I like beef jerky a lot – especially as a travel food. It lasts a long time, does not take up much space and it is extremely rich in lean protein (so it keeps you satiated).
There are problems, though. A standard bag of beef jerky is about 3.25 oz (or 92 g) and has 3 servings of food at 80 calories per serving. You’ll usually pay about $6 for these 240 calories (such as a bag of Jack Links in a gas station or pharmacy) – and more, if you’re in an airport or other traveler waypoints which employ price-gouging.
$6 for 240 calories is not very cost-effective. Protein tends to cost more than, say, carbohydrates (just look at how cheap pasta, candy, etc. is). However, lean protein not only keeps you full but is also a very important part of keeping healthy (an idea I’ll delve deeper in to at another time).
So, I decided to make my own beef jerky in an oven.
Why Make Your Own?
One reason, as I have already said, it is cheaper. You can make it in bulk and carry it with you in a backpack for a quick snack. Personally, I also like the fact that I was able to control the ingredients that went into the jerky much more closely. Most off-the-shelf beef jerky has a significant amount of sugar and other additives that I really would rather avoid.
Plus, it is not nearly as hard as you might think. At the most basic level, all you need is some meat, a knife and an oven.
How to Make Beef Jerky in an Oven
You can make jerky out of most any meat; jerky is really just dried meat, after all. Beef Jerky obviously comes from beef, but chicken or even tuna are also viable options. I purchased a 1.25 kg (or 2.75 lbs) of top sirloin in bulk, as you can see to the left.
The first thing you need to do is to trim away any fat from the meat – you want it to be as lean as possible. Then cut the meat into strips of about 1/4 inch (you can cut with or against the grain based upon preference). We’ll be dehydrating the meat, so it will lose about 60% of its bulk.
The next step is to apply any spices you desire to the meat. Again, you have lots of options here. Here are some suggestions:
* Liquid Smoke
* Soy Sauce
* Montreal Steak Seasoning
Honestly, anything that sounds tasty is worth experimenting with. I created three separate mixtures and split the meat up into 3 Ziplock bags. Then I let it marinate in the refrigerator overnight (12 hours) before patting it dry with paper towel and arranging it on a cooking tray, as you see to the left.
I then preheated the oven to 250 F and cooked the meat for about 3 hours, until it was dry to the touch (your mileage may vary). During the first hour a lot of juices will accumulate in the tray. For bonus points, you can drain this into a bowel and use it for other purposes later (like a soup base).
Finally, I removed the dehydrated meat from the oven and left it on a paper towel for about 12 hours to dry further. All said and done, the yield was 460 g (16 oz) of dried beef jerky. I kept a silica pack (those little white packages) from an off-the-shelf bag of jerky and put it into the plastic bag to keep the jerky dry and fresh.
Cost / Benefit Analysis
For a first batch, the jerky turned out great. Each of the three flavors were tasty, and with a little refinement I’m sure I will hit upon a spice combination that really works for me. The liquid smoke gave the meat that “authentic” jerky flavor, and the other spices added variety.
Now, here’s a breakdown of the cost of the jerky. I could have used cost-per-ounce as a way of comparing my jerky against off-the-shelf jerky, but I realized that this is actually not a valid comparison because we cannot assume that the dehydration level is the same (though, if you care, my jerky was about 80 cents per ounce). The most appropriate way to compare costs seems to be Calories-per-dollar.
- If you keep your eyes open for deals, you can find USDA Top Sirloin at Costco for $3.39 / lb, meaning the cost of the meat was about $10
- There are about 1650 Calories in my 1.25 kg of meat
- The cost of spices was small – maybe $2 for the entire batch (considering spices can be used several times)
- Therefore I got about 137 Calories of food for each dollar
- Based upon the $6 bags of Jack Links beef jerky above, the off-the-shelf price is 40 Calories-per-dollar
Therefore, my jerky was 3.5 times cheaper than the off-the-shelf prices. Of course, we also have to consider the time involved, though the actual effort was fairly minimal. Most of the process is simply waiting (for the meat to marinade, then to dehydrate, etc). In other words, it took a day and a half to make, though I only actually spent maybe 30 minutes of actual work. Finally, there is the consideration that my beef jerky is tailored to my tastes, and I can keep having fun tweaking the recipe as I see fit.
To me, this is very much worth it.