Making Jerky - Part II: Making Traditional Jerky with a Smoker

Last month, I showed you how to make your own jerky using a dehydrator or your oven. Now, as promised, I'll show you how my husband makes his a more traditional way: In a smoker. And let me tell you, this stuff is a thousand times better than what you can buy in a store. It's truly carnivore candy.

Notes on What You Need 

Smoker: First and foremost, you need a smoker. For years, my husband used an inexpensive Big Chief electric smoker. I bought this for him about a decade ago (for something like $80), and I sometimes see them on Craigslist. If you don't want to invest much into smoking meat, this is probably the best way to start. But it can be difficult to control the temperature in this type of smoker - and the smoker may not come up to the necessary temperature during cooler weather. My husband currently has a Yoder smoker/BBQ, which was quite an investment. If you don't mind spending a lot of dough, this is a fantastic smoker, although again, it can be tough to control the temperature. An in between solution is to build an old school style smoke house.

Jerky cure: Jerky cure helps preserve the meat, keeping it safe to eat. You can buy cure online and at some grocery and big box stores. All it is, however, is uniodised salt (usually kosher salt, but sometimes sea salt) and nitrates.You can leave out the nitrates - but your jerky won't last nearly as long. In my husband's recipe, the teriyaki acts as the cure, because it's high in salt.

Jerky seasoning: You can buy jerky seasonings online or in some grocery stores, also, but do read the ingredients label. I have yet to find one that wasn't full of nasty chemicals. You can also make your own seasonings - which is what my husband does. You'll find his recipe below. If you use store bought seasonings/cure, be sure to follow the instructions that come with it.

Grill racks: You can find these where barbecue and grilling supplies are sold. In a pinch, you could use wire cooling racks. (Here's the exact type my husband uses.)

Air tight containers: Including at least one Ziplock bag for marinating, plus more bags or containers for storing the finished jerky.

Meat: Always choose the leanest meat you can find. Fat may make your jerky go rancid.

A good knife: You really need a good, sharp knife for this job. Just be careful not to cut yourself.

How to Make Jerky in a Smoker

1. Slice the meat thinly, along the grain. On the day I photographed my husband making jerky, he sliced the pieces fairly thick; this is fine, but it means it has to spend more time in the smoker. Try to get the pieces about the same thickness, but don't stress if there is some variation in thickness. HINT: The meat is easier to cut if it's a little bit frozen. Also, be sure to cut off as much of the fat as possible. It's fine to leave the fine "silverskin" or membrane on the meat, if it has it.

2. Pour your cure and seasonings into a gallon Ziplock bag. My husband always eyeballs his ingredients, but this time I measured the amounts he used: About 1 cup of teriyaki sauce, 4 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, and 1/2 cup of brown sugar.

3. Add the sliced meat and massage the bag to mix well and completely cover the meat. Squeeze the air out of the bag, seal, and refrigerate over night.

4. Get the smoker going by adding wood and lighting it off. (My husband likes oak for beef jerky, but any non-resinous, hardwood works.)

5. Lay the grilling racks on a flat work surface. (You may wish to line the work surface with paper towels first, to make clean up easier.) Lay the marinated pieces of meat on the racks. The pieces may touch, but they must not overlap.

6. Sprinkle generously with freshly ground pepper.

7. Allow the meat to sit 1 - 2 hours at room temperature. This allows the marinade to evaporate, sink in, and drip off. The meat should not be wet when it goes into the smoker. Just don't let meat sit at 40 - 140 degrees F. for more than 4 hours total, or it may go bad, making you sick if you eat it.

8. When the smoker reaches 160 degrees F., place the prepared meat (on the grilling racks) inside.

9. Check in on your jerky periodically and rotate the racks when you notice that the jerky nearest the heat is getting more done than the jerky above it.

10. When the jerky is at 160 degrees F. and is dry, the jerky is done. To test for dryness, pull a piece of jerky apart. No liquid should come from it.

Store the finished jerky in air tight containers in the refrigerator*. If desired, portion out the jerky into freezer bags and freeze until ready to eat.

* You might wonder why you can't store the jerky at room temperature, like our ancestors did. Theoretically you could, if the meat is very lean. But our ancestor's jerky was also super-duper dry and tough because they sucked the life out of it during smoking or drying. Most of us don't find that palatable now.

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