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I remember how we used to enjoy the bunches of beef jerky our aunt served during holiday gatherings.
Beef jerky is tasteful and beneficial at the same time. On top of that, the process of preparing it is an art in and of itself. Today, I’ll walk you through this art through the guide of dehydrators for beef jerky.
A Closer Look at Beef Jerky
If you’re not familiar with the authentic American snack staple, we’d like you to take a look here.
A long time ago, before inventing refrigeration, our ancestors found a way to dehydrate beef, fish, and poultry so that they can preserve them for longer times. Fast forward centuries later, other advanced food preservation techniques have evolved. Yet, we kept dehydrated beef (jerky) around as a practical food on the go for hikers and campers. Above all, it managed to stay around as a flavorsome snack.
To make beef jerky, you go through three easy steps; cut the meat into thin slices, marinate using salt and acids, then dehydrate it using the oven or a dehydrator.
Jerky tastes good, and it’s nutrition-dense at the same time, which is pretty hard to find in a snack. It’s loaded with lean protein while being low in its fat content.
What’s the Idea of Food Dehydration?
The removal of water strips food of its tendency to get affected by mold and bacteria. Thus, extending its shelf life. Yet, dehydrated food won’t lose its nutritional value. Need not worry about that.
The temperature used to dehydrate food varies according to the food’s type and its water content. For example, higher temperatures of up to 130° F are recommended for juicy fruits because of their dense water content, so drying them up pretty fast results in the delicious, crispy mango slices you enjoy, while a lower temperature of 120° F is preferred for vegetables with slightly lower water content.
When it comes to meat, a range of 130° F to 140° F is convenient. Yet, you should precook the meat at a high temperature, 165° F or so, to kill any bacteria.
How Do Food Dehydrators Work?
With the aid of heat and electricity, a dehydrator blows amounts of air for extended periods at food till the food is liberated from all its water content. Another common working mechanism is circulating air at low temperatures for long periods until the food dries out.
Most dehydrators use the low temperature, long time combo so as not to zap food of its nutritional value. The fans inside the dehydrator help distribute the low heat evenly across the food so that it’s dehydrated properly.
Try imagining yourself inside a dehydrator with a slice of beef jerky. If the low heat succeeds at absorbing moisture from the meat, that is, converting it into steam slowly, where will that moisture go?
The moisture -that comes off as steam- will stay trapped inside the dehydrator, eventually being reabsorbed by the food and ruining the whole process, unless there’s a way for this steam to get out. Here comes the role of air circulation in a food dehydrator.
Air circulation works by sucking moist air and letting it out through the vent. At the same time, the vent tries to let some fresh, dry air in and the moist air out. This would be an excellent opportunity to discuss the two types of air movement inside an air dehydrator.
Vertical Air Movement
Electrical dehydrators with vertical air movement usually base their fans on the lower or upper sides of the appliance. Thus, heat flows vertically through the food. As you might imagine, inevitably, food will be dried on one side more than the other according to the place of the fan.
Hot air is lighter than cold air, so the heat rises up. If the fan is placed on top of the dehydrator, the food on the bottom will dry more than the food on top.
In the case of a fan that’s placed on the bottom of the dehydrator, food will dry more evenly. Yet, you risk your food dripping and messing up the dehydrator. It’s a tradeoff, after all.
To get over the shortcomings of a vertical airflow dehydrator, move the trays every two hours or so to help with heat distribution. Old school does magic sometimes!
Horizontal Air Movement
Can you imagine how directing the airflow horizontally will rid us of the previous problems?
When the air flows in a horizontal direction, the heat will be evenly distributed through the food. In this case, the fan is placed at the back of the dehydrator, moving air in your direction when you open the dehydrator.
A horizontal air flow dehydrator ensures that the heat goes through the whole beef strip without leaving any bits hydrated, unlike the vertical ones that must leave a part of the beef strip out.
Types of Food Dehydrators
With a lot of options to choose from on the market, deciding on the best food dehydrator to make beef jerky can be confusing. Here, we’ll see the main types of dehydrators so you can know how to choose the best dehydrator for your needs.
Stacked Shelves Dehydrators
Dehydrators with stacked shelves are compact and space-efficient. They have small fans that operate at the base of the appliance to circulate air upwards.
One of the basic dehydration principles is that food pieces shouldn’t be touching each other while being dried out, so the rectangular architecture helps with that, especially when we’re talking about beef jerks with their thin, long shape.
- Compact and space-efficient
- Works well for fruits and vegetables
- Heat distribution isn’t the best
Pull-Out Shelves Dehydrators
These are pro dehydrators. Pull-out shelves dehydrators incorporate larger fans at the backs of the appliance to circulate air better and more properly, allowing for overall better dehydration results.
Their shelves are mostly made of sturdy metal that improves the device’s longevity. You can find a couple of good pull-out shelf dehydrators on Amazon.
- More convenient to meat
- Produces better results
- Better heat distribution
- More expensive than stacked ones
What Factors Should You Be Looking for in a Dehydrator
Now that you’re familiar with the types of electrical dehydrators let’s take a look at the features that set them apart.
Primitive dehydrators had no timers. They operated manually by being turned off and on.
More advanced models have timers that automatically shut off the dehydrator when food is dehydrated. Yet, the best ones have programmable timers that can be preset to long intervals up to one hour. These come in especially handy for forgetful people who don’t want to go through the hassle of waiting for their food to dry out.
Electric dehydrators allow you to adjust heat to your liking. Usually, the range is between 100 to 150 or 160 degrees. While beef requires a 140° F temperature to dehydrate, lower temperatures would be convenient for other food categories like fruits, veggies, and herbs.
Dehydrators with smaller intervals between their temperature options are better to let you have better control over your food. Who wouldn’t like to exercise some extra control? Over a food dehydrator?
The differences in features between electric dehydrators aren’t drastic. However, the determination point is their ease of use; how straightforward and user-friendly this device is. Thus, saving you energy and time.
Although an electric dehydrator won’t be the appliance that you use the most in your kitchen, you’ll be operating it for a long time per use. Because of that, it’s better to opt for bigger sized dehydrators. Especially that most dehydrated food is to be stored afterward, so you’ll likely be prepping large quantities.
Dehydrating Beef Jerky Like a Pro
Here are some tips and tricks to help you make the best beef jerky of your life!
- You need to adjust the heat well. Find a heat point that’s hot enough to draw moisture from the meat but not too hot that you cook it instead of dry it.
- Get familiar with your dehydrator’s airflow direction so you can deal with it seamlessly. As we said before, you should rotate the trays every now and then if the airflow is vertical.
- Check the progress of your beef jerky after three hours.
- Get mason jars or vacuum-sealed bags for storage.
- Work in big batches. Food dehydration is time and electricity-consuming; better be smart about it.
- Don’t put anything below, beside, or on top of the dehydrator to avoid safety hazards.
- Sautee your beef jerky for 10 minutes in butter if it comes out over dried.
- Get the leanest meat slices you can for your beef jerky so as not to end up with greasy jerky.
Safely Dehydrating Beef Jerky
A well-made jerky is perfectly safe and even full of nutrients. Yet, there’s a concern of bacteria growing on the surface of your jerky while dehydrating it, which might lead to adverse health consequences. You need to follow these general safety rules when making beef jerky.
- Wash your hands thoroughly before dealing with the meat.
- Make sure that the beef was refrigerated before using it.
- Clean all your utensils before working with meat.
- Marinate the jerky in the refrigerator.
- Never try to sun dry beef jerky.
Here are some methods we should follow to ensure you achieve a clean, safe beef jerky dehydration process.
Heat and Dry
Drying the jerky isn’t enough to kill bacteria. You need to pre or post-cook it to ensure it’s 100% safe. The USDA meat and poultry recommend you preheat the beef at 160°F before putting it in the dehydrator. You marinate the meat, simmer or steam it, then arrange the meat slices neatly in your dehydrator. You can also bake beef in the oven at 325°F instead of simmering it.
You can do it after the dehydration by placing the jerky slices separately on a rack and place them in a preheated oven for 10 minutes.
When you’re done dehydrating the jerky, press it between some dry napkins to absorb any excess fat. Then, leave it to cool down for a few minutes.
To store it safely, put it in an airtight container and store it in a dry location, away from light. You can keep the jerky for two weeks at room temperature and up to six months in a refrigerator, all given you store it in a vacuum-sealed container or bag.
Using the Oven as a Dehydrator
Some people suggest using ovens as alternatives for dehydrators, which is not ideal, but it can work. The main issue with using ovens as dehydrators is that you need to adjust the oven at a pretty low-temperature setting to circulate air through the food for a long time. Yet, most ovens don’t have this low temperature, to begin with.
In other words, the minimum heat option of most ovens is higher than the temperature required for beef jerky dehydration.
If you’re a dehydration newbie and you just need to dip your toes to test the water, you can try dehydrating food in an oven first. If you love the process, you can invest in a high-quality dehydrator.
Pro Tip If the lowest temperature in your oven is above 160° F, you can leave the oven’s door slightly open to cool it down. Expect the whole dehydration process to take less time than intended.
Food dehydration is one of the healthiest ways to preserve food. Add to it the flavourful marination and texture of beef jerky, and you get one of the most enjoyable snacks ever! I’ve cleared the road for you. Now is your turn to take this info and go get yourself a robust electric dehydrator to get those beef jerkies going!