Cleaning Out My Cabinets: Oven Cooked Beef Jerky

Beef jerky and me go way back.  Surprising, I know, that a salt obsessed portly carnivore has had a lifelong affinity for jerky.  As a kid, I spent my summers hanging around Ravine Lake and throwing in a buck or two every day for snacks like giant Jolly Ranchers, blow pops, and Munchos.  Weren’t Munchos the best?  In the rotation was the occasional day where we picked through the questionable jerky selection at the Copper Kettle and every kid sat around snacking on dried meats.  I was basically the same then as I am now; acting like an expert and aficionado of my Jacks Links kippered beefsteaks while the cretins around me consumed their Slim Jims.  Mine was the real beef jerky, the authentic one, and I made sure I let everyone know about it.  I was probably 8 so, again, nothing has changed.

In college, housemate Davey’s father came to visit and brought with him a large bag of elk jerky he made after a recent hunting trip.  It was delicious and he pretty much blew my mind when he explained to me that he had made it in his oven using a little liquid smoke.  Whatever that meant.  Even if I didn’t understand that liquid smoke was a real thing that didn’t just exist in Mr. Johnston’s pantry and the Flaming Homer on the Simpsons, I was very intrigued with making it myself.  And a brief 11 years later, I decided to do just that.

I got started with the cheapest thick cut steak I could find at the grocery store.  Making jerky is right up my alley since it takes something inexpensive and turns it into something tasty.

I'm not sure whose family these family-sized packs are for but I sure hope they like gristle!

I’m not sure whose family these family-sized packs are for but I sure hope they like gristle!  The steaks looked much nicer in the grocery store, but slid to one end and got mushed around when I re-purposed my backpack as a reusable grocery bag for the commute home

I went with chuck steaks since they were on sale.  Since then I have also used round steaks (since they were on sale that time) and you could probably slice whatever cheap roast is available.  Since the end product is supposed to be chewy, no need to be picky.  You do want to avoid an cut where you can’t easily trim off the fat since fat doesn’t dry and makes the end product not last as long.

The meat sat in the freezer for a little under an hour to make it firm and easy to slice.  With chuck in particular the fat makes the meat less dense and difficult to slice thinly with a knife.  The freezer time helps it stay together a bit better, though I still struggled to cut slices 1/8th of an inch thick.

The slices went into a freezer bag with a marinade of soy sauce, brown sugar, worcestershire, liquid smoke, onion powder, garlic powder, cayenne, nutmeg, and crushed red pepper.  All excess air in the bag was pressed out before sealing.

"Pressed" is a BS.  In college I watched a friend pack toiletries in freezer bags and then suck the air out of the bag to save space in her suitcase.  She explained it by saying, "I used to date a drug dealer".  Ok then, valuable lessen for me in how to remove air from a marinating bag, though

“Pressed out” is BS.  In college I watched a friend pack toiletries in freezer bags and then suck the air out of the bag with her mouth to save space in her suitcase.  She explained it by saying, “I used to date a drug dealer”.  OK then.  Valuable lesson for me in how to remove air from a marinating bag, though

The meat sat in the marinade for 12 hours to hopefully soak up as much of the flavor as possible.  Over the course of that twelve hours I took time to open the fridge, awkwardly massage the marinade around, stare at the meat for a few minutes, then eventually put the bag back in the fridge.

After 12 hours, the slices came out of the marinade and I laid them out on a few separate plates lines with paper towels to drain off the excess liquid.  Since jerky is just dehydrated/dried beef, any extra liquid left on the meat just makes the dehydration process take longer.  So, it’s good to give some paper towel time.

Window shots!  I always thought jerky darkens to the near black color you expect through the smoking/drying process, but I learned it's mostly the marinating

Window shots!  I always thought jerky darkens to the near black color you expect through the smoking/drying process, but I learned it’s mostly the marinade

While the meat drained, I preheated my oven to 185F (it didn’t take long) and moved my oven racks to the highest and lowest placements.  I put two baking sheets on the lower rack to make sure the entire bottom oven was blocked from drips coming down.  I already have enough issues with my oven smoking due to browning meat inches from the broiler, I didn’t need burnt jerk stank adding to the potpourri.

Once that was all set, I took a handful of bamboo skewers out and started hanging each piece of beef from one end, spaced about a half inch apart on the skewer.  Each skewer could hold about 6-8 slices of beef. The idea is that the skewers would lie perpendicular to the wire racks in the oven with each slice of meat hanging down between the wire racks.  Visuals help.

I never realized before trying to take pictures of this process that my oven light is actually a gigantic floodlight pointed directly at my eyes

I never realized before trying to take pictures of this process that my oven light is actually a gigantic floodlight pointed directly at my eyes

The hanging beef went into the oven at 185F with an oven mitt wedged in the door so it would stay slightly ajar.  I hadn’t thought of this before seeing a comment about it on the internets, but in order to make jerky you need to let the moisture vent out of the oven or the meat will never dry.  The door being open allows air flow so that can happen.  Look at me going all Bill Nye on y’all!!!

Aside from the oven mitt, there isn’t much you need to do while beef jerky cooks.  Eventually, somewhere between 8 and 12 hours of drying you have this.

Everything shrivelled up far more than I expected.  It looked like each piece was about 2/3s the size of when it went into the oven.  It also smelled amazing

Everything shrivelled up far more than I expected. It looked like each piece was about 2/3s the size of when it went into the oven.  It also smelled amazing

This is about the point that I pulled the meat out of the oven for good, I think it had been just under 10 hours.  I knew the meat was ready because the exterior felt solid and had only the slightest amount of give when squeezed.  I also tried a piece and it had reached the right point where there was still a little moisture to the meat, but drying it any further would make it leather.  I removed the skewers and piled the meat up to cool.

Don't get me started on warm jerky.  If you were hoping to make jerky once and then move on forver, warm jerky will derail that plan.  All the flavor and none of the jaw exhaustion

Don’t get me started on warm jerky.  If you were hoping to make jerky once and then move on forever, warm jerky will derail that plan.  All the flavor and none of the jaw exhaustion of regular jerky

Before the jerky cools completely, you have to remove the skewers to make sure they don’t get stuck and leave behind wood slivers in the meat.  Jerky splinters would be bad.  For reference, skewer removal is the part of the process where you end up eating about half the jerky.

Once you’re done with that, the jerky needs to cool completely before it can be transferred to a storage container and the refrigerator.

Lots of window shots in this post, likely because it was the only meal I've made during the day in awhile

Lots of window shots in this post, likely because it was the only meal I’ve made during the day in awhile

Making sure the jerky is completely cool before it goes in the fridge is important because it avoids condensation forming in the bag.  Condensation would lead to your jerky rehydrating.  As long as you avoid that, the jerky can keep in your fridge for 3-4 weeks supposedly, but I’ve never had the restraint to let mine last long enough to find out.

I won’t try to compare this to store-bought jerky because it is very different beast.  The outside of the meat is hard and crunchy, almost like biting down on a stick, but the meat gives almost immediately in your mouth.  It ends up being much easier to chew than your initial expectations.  Also, there’s none of that weird greasy exterior that happens with bagged jerky, nor the paper thin pieces that feel like you are chewing on a latex glove.  Lastly, the flavor is much better; it tastes like real beef and real ingredient.  You can make it as sweet or spicy as you want (I recommend siracha in the marinade) and it is fun to experiment a bit.

Good way to spend a football Sunday.  I’m just sayin’…

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Cleanin’ Out My Cabinets: Lobster Mac and Cheese

This one feels vaguely out of season, but we’ve been traveling on the weekends to weddings and fake college reunions so I haven’t had much time in the kitchen.  I had a choice between using photos from recent meals I haven’t written about or potentially ruining half of tonight’s grilled pizza with a combination of canned goose pate and grape balsamic reduction.  Went with the former, though I need to give that pizza a shot at some point when dinner doesn’t depend on it.

After a trip to Maine this summer we headed home with the usual 6 lobsters, for the absurdly low price of $20, that we planned to steam and shell for use in various meals throughout the week.

The meat looks great and all, but that Tupperware in the background contains the Man of the Match for this meal.  The process of cooking and shelling 6 lobsters makes me sweat an illogical amount

A portion of this meat will always have to be designated to a few lobster rolls on Maier’s Potato Rolls…

Look, I’m seeing these pictures for the first time in awhile myself, and I have no idea how my toe worked its way into the background of this shot.  I am certainly not flexible enough to have my foot that close to food that I am consuming

I love me a good lobster roll, but the majority needed to be saved for the meal I’ve always loved the concept of but has never lived up to my lofty expectations; Lobster Mac & Cheese.  I haven’t sought out or done research on where to find good Lobster Mac (today’s ‘breve), but invariably the ones I’ve tried have been a little bland and lacking the lobster flavor I was looking for.  Needless to say, I had some ideas for how to improve on that and babbled about them to anyone that would listen.  Time to put them to the test.

I got started by making a broth with the lobster shells and some aromatics.  Someone needs to explain to me why this always ends up green in color when I expect it to be pink.

Not as bad as when I made the lobster marinara, but still not an appetizing sight.  Kinda like the header I chose to put on this food blog that makes most visitors vomit before they can even get to a post

Each time I’ve made lobster broth, it ends up smelling strongly of lobster but mostly just tastes like a standard fish stock.  I reserved some of the broth for the cheese sauce, but most of it was earmarked for cooking the macaroni.

A few years ago Kristi and I had pantry moths.  Now we are just hippies, with all dried goods stored in mason jars.  We labeled all the jars based on Phish song related puns.  Spoof’n, can you imagine how infuriating it would be to bake in a kitchen like that?

The macaroni boiled in the lobster broth for a little over half of the normal cook time before being strained and set to the side.  I kind of expected it to pick up some of the green coloring from the broth, but of course it didn’t.  Just like everything else I expect to happen in the kitchen.

“I’m sorry, I don’t want to fight, I’m not in a bad mood or mad at you.  It’s just, I don’t get… I mean, why do you have to use the flash when you take action shots?” – me, as Kristi stares at me in rightful disbelief

With the pasta cooked and the lobster meat ready, it was time to get started on the cheese sauce.  To add some flavor to the dish and the sauce, I started off by cubing a quarter pound of duck prosciutto for browning.

Yeah, had some leftover from the duck prosciutto making festivities over the past few months.  Worked deliciously with the lobster.  Duck and lobster.  Size XL on my monocle, please

The duck prosciutto went into a couple tablespoons of butter to sautee for a few minutes on the stovetop.  Once the prosciutto had browned a bit, it joined the cooked macaroni and chopped lobster in a bowl.

Nobody beats themselves up more than me when an inadequately small bowl for mixing together ingredients is chosen.  Let’s just say I was cursing myself out far more than necessary over having to wash an extra dish when I transferred this to a larger bowl

With the leftover melted butter and duck fat still on the stove, I whisked in 2-3 tablespoons of flour and let it cook on the stovetop for a 10 minutes.  I was carefully to stir it regularly to avoid burning, but I certainly don’t mind a nice brown roux.

Dats a good lookin’ roux

At this point the standard cheese sauce process started; add some milk (plus a little of the broth) then some shredded cheese, then some milk, and so on until you have enough cheese sauce of the right consistency.  I am not going to attempt to explain what that means because I would do so awfully and no one comes here to learn.

I went with straight sharp cheddar for this one, but I knew the secret weapon in this sauce had nothing to do with the cheese and milk, it had to do with this:

“Potentially Poisonous Guacamole of the Gods?!?! Sign me up!” – Line from the imaginary food show I host in my kitchen when Kristi goes to bed

That’s right, when dismantling the lobster bodies I saved the tomalley (lobster offal) and roe in this little container for questionable future use.  It looks gross, and there have been warnings about possible pollutants from the ocean bottom being concentrated in it, but the flavor of it is rich and lobstery.  Perfect for spiking the flavor of the cheese sauce with the lobster note it was missing, so in it went.

You can see it hiding in there now that I’ve told you about it, but I certainly didn’t tell people about it before they tried it

The majority of this pot got stirred in with the other ingredients in a large(r) bowl before going into a Pyrex dish that by some stroke of luck held it perfectly.

I’ll admit I didn’t use all of the cheese sauce and ended up regretting that slightly.  Always becomes less cheese saucy during baking when the macaroni starts a little underdone.  Again, I was acting like a self-hating cartoon character

After a dusting with some breadcrumbs and grated parm, the dish headed into a 375 oven for about 20 minutes until the cheese was bubbling and the top was browned.  Served it while it was hot with some token vegetables to make us feel like we were doing something healthy.

That zucchini looks even more pathetic in hindsight.  I probably acted like it tasted like poison since vegetables occasionally make me act like I am 8 years old when there is something else I would much rather be eating

Between the pasta cooked in lobster broth and the lobster bits in the cheese sauce, I had accomplished my goal of making something that didn’t just taste like mac and cheese with lobster chunks.  It tasted like lobster mac and cheese.  The cheese sauce had the slightly seafoody sweetness of lobster mixed with rich cheese flavor.  Every chunk of lobster was a great bite and the contrasting crispy pieces of prosciutto were a nice change of pace.  I kinda blew it by not using all of the sauce but, I learned a lesson, and will likely do it right next time.  Then I will make the same mistake again the following time.

Before I wrap up, a quick shout out to occasional blog villain Matt, his wife Wendy and their adorable daughter Sage who has fought mightily through her first four months of life.  Sage underwent a liver transplant yesterday morning at Children’s Hospital in Boston and could use the positive thoughts and hope of everyone who reads this blog as she recovers.  Our thoughts and prayers are with the little Swaddled Warrior, and I hope yours will be too.