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’…

Weird Crap I Cook: Roast Tuna Head

“So much head I woke up in Sleepy Hollow” – Kanye West

I hear ya Kanye, I hear ya.  Before listening to Dark Fantasy I legitimately had no idea that Kanye West was friends with recreational tuna fishermen, let along had any interest in cooking odd foods.  Shows what I know.  We have so much in common!

Much like Kanye, when I got home from last weekend’s trip to LBI I recognized I had lots of head in my freezer; two from yellowfin tuna plus a hogs head.  I knew I had to cook one of them, and quickly, to make room in the freezer for our upcoming fall beef CSA.  With football Sunday and an apartment full of guinea pigs, er, friends planning to come over, I figured it was time to cook some tuna head.

I ended up thawing the one from earlier in the summer that wasn’t fully cleaned or butchered prior to freezing.  Gotta say, what came out of the trash bags was relatively grim.

Like I said, grim.  This photo is after I cut away the stomach and intestines that had been frozen in with the head.  Don’t worry, I won’t be posting shots of the butchery.  I just wanted to be done with this one before I could stink up the kitchen so did no pausing for pictures in process.  Also, there was still a fish hook in the jaw which added to the horrifying motif

The good news was that there was a bonus strip of belly meat still attached to the head.  The bad news was everything else.  The tuna was freezer burned and generally smelled awful due to the contents of the stomach and intestines being wrapped up with the meat.

At times during the process I considered tossing the whole thing out but instead trimmed away most of the exposed meat and found that underneath was some nice looking pink tuna.  Less meat than if it had been fully cleaned before freezing, but still plenty left to use.  I bagged the collars and belly separate from the head and left them in the fridge overnight.

The next morning I put together a marinade of soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, siracha, and brown sugar.

That giant jug of Kikkoman from Costco has been excellent for a summer full of marinades and sauces.  The full sodium aspect of it just means that I’ve been filling out my friendship anklets better lately

About half of the marinade went in with the collars and belly and the other half went into the trash bag that held the head.  After a couple hours in the marinade the head went into a Pyrex with some of the marinade poured over the top.

If it didn’t smell horrifying, this would be a decent animal head to hang on the wall.  Maybe with a tail on the other side of the wall and possibly a cracked pattern stenciled on the wall.  You know, to show what a wacky homeowner you are

When it comes to roast tuna head, there isn’t a ton of info to be found on the English language internets, so I was basing my approach on a Bizarre Foods episode and knowing that heat + head = edible.  I leaned a lot harder on the second point since there wasn’t any detail on how to cook the head in that episode, just a picture of it coming out of the oven.

With that said, the head went into a preheated 350F oven for about an hour before I checked on it.  It took an incredible amount of restraint not to say “the head headed into a preheated…” in the previous sentence.  I’m addicted to puns like some sort of non-life-destroying, mildly humorous version of crack.  Crack jokes!

After an hour, I didn’t expect it to look any different.  But, I was incorrect with that assumption.

All the skin and bone had this smelling pretty fishyfunky, which is why I had a sturdy chili cooking alongside it in ‘Lil Blue.  This made it extra confusing for every person that stepped into the kitchen and caught a whiff

Shortly after taking that picture, the head tipped over, I poured the rest of the marinade on, and it went back into the oven.

Poor ‘Lil Blue.  It must have been so scary being in that oven alone with the tuna head.  At this point I think her friends are talking to her at parties about how I’m no good for her

After another half hour the head looked fully cooked through so I removed it from the oven and let it cool down a bit for handling.

The head felt like a kettle cooked potato chip at this point; far more brittle than I thought it would be.  Generally this whole experience was pretty enlightening.  Really just for me though

After 30-40 minutes, I called Buschy in for this portion of the documentation since it would be impossible to do myself.  It was really odd to me how easily the head cracked apart, but it made it much easier to scavenge for meat inside the head.

Opened it like a book.  I learned this destructive technique from Janet who loves books but treats every one of them like it’s a perfectly cooked rack of ribs ready to be torn apart and eaten.  Or, like she is also a book but she is a fierce cannibal.  Lets go with the first analogy, far less clumsy and uncomfortable

No need to share a ton of fotos from the mining.  The cheeks of a tuna are relatively small but can be fished out from between the inner and outer head cartilage.  The bulk of the meat is between the top of the skull and the skin and came off in a giant pile.  Aside from pulling some bits of meat from around the eyes, that was pretty much the whole pile.

Those eyes have to have any regular blog reader a little concerned about what will be coming later in the blog

After picking out some small and large bones, discarding any pieces that got a little too charred in the base of the pan, and chopping the meat coarsely, I had a nice little pile to work with.

Ended up adding the grilled belly meat to this bowl as well.  With the relatively innocuous look of the meat I wish multiple guests hadn’t stumbled into the kitchen earlier in the day while the oven was open and mumbled “holy f*ck” before hustling out of the room

With the meat in the oven to keep warm, I grilled up the collars as an appetizer and an easy entry point into tuna head eating.  Or that’s how I pictured it.

Due to the amount of trimming and the fish being 1/3 smaller than the one we caught last weekend, these collars felt a little wimpy.  Didn’t help that we threw away all of our take out chopsticks recently so people had to use forks to pick at it

The reality was actually a little different since random bites were fishier than the rest and, because I had trimmed so much off, the best meat had to be mined for.  Everyone picked a bit and I added the remainder to the meat bowl.

Just realized I haven’t addressed my plan for the tuna head meat yet.  I guess I was hoping Blog Villain Matt wouldn’t still be reading.  I made tacos.  There, I said it.

Flour tortillas were the only normal part of these tacos though, the other toppings were cubed cucumber, chopped green onion, and a slaw made of green cabbage, homemade pickled carrots, and rice wine vinegar.

Forgot to take this picture before we all made our tocks.  I need to make something soon that Kristi isn’t terrified to hang out in the kitchen with.  The pictures on this blog have been an abomination lately

A good taco featured all of the ingredients plus the tuna topped with a thick sauce made from duck sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, siracha, ginger, and brown sugar.

I could have sipped that sauce in front of a fire and had a wonderful evening.  Also, I’ve come around on these fake paper plates Kristi got for when we host people, but I hate that I think friends are going to poison themselves when they microwave them

Gotta say, these tocks were pretty solid.

The tuna meat, since it was fully cooked through, was relatively firm but not nearly as fishy as I expected from the smell when disassembling the head.  The sauce added a nice strong flavor that didn’t overwhelm the fish but made up for the bland cucumber that added texture but not much else.  Lastly, the combo of the crunchy slaw and scallion gave a nice contrast to the head meat.  Lots of Asian flavors coming together and playing nice.  I will likely end up doing something similar with the other tuna head in the freezer.

I didn’t forget the eyes.

Lets talk about something else

I also didn’t eat them.  Next time, I promise. Let me do this on my own terms, k?

We might have our first guest blogger next week, which will be exciting and likely ego testing for me.  Hope you enjoy the new nauseating blog masthead that could be tweaked soon.