on for the complete recipe and all the other information you'll need to succeed.

The Recipe


for the meat

  • 2 lb lean beef, such as eye round, sliced about 1/8” thick

for the marinade

  • 3 fl oz Kikkoman soy sauce (see notes on salt below)
  • 5 fl oz Worcestershire sauce (Lea & Perrins will do)
  • 1 ½ teaspoon black pepper (finely ground)
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar (packed)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (or ½ tsp table salt)
  • 3 tablespoons liquid smoke (mesquite is recommended, hickory will work)
  • 2 teaspoons pepper flakes (any kind you like)
  • 2 tablespoons MSG
  • ½ teaspoon Cure #1 (aka Prague powder #1, pink salt #1)

for optional toppings

  • black pepper (medium to coarse grind)
  • pepper flakes (any kind you like; I recommend Aleppo pepper)


  1. Prepare the meat as discussed below -- cut slices about 1/8" thick, across the grain, with as much fat trimmed away as possible. 
  2. Mix the meat and the marinade and let rest overnight.
  3. Check the meat and re-mix if any red spots didn't get a good dose of marinade. Let the meat rest overnight again. Repeat this step as needed. If it takes a few days, that is fine. 
  4. Shake excess marinade off the meat and dehydrate at 165F until the meat bends with light resistance, but does not crack.

Recipe Teardown

Jerky can be kind of complicated.

The Meat

Jerky meat should be as lean as possible, such as bottom round or eye round. A "peeled knuckle" is a decent choice if you can find it, but eye round is better. Whatever you choose, choice grade is fine--a prime cut is overkill for jerky.

Slices should be approximately 1/8” thick, but somewhat thinner slices are fine too. The meat will be much easier to slice if it is partially frozen before you begin. Better still is having your butcher do it for you. You want all the slices as uniform in size and thickness as possible, because that way they'll be done around the same time. Your smallest pieces will have to come out first to avoid over-drying.

Before slicing, trim all the exterior fat away as best as you can. After slicing, if there are large pieces of fat visible inside, stack up the slices and cut them out, too. You don’t need to do surgery on each slice to remove every speck of fat, but remove as much as you can without driving yourself crazy. Fatty pieces taste good, but they will spoil first, so eat them first!


The marinade in this recipe can be used for up to 2 lbs of meat, but marinading evenly is always easier with more marinade to work with. Feel free to use a little less than 2 lbs of meat, or scale up the marinade. While the meat is marinading, mix it up once or twice during the marination time to help every piece get coated evenly. Examine your marinated meat carefully. If you see a lot of red spots where the meat was folded on itself, and didn't get marinated, mix it up and give it another day.

If you are doing a big batch it may take several days and several mixing steps to get all the meat marinated. That's OK. You can't over-marinade this jerky. Take your time and make sure that every piece gets well coated.

Dehydrating & Storage

There is more than one way to dehydrate jerky, but this recipe calls for a dehydrator that hits 165F, and it also includes nitrites for maximum food safety.

When placing the meat into the dehydrator, shake off the excess marinade. Run the slice of meat through your fingers to squeegee off the marinade if it's extra drippy. It's OK for the meat to be wet, but you don't want marinade pooled on the pieces. It tastes OK, but it will dry into a dull, ugly spot.

Jerky is done when the meat is dry to the touch, bends with some resistance, and displays white stress marks at the bend. If it cracks, it’s overdone. 

Monitor the dehydrator and remove the thinner pieces as they finish. When in doubt, pull a sample and let it cool off to assess the texture and dryness. Hot jerky is more done than it looks. Very thin pieces could be done dehydrating in just a couple hours, if you’re using a 165F dehydrator, so don't let it go too long without checking it. It may take you a few batches to get the feel for this step. Pay attention--it is easy to overdo it, and crunchy jerky is no good.

It's going to take you a while to get the hang of this, but I believe in  you.

After dehydrating, let your jerky cool in an open container, then seal and let it rest for about a day. It will taste better if you can stand to wait!

Note that you can fit about 8 pounds of meat into a 9-tray Excalibur dehydrator. The final weight of jerky will be about half of the weight of the meat you start with.

Jerky made with very lean meat should last for at least a few weeks if kept in a sealed container at room temperature. As with most things, vacuum sealing or refrigerating can extend shelf life.

Salt & Sauces

Getting the right amount of salt is critical to the taste of the final product, and it's easy to go off target if you adjust the amount or type of soy sauce used. For example, Kikkoman standard soy sauce contains 920 mg sodium per tablespoon. Pearl River Bridge Premium contains 1090 mg sodium per tablespoon, and it does taste noticeably more salty. Substituting in Pearl River Bridge Premium would mean you added an extra 1020 mg of sodium to the marinade. Kosher salt is about 1800 mg sodium per teaspoon, so the soy sauce substitution is equivalent to adding about 0.6 teaspoons of kosher salt to the marinade. If you did this substitution, you would want to reduce the amount of salt in the marinade accordingly. Conversely, if using low sodium soy sauce, you may find you need to add some salt to get the taste you want.

Kikkoman tastes fine, and is cheap and easy to get, which is why I used it here. I think a fancier soy sauce is overkill for jerky.

The MSG in this recipe does contribute some notable sodium content too, being about 1/3 as salty as salt itself. For each tablespoon of MSG you eliminate, you would want to add in about 1 teaspoon kosher salt. Leave in the MSG, though! It adds a great savory taste to the final product, and it has an undeserved unhealthy reputation.

Lastly, while we may think of Worcestershire sauce as salty, it is only 15-20% as salty as soy sauce. Check your labels, but you can probably disregard Worcestershire tweaks and substitutions in your sodium calculations. Lea & Perrins is easy to find, and tastes good in this recipe.

Why does this recipe use kosher salt? No reason other than it was what is handy in my kitchen. You can substitute half as much table salt.


Prague Powder #1 is 6.25% sodium nitrite with the remainder being salt. In jerky that is fully cooked to 165F, as this recipe calls for, nitrites are optional. However, they will further reduce the risk of food-borne illness.

Liquid Smoke

The best tasting smoke I have found for this recipe is Wright's Mesquite. Hickory works fine too, and you may prefer it. Wright's sells hickory smoke in a jug which is a much better value, but this smoke isn't as strongly flavored as what you get in the smaller bottles. If you try it, you should increase the amount of smoke in the recipe by 25-50%.