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In 1995 a man killed a cougar in Idaho , during the first part of January, and during the following week he made jerky from some of the meat. Like most of us, he marinated the meat in a brine solution (salt water) and smoked the meat in a commercial smoker. However, he stated later the smoker “never got more than warm.” About a week after eating some of his homemade jerky he became ill and was hospitalized with fever, myalgia, arthralia, facial swelling, and extreme fatigue. The medical investigation discovered trichinella larvae in the both the jerked meat and the cougar meat still in his freezer. It was the first case of cougar meat being the cause of an illness that is usually associated with domestic pork, wild bear, or boar.
In another case, the same year in Oregon , there were six confirmed cases of members of a family and friends becoming seriously ill due to exposure to E. Coli in homemade venison jerky. The medical investigation confirmed the presence of E. Coli in the left over jerky, frozen venison in the freezer, on the hacksaw use to process the meat, and on parts of the discarded skin. Further investigation found nine percent of the deer fecal pellets in the nearby woods to contained E. Coli.
Most of us who hunt will eventually get around to making jerky from our wild meats. Commercial jerky is very expensive and it is just natural for many hunters to develop a desire to make their own to avoid paying the high market prices. But, during the recent years there have been some big changes in what processes used to make our jerky may be safe and what may not be safe. Traditional methods may no longer be safe to use, so let's take a look at what jerky is, how the process works, how to properly dry the meat, and some considerations on how to make jerky safe to eat.
The process of drying foods (meats and fruits) to preserve them has been around for many years. It is known the ancient Egyptians knew of the process and it is well documented that Native Americans commonly used the process to preserve large game (elk, moose, buffalo and deer) as well. Native Americans took the process even further by pounding the dried meat into a powder and then mixing it with dried fruit (berries) and suet to make pemmican. Pemmican was an excellent source of energy during the cold winter months or when traveling long distances.
The name jerky comes from the Spanish word Charque, which means sun dried meat (you can still order it online from some Spanish sites by that name). In the past jerky was made by sun drying, a very long and bothersome process. The meat had to be protected from insects, protected from rain or snow, and had to be gathered up and placed inside a shelter at night to keep the dew or other moisture from making the meat damp or wet. The sun method is a time consuming process at best, but with the development of electricity all of that changed (though you can still sun dry or use a smoker).
Jerky is simply meat with most, about three quarters, of the water removed by drying. So, if you want a pound of jerked meat when you finish the process you'll need to start with four pounds of meat. When we jerk meat, most of the moisture is removed, thereby denying the enzymes in the meat the ability to react. So, in a nut shell that means there is no biological action in the meat once processed (decay or bacterial grow).
There are many different ways to remove the water from the meat. It can be dried, as I stated earlier, in the sun, by using a smoker or making a tee-pee to trap the smoke, in the oven, or by using a commercial food dehydrator. The key to which method you use is to keep in mind that the meat must dry before it starts to spoil. Now that you know how the process works and how it cam be done, let's consider how to safely make jerky.
As stated above, the traditional methods of making jerky are no longer supported by the USDA or the AMA due to E. Coli dangers. In the days of old, meat was simply cut into thin strips and allowed to dry, but it has only been within recent years that some changes for safety's sake have been suggested.
The biggest change in safely making jerky is at some point the meat should be heated to 160 degrees F to kill any bacteria in the meat, especially with wild game, and keep in mind most commercial dehydrators do not address this step in the jerking process at all. I have discovered three ways to heat the meat to the required temperature that work, though each one is a bit different.
In the first method, the meat can be placed in a roasting pan, with about an inch of water added, and then cooked with the lid on, rotating frequently to avoid dry spots (though I am sure some of the steam from the cooking is absorbed by the meat as well). The problem I found using this method is the meat texture changes and it will, no matter how frequently you rotate the meat, develop some dry spots (the finished product resembles a roast). This texture change of the meat also makes it more difficult to slice the meat with a meat slicer (some of the meat I sliced using this method with a slicer was so dry it flaked and fell apart) and it would be very difficult to do by hand. Additionally, the idea behind dehydrating is to remove water, not add more. I sliced the meat and then marinated it, because thinly sliced meat will absorb the jerky spice mix more thoroughly.
Or, using the second method, the meat can be boiled in a large pot filled with water until the proper core temperature of 160 degree is reach. While this method allows the temperature to be reached without drying the meat, the meat took about an hour longer to dehydrate. I used this method only once and didn't like the results in drying time, so I don't recommend it. Remember, we want to remove moisture from the meat, not add more.
Finally, meat can be sliced, fully dehydrated, and then brought to the temperature of 160 degrees to kill the bacteria. I have found this to be the easiest and fastest method of both dehydrating and killing any bacteria in the meat. It also has the advantage of being less of a “mess-maker”, there is no increase or additional water in the meat and it slices easily (when compared to the other two methods). But, like most things in life it's an individual choice, so use the method that works the best for you.
Regardless of the method you use, it is a crucial that at some point prior to consuming the meat it be heated to 160 degrees. This step is crucial in making safe jerky especially if you're using wild game. Some other safety considerations apply as well,
Prior to processing keep your meat stored at 40 degrees or lower.
Frozen meat should be thawed in the fridge and not on the kitchen counter. It is important to remember that bacteria grow rapidly at room temperatures.
When you marinate your meat prior to making your jerky (most folks will slice the meat first and then marinate) do so in the fridge and discard used marinate when the meat is removed for dehydrating. It could be dangerous to reuse marinate that has been used for your meat.
I usually use a commercial jerky spice mix to make my jerky, but a key ingredient in the process is salt. Salt speeds up the drying time and will improve the flavor of your end product. Make sure you follow the directions on the mix package.
Trim all of the fat, gristle, and white tissue from the meat. You want a very lean piece of meat to work with.
Use a meat thermometer when you heat the meat to insure the 160 degrees F is reached internally (if you decide to heat the meat before you slice it) by roasting or boiling.
Allow the meat to cool to the touch before you start cutting it and keep in mind it will take some time to cool down.
Make sure your hands and all surfaces the meat may come in contact with are cleaned with soap and water. And, while you're at it, don't forget to do the same with your knives, cutting board, or commercial meat slicer (if you use one).
Since most of us will have difficulty keeping a nice uniform thickness using a butcher knife, I suggest the meat be sliced using a commercial meat slicer or have your butcher slice the meat if he processes your wild game. Cut the meat no thicker than a quarter of an inch and cut it across the grain on the meat.
The meat can then be placed on commercial dehydrator drying racks, hanging bacon racks for the oven, or cookie sheets. Make sure the racks and the cookie sheets have all been cleaned with soap and water. You do not want the meat to overlap but it can touch.
Turn the dehydrator on (following the manufacturer's directions for making jerky) or set the oven temperature between 130 and 140 degrees F, keeping the door open slightly to allow moisture to escape as the meat dries.
The time needed for the meat to dry will depend on the method you are using to dry it. Your commercial dehydrator's instructions will give you a pretty accurate idea of the time needed and with an oven (at 130-140 degrees F) it will take between 10 and 12 hours.
The key, no matter what method you use to dehydrate, is for the temperature to stay between 130 and 140 degrees F during the whole process. This temperature will keep the organisms in the meat from being able to grow, due to water removal. Also, the heat will assist in killing bacteria at the same time.
When your jerky is finished, it should be dark in color and when bent it will crack but not break.
There are some folks who will want to use hamburger or ground-up wild game to make jerky. Personally, I don't recommend that any ground meats be used to make jerky because research (USDA) has shown that E. Coli can survive in ground meats at temperatures up to 145 degrees F and for periods up to 10 hours. Additionally, the use of commercial beef jerky spice mixtures is recommended because studies conducted by the USDA have shown it has a higher destructive rate for bacteria than traditional processes.
Another aspect that has a big influence on the safety of the meat you use to make jerky is how your wild game was procured. Depending on the type of weapon used to down your game (force of impact and internal trauma), where on the body the animal was hit, and what organs were damaged are all concerns. Obviously a deer struck by a rifle in the gut will have ruptured internal organs which may contaminate some of the meat. While those are considerations, I feel most of the contamination of meat occurs during the field dressing process.
When field dressing any game, avoid rupturing the bladder or causing any internal organs to leak. Also, when gutting your game, make sure no fecal matter from an intestine comes in contact with your meat (this can be hard when removing the anus, but you can always tie it off with cotton cord). Additionally, keep your meat in game bags; keep it clean and away from insects. Another consideration is how long your downed game remains in the field. The longer the meat is at ambient temperature (during warm weather) the higher the rate of bacterial growth, unless it is very cool or cold at the time. I am not talking about a cool temperature used for aging, but rather warm temperatures.
The process of drying meat and fruits has been around almost since the beginning of time. It is simple to do and can be done at home with very little expense or effort. But, keep in mind traditional methods may no longer be safe to use and some new safety considerations are very important if you want to make your jerky safe to eat. Remember to store (or thaw) your meat properly in the fridge before you use it, keep your tools clean with soap and water, watch your personal hygiene, maintain a temperature between 130 and 140 degrees during the entire drying process, and remember to heat the meat to 160 degrees F at some stage of your process. Bon appetite!
Note: According to research conducted by the American Medical Association “E. Coli can survive drying times of us to 10 hours and with temperatures up to 145 degrees F. Venison, or other wild game, should be preheated to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees. Wild game should be handled and cooked with the same considerations given other meats.” The key here is at some point heating the meat to at least 160 degress ineternal temperature to kill any bacteria.