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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Pete’s Recipes: “Not too much” Chili

The five soups/stews in my rotation for Souper Sundays (the adorable name I use for making a massive amount of food before the work week) are: chicken vegetable, mushroom barley, hambone, roasted vegetable, and chili.  The first four have been covered to varying degrees on this blog, but I’ve never talked much about my chili so I figured it was time to address it.  Also, I didn’t want to do two WCIC posts back to back so this was the only alternative.

I love chili and the best part is that it will be good with pretty much any meat you have in your fridge.  However, over the years I’ve found myself incapable of making a reasonable amount of chili and always end up with a ridiculous amount that I could never finish.

With painstaking precision and effort, I’ve finally figured out how to make enough chili for exactly five large, filling lunch portions.  It’s not traditional, and has a couple odd ingredients, but at least you won’t end up with extra frozen chili in your freezer that nobody would ever willingly eat.

Here’s what you’ll need:
1 medium onion
3 tbsp chopped garlic (about 5-6 cloves)
1 tbsp olive oil
1.5-2 lbs meat
2 tbsp chili powder
1/2 tbsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tbsp cumin powder
1/2 tbsp onion powder
1/2 tbsp garlic powder
2 beef bouillon cubes
12 oz beer
28 oz can crushed tomatoes
1 can black or pinto beans (drained and rinsed)
1 cup frozen corn kernels
salt & black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 325F and heat the olive oil over medium heat in a large oven-safe pot with a heavy lid or a medium dutch oven (I use ‘lil blue).  Once the oil is hot, add the chopped onions and garlic.

When you do this you should stir the onions and oil together, not just leave them all piled up on one side, k?  Sometimes I wonder what would happen if you didn’t have me in your life.  Piles of half burned, half raw onions, that’s what!

Once the onions have cooked for 5-10 minutes and become a bit translucent, add in 1.5 to 2 pounds of meat.  It doesn’t really matter what you use for this recipe, I generally use ground turkey or chicken or both, but in this case I used a little leftover cubed pork tenderloin and some freezer burned chuck steak.

Most chili-diehards would say that the ingredients I use aren’t part of a real, traditional Texas chili.  My counterpoint would be that I use a wooden spoon, so it must be pretty traditional

Season with salt and pepper to taste and brown the meat, stirring regularly.  After a few minutes there should be some liquid that has cooked off in the base of the pot and the meat should no longer have any red or pink on it.  Add the cayenne pepper and the onion/garlic/cumin/chili powders, then stir well to completely coat all of the meat.

A good sniff of the contents of the this pot would likely cause some coughing and sneezing, but the spiciness gets well distributed and becomes way more mild than it smells once the other ingredients come in

After a few minutes of cooking the meat, onions, and garlic with the seasoning, pour in 12-16 ounces of beer.  I like to go on the 16 end of the spectrum especially if there is more meat, but it means you will have to drink the rest of the beer.  Cry me a friggin’ river.

Once the beer is in the pot, raise the burner temperature to high and heat until the liquid starts to bubble.  Then throw in those two bouillon cubes that you didn’t understand why they were on the ingredients list.

Dats some good bubblin’.  The wooden spoon stayed in most of the shots just to remind people of my chili street cred

The bouillon cubes mostly came out of a plan to compensate for the lack of meaty flavor when using turkey or chicken in chili.  So I tried a couple bouillon cubes, and when combined with beer it was basically like adding a half carton of beer flavored beef broth.  Certainly not a bad thing.

Once the liquid reduces by about a quarter, add in the can of crushed tomatoes and stir well.

I used to hate chili because I couldn’t stand warm tomatoes; soups, sauces, anything.  Got over that in my late teens.  Sometimes these little stories about overcoming my strong opinions on food make me sound far less like the stubborn jackass that I actually am

Once the tomatoes are well stirred in and heated up a bit, put the lid on and place in the preheated 325F oven for two hours.  I recommend you spend that time closing the doors to ever room that contains clothing in your apartment and putting all of the jackets in the closet, unless you want to smell like the kid who is cooking chili in his pants.

After two hours you can remove from the oven and take the lid off.

I love this part of the oven-cooked chili/bolognese/baked beans process.  Always looks so angry, spicy and thick until you stir together and make sense of it all.  Or at least that’s how I think about it

Add the can of fully rinsed beans and the cup of corn.

The biggest issue with every insistent traditional chili advocate (frigginjerkBrotherTim included) is that if you’ve ever had chili with corn in it you would never ever go back.  It’s just better

After a good stir, the lid goes back on and the pot heads back into the oven for another hour.  Which will leave you with this:

Thick chili is the only kind of chili worth eating, no one wants chili soup.  Type that up in a word document and save it on your desktop with the file name, “important stuff from pete.doc”.  Thx

Once it comes out of the oven, you can take the lid off and put the pot over medium heat for few minutes if there is excess liquid you’d like to cook off.  You can also taste and make any last minute seasoning adjustments you see fit.  I occasionally add a couple spoonfuls of brown sugar to give a hint of contrasting sweetness, which is a nice touch in chili I think.

That recipe should make about 7-8 cups of thick and hearty chili, great as a lunch or even better as a nacho topping.  The best part of chili is that you could add any of the leftovers in your fridge and likely make it even better.  And, as always, just remember that I have no idea what I am talking about and what I am doing so the last thing you should do is follow a recipe I made up.