Dried dehydrated meat (jerky) has traditionally been made by drying meat at low temperatures (140°F – 170°F) for a long period of time. These processing conditions can make it difficult to assure a safe end result, including using a home dehydrator. It is important to reach a sufficient temperature in the jerky drying process to kill pathogens (e.g. Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7).
Here are some safety tips how to jerk safe dehydrated meat in your home dehydrator…
Use Quality Lean Meat
Use only lean meat in excellent condition. For jerky prepared from ground meat, use meat that is at least 93% lean.
Trim The Fat And Slice Thin
Trim meat of excess fat and slice no thicker than one-quarter inch (1/4″). Partially freeze meat to make it easier to slice. Slice the meat with the grain if you wish to prepare the chewy jerky preferred by many.
Setting The Dehydrator Temperature
Determine the true temperature of the dehydrator when it is turned on, but while empty.
Do not rely on the dehydrator’s temperature settings.
Determine your dehydrator’s drying temperature using a dial‐stem thermometer as follows:
For an oven or a horizontal air‐flow dehydrator, place the thermometer inside the unit and close the door.
For a vertical air‐flow dehydrator, stack 2 to 3 trays on the base and place the thermometer between the top 2 trays such that the dial is sticking out between the shelves.
Turn the dehydrator on to its maximum setting; typically 155°F. Record the temperature once it has stabilized.
In order to safely dry meat at home, your oven or dehydrator must be able to maintain a temperature of at least 145° to 155°F.
Do not test the temperature when the dehydrator or oven has product in it. Evaporative cooling occurs as the product loses moisture and this will give you an inaccurate temperature reading.
Use only dehydrators with temperature control. Do not use dehydrators with factory preset temperature that can’t be controlled. Research at the University of Wisconsin‐Madison (2008) has shown that dehydrators with factory‐set temperatures that can’t be adjusted do not reliably produce a safe product and are not recommended.
Safe Drying Methods
In research performed at the University of Wisconsin‐Madison, at that time only a few dehydrators on the market would maintain the necessary temperature of 145° – 155°F: the Gardenmaster by Nesco/American Harvest and the Excalibur. Each of these units has a large heating element, strong air flow, and adjustable temperature setting.
Drying meat at a temperature below 145°F will produce a product that looks done before it is heated enough to destroy pathogens, and before it has lost enough moisture to be shelf-stable.
While dehydrating meat for a sufficient length of time at a temperature of 145° – 155°F may produce safe results, as a safety precaution use one of the following methods to dehydrate your meat:
Method 1: Dehydrate, then Oven Heat
Dry for 6 hours (or more depending on desired dryness) and remove jerky from the dehydrator. Place dried strips on a baking sheet. Heat in a pre-heated 275°F oven for 10 minutes, which should bring the internal temperature of the meat strips to at least 160°F. Strips thicker than 1/4″ (when raw) may require longer to reach 160°F. Remove the oven-heated meat from the oven, cool to room temperature, and package.
Method 2: Pre-Heat, then Dehydrate
Steam or roast meat strips in marinade to an internal temperature of 160°F before drying; heat poultry to 165°F (internal temperature) before drying. This pre‐heating step assures that any bacteria present will be destroyed before drying and a lower dehydrator temperature (130° to 140°F) can be used. Since it can be impossible to accurately measure the internal temperature of a thin strip of meat, you can boil meat in marinade (or water) for 5 minutes before drying. After heating (or boiling), dehydrate meat for 4 to 6 hours. No post-dehydration oven-heating is necessary. Unfortunately, this USDA‐recommended method may produce a dried, crumbly product rather than chewy, flexible jerky.
Shelf Life Of Dried Dehydrated Meat Jerky
Dried jerky can be stored for 1 to 2 months at room temperature; in the freezer for up to 6 months. Vacuum package jerky to extend the shelf life.