The difference between making good beef jerky and great beef jerky is real smoke, here’s how to do it

(TL/DR: Skip to the recipe)

Staying at home during the pandemic gives you a lot of time to think about how awesome a road trip would be right about now. It also offers a chance to figure out what you’ll need in your “Go Bag” in case there’s a zombie apocalypse.

Coincidentally, beef jerky plays a big role in both. At least for me anyway.

Because beef jerky is a basic ingredient in life, I tend to have some on hand all the time. Nothing fancy, just some basic savory and savory/spicy that I make 3-to-4 pounds at a time when I come across some good discount meat.

Even though there’s almost nothing to my beef jerky recipe, friends tell me that it’s amazing and I must have a secret. I don’t. My jerky recipe, like a million others out there, is just an adaptation of a food dehydrator recipe that came in the little guide book packaged with the dehydrator.

My big (not) “secret” is, rather than using ‘liquid smoke’ in the marinade like the recipe calls for, I actually smoke the jerky before I dehydrate it.

It’s not hard. You don’t even need a full-blown smoker or BBQ — a little portable grill or hibachi will do.

More importantly, real smoke and a little heat will impart flavors in your jerky that you just can’t get when you skip straight from marinating to drying on a dehydrator. It’s the difference between “oh that’s nice” and “OMG that’s the best jerky I’ve ever had! Are you sure you made it? What’s your secret?”

Try this recipe yourself. Since I’m lazy and unambitious, so you can rest assured that I’ve optimized it for the best outcome based with the least effort.
 

What You Need:
Beef
  • Any thin sliced beef will do. I use flap meat or shoulder knuckle, both of which are used in carne asada, because it’s on sale here a lot. But any beef — steaks or roasts — on sale, is going to work. Just make sure that you slice it thin (i.e., under ¾-inch thick).
Marinade

For Savory Jerky:

  • 1 part Soy Sauce
  • 1 part Worchester Sauce

For hot and spicy jerky, add the following to taste:

  • Ground black pepper
  • Red pepper flakes
Equipment:
  • Smoker, BBQ, Hibachi, etc. (with lid)
  • 2-3 pieces of charcoal
  • Hardwood pieces or chips
  • Food dehydrator
Instructions
Cut the meat into strips

Slice your meat into ¾-inch wide strips trimming excess (but not all) fat.

Cutting with the grain of the meat will give you long-strip jerky that’s good for chewing on for a while; cutting across the grain will give you jerky you can tear easily and eat smaller pieces. Put it all in a 1 gallon zipper bag, bowl or resealable container and set it aside.

Thin sliced beef for jerky

Make the marinade

Mix Worcester and soy sauce to make the base marinade. I’ve found that 1 cup of each per pound of meat is a pretty good rule and easy to remember. You only want to make enough marinade to cover the meat, so adjust your quantity up or down accordingly.

If you’re into the spicy, add the ground black pepper and red pepper flakes to the marinade. Again, how much you add is based on the amount of meat and how spicy you want your jerky to be. I like it hot enough to get my attention, but not so hot I can’t see, so I add about ¾ teaspoon per cup of liquid.

Marinade the meat

Pour the marinade into the meat container and stir / shake the meat around so it’s all covered in the marinade.

Refrigerate for 8 – 12 hours. Resist the temptation to let it go longer. The meat is thin so letting it marinade longer will make the jerky taste like smoked, dried marinade instead of beef jerky.

Fire up your “smoker”

We’re going to “cold smoke” this beef jerky, so we don’t want heat, just smoke. For that we only need a little fuel, so you can use even a very small barbecue to do your smoking.

Start your charcoal using the bare minimum you need to get it burning.

Since we’re cold smoking, we need to keep the temperature in the smoking space below 100F. We’re interested in a low, smoky, not hot, fire. I find a single piece of charcoal and a rocket stove made from cansa rocket stove made from cans does the job.

Smoke the meat

Once you’ve got your charcoal burning, move it in the fire pan as far as you can from where the meat will be. If you’ve got a sidebox, large BBQ or Hibatchi-style grill, this is no problem.If you’re using a small, round portable, place it in the bottom center.

Add your hardwood. I like to add too much because it makes the fire smoky for a while before it starts to burn.

Place your meat on the grill, making sure there’s enough space between pieces to ensure good smoke circulation. Then close the lid and let the smoke do its magic.

You’ll know the meat has enough smoke when it starts to turn a little pink. With a small grill this might only be 15 minutes, a large grill or sidebox might be up to an hour (depending on how much meat you’re smoking).

Dehydrate

Once you see that pink tinge, move the meat off the grill and on to your dehydrator rack(s), again making sure there’s plenty of airspace between strips.

Jerky after 24 hours on the dehydrator (those are pepper seeds on the jerky)

Set your dehydrator on medium and let it run. Depending on your dehydrator and how much jerky you’re dehydrating, total curing time can be from 8 to 24 hours. I do 3 pounds at a time and it takes 24 hours using one we picked up at a big box store.

Store and Enjoy

Once your jerky is dried completely it will be stiff and stringy with no give when you squeeze it. Remove it from the dehydrator and place it in an airtight container right away.

Store your jerky in an airtight container.

Keep the jerky in an airtight container when you’re not enjoying it too. Jerky loves to pull water from the air making it weird and a little slippery, which is not what you want in jerky.

That’s it. Try that one little change to a plain beef jerky recipe and tell me it’s not the greatest jerky you’ve had (except for maybe that one at a truck stop in Elko, Nevada).