The Step-by-Step Process of Making Beef Jerky

Beef jerky is a popular high-protein snack that has been around for centuries. But how exactly is this tasty and portable snack made? The process of making beef jerky involves multiple steps, from selecting the right cut of meat to slicing, marinating, drying, and packaging. In this comprehensive guide, we will walk through the step-by-step production of beef jerky to give you an inside look into how this flavorful snack is crafted.

Selecting the Beef

The first step in making beef jerky is selecting the right cut of beef. According to Texas A&M University, most beef jerky is made from lean muscles from the beef round. These muscles, such as the eye of round or bottom round, contain very little fat, which is important because fat can cause the jerky to spoil more quickly. Choosing the right lean cut ensures the beef jerky has a long shelf life. Grass-fed beef is often chosen for beef jerky because it has a deeper beefy flavor.

Slicing the Meat

Once the ideal lean cut has been selected, it is time to slice the meat. Using a very sharp knife, the beef is sliced with the grain into long, thin strips. The slices are typically between 1/8 to 1/4 inches thick. Slicing with the grain (in the same direction as the muscle fibers) makes the jerky easier to chew while drying. If the meat is sliced against the grain, it will be too tough once dried. The uniform thin slices allow the meat to dry properly and give the jerky its characteristic chewy texture.

Preparing the Marinade

Now that the beef is sliced, it is time to soak the meat in a flavorful marinade. The marinade adds taste, tenderizes the meat, and preserves the jerky. A typical marinade contains salt, spices, and acid. The salt and acid help to inhibit bacterial growth while also seasoning the meat. Common marinade ingredients include:

  • Salt: Table salt or kosher salt is usually added. The salt enhances flavor while also drawing moisture out of the meat.

  • Spices and seasonings: Garlic powder, onion powder, black pepper, smoked paprika, red pepper flakes, and celery seed are commonly used to give jerky its signature flavorful kick.

  • Acid: Soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar, citrus juice, or hot sauce help to tenderize and add flavor to the meat while also preventing harmful bacterial growth.

  • Sugar: Brown sugar or honey add subtle sweetness and help counterbalance the acidity of the marinade.

The lean beef strips are submerged in the marinade anywhere from 8 hours to 2 days. This allows the jerky to develop its signature deep, savory flavor.

Drying the Jerky

After marinating, it is time to dry the jerky to remove moisture. Traditionally, jerky was dried by hanging beef strips in the hot sun or over a smoky fire. These days, commercial jerky is typically dried using large dehydrators or ovens set at a very low temperature. Drying the meat properly is an art that requires controlling the temperature and air flow.

Here are some guidelines for drying beef jerky:

  • Temperature between 140-180°F
  • Low fan speed to gently circulate air
  • Drying times range from 4-8 hours, depending on thickness
  • Meat should dry until slightly stiff but still pliable
  • Target finished moisture content of 15%

Drying for the proper time is critical – too short and the jerky won’t have the right texture, too long and it will be brittle. Most makers dry the jerky in intermittent batches to better control moisture content.

Smoking for Flavor

For an authentic smoky flavor, many beef jerky producers will smoke the meat before or after drying. Smoking infuses the meat with smoky, savory flavor compounds that give jerky its signature taste. The meat is smoked for 1-2 hours using low-heat indirect smoking methods. Wood chips like hickory, maple, mesquite, or applewood are commonly used to generate smoke. The level of smoking can be adjusted based on desired flavor intensity.

Flavor Boosts

Once drying is complete, some additional flavor enhancements may be added. These finishing touches give jerky extra oomph:

  • Black pepper: Fresh cracked black pepper provides punchy spice and aroma.

  • Chili powder or cayenne: These hot spices add a fiery kick.

  • Crushed red pepper: Imparts another layer of spiciness.

  • Sesame seeds: Toasted sesame seeds add nutty flavor and visual appeal.

Slicing the Jerky

Now that the jerky is dried, smoked, and seasoned, it is sliced into smaller, ready-to-eat pieces. The size of the pieces will vary depending on personal preference. Smaller pieces are often easier to chew. A commercial meat slicer is typically used cut the jerky into uniform strips.

Packaging the Jerky

The final step is packaging the jerky. The jerky pieces are assembled into bags, jars, or other retail containers. Most jerky is vacuum sealed in plastic bags to prevent oxidation and maximize shelf life at room temperature. Some manufacturers may pack the jerky in jars or bags with added oxygen absorbers to maintain freshness. Proper packaging keeps the jerky fresh during storage and transport.

And just like that, the beef jerky is ready to be shipped to stores! While the basic process is straightforward, perfecting beef jerky takes considerable skill and practice. Small tweaks in ingredient amounts, marinating times, temperature, and drying can significantly impact the final texture and flavor. Artisan jerky makers develop their own proprietary methods with special equipment to create their signature product.

A Look Inside A Commercial Beef Jerky Factory

To see this beef jerky production process in action, let’s go inside a factory that makes beef jerky.

Inside the plant, we first find the raw meat preparation area. This is where whole beef cuts like eye of round or bottom round are sliced into thin strips by automatic or manual meat slicers. The slices are cut precisely to 1/4 inch thick to ensure even drying.

Next, the meat moves to the marinating and seasoning area. The beef slices are submerged into large mixing vats filled with a liquid marinade solution. The marinade contains ingredients like soy sauce, brown sugar, garlic, citrus juices, Worcestershire sauce, and spices. Here the meat soaks up all that flavor. Some factories may season the meat further by tossing the strips in dry spices.

After marinating, the meat goes into large, industrial dehydrator ovens. Hot air circulates around the jerky at 140-170°F, slowly drying it over several hours. Workers will periodically check to jerky to evaluate moisture levels during the process.

In some factories, the meat may first go through a smoker before dehydrating. The smoke infuses the meat with tangy, smoky flavor. Wood chips like hickory or maple provide the signature smoke taste.

Once dried, the jerky passes through final flavor stations where seasonings like black pepper or crushed red pepper are sprinkled on. It then moves to the packaging line where jerky strips are assembled into bags or jars, sealed, and labeled.

Throughout the factory, workers oversee the processes and use specialized equipment to produce large batches of jerky efficiently. Strict safety and sanitation protocols are followed to ensure quality. With thorough meat preparation, marinating, drying, smoking, and seasoning, delicious jerky is churned out, ready for snacking!

Jerky Safety Tips

When making jerky at home, be sure to follow food safety guidelines:

  • Use fresh, high-quality lean meat
  • Trim off excess fat, which can turn rancid
  • Marinate meat in the refrigerator
  • Dry meat quickly at proper temperatures
  • Store dried jerky in sealed containers in the fridge or freezer
  • Consume within 1-2 weeks for best quality

With proper handling, ingredients, and technique, you can create tasty homemade jerky safely.

The Origins of Beef Jerky

Beef jerky has a very long history as a way to preserve meat without refrigeration. While the basic process remains similar, jerky making has evolved over the centuries:

Early Nomadic Peoples: Believed to have originated with nomadic tribes in South America and Asia, jerky was vital for hunter-gatherers to preserve meat during their travels. Meat was sun-dried or smoked over a fire pit into hardy jerky.

Native Americans: American tribes like the Comanche and Sioux made buffalo jerky to sustain them through harsh winters when fresh meat was scarce. It was an important nutritious and portable food source.

American Pioneers: During westward expansion in the 1800’s, jerky was a convenient trail food for pioneers. Chuckwagon cooks prepared jerky by the wagonload for cowboys on long cattle drives.

World War II: Beef jerky was a standard protein source included in military field rations during WWII. It traveled well and was a handy snack for soldiers. Surplus jerky after the war helped popularize it across America.

Modern Era: New mass production and packaging methods allowed beef jerky to become a commercial snack food starting in the 1960’s. Jack Link’s launched the first major national jerky brand.

Today, jerky remains a convenient on-the-go protein snack for everyone from hikers to office workers. While the jerky-making process has modernized, the basic technique of preserving meat through drying is still at the heart of today’s jerky.

Global Jerky Varieties

While American-style beef jerky may be the most ubiquitous, jerky is made around the world from all sorts of meats, seasonings, and drying methods:

  • Biltong – Southern African jerky rubbed with coriander, black pepper, and vinegar before air drying

  • Bak Kwa – Chinese-style jerky made from marinated pork that is dried into thin squares

  • Carne Seca – Mexican jerky, usually flank steak, that is salted heavily then dried and smoked

  • Kilishi – A Nigerian preparation made from goat, cattle, or camel meat that is cut into thin strips and coated in peanut powder

  • Pastirma – Seasoned air-dried beef from Turkey that is coated in a spice paste of fenugreek, garlic, and paprika

  • Carne de sol – A Brazilian sun-dried salt beef that is served fried or grilled in dishes

  • Geedam – In Ethiopia, thin strips of beef are marinated in butter and berbere spice then air dried

Jerky varieties use all kinds of flavors from sweet to savory to spicy. Drying methods include sun drying, smoking, and dehydrating. Jerky remains a versatile, protein-packed food across many cultures.

Jerky vs Dried Meat – What’s the Difference?

Jerky has some similarities to other dried meat products, but the process gives it distinct characteristics:

Dried Meat

  • Made from larger cuts of meat
  • Dried slowly at low temperatures
  • Chewier, more bendable texture
  • Used in stews or boiled and rehydrated


  • Made from very thin meat slices
  • Dried at higher temps for shorter time
  • Brittle, tearable texture
  • Eaten as ready-to-eat snack


  • Lean meat dried and pulverized into powder
  • Mixed with hot rendered fat to form concentrated bars
  • Calorie-dense and shelf-stable
  • Used as portable food by native peoples

So jerky separates itself by using thin strips of meat dried quickly into a light, crispy snack you can eat right away. The ingredients and process give jerky its unique place in the pantheon of dried meats.

Health Benefits of Beef Jerky

Beef jerky offers some great nutritional benefits in one tasty package:

High in Protein – A 1 oz portion of jerky contains 9g of protein. Jerky is a great way to get an energy-sustaining protein boost between meals.

Low in Fat – Since lean beef cuts are used and excess fat is trimmed off, most jerky is low in fat, especially compared to other snack foods.

Fewer Calories – With moisture removed, jerky is lower in calories ounce-for-ounce than fresh meat. It makes for a light, portable snack.

No Refrigeration – The drying process preserves jerky so it does not require refrigeration and has a long shelf life of up to 2 months. It’s the perfect grab-and-go snack you can take anywhere.

Nutrient Dense – Jerky retains a number of nutrients from meat like iron, zinc, and B vitamins even after drying.

Jerky can be a tasty and convenient way to get protein when you need an on-the-go snack. When consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet, beef jerky offers unique nutritional value.

Popular Varieties of Jerky

While traditional jerky is savory and smoky, today there are many flavor varieties to suit any palate:

  • Teriyaki Jerky – Sweet and salty teriyaki marinade flavored with soy sauce, ginger, and garlic

  • Sriracha Jerky – Spicy and tangy with Sriracha hot chili sauce

  • Honey Bourbon Jerky – Sweetened with honey and flavored with bourbon whiskey

  • Jalapeño Jerky – Packs some heat from fresh jalapeño peppers

  • Hickory Smoked Jerky – Infused with bold smoky flavor from hickory wood smoke

  • Peppered Jerky – Cracked black pepper delivers punchy spice

  • Maple Glazed Jerky – Sweet maple syrup provides rich flavor

  • Coconut Curry Jerky – Exotic and fragrant blend of coconut milk and curry

  • Ghost Pepper Jerky – Insanely spicy option made with ghost chilis

Whether your tastes run sweet, savory, or spicy, there is a jerky to suit your flavor preference. Grab a variety pack to sample different seasonings.

Jerky Flavoring Ideas

Home jerky makers can get creative with unique flavor ideas like:

  • Use citrus juices – orange, lime, lemon
  • Infuse flavors with whiskey, wine, or vodka
  • Include heat with hot sauces or chili flakes
  • Sweeten with molasses, brown sugar, agave, or honey
  • Make it smoky with liquid smoke or wood smoker
  • Use southwest spices like cumin, chili powder, paprika
  • Add Asian flavors of garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil
  • Experiment with herbs – rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme

Combining sweet, salty, spicy, and smoky elements allows you to craft your own signature jerky. The flavor combos are endless. Keep notes on mixtures you love so you can recreate them.

Troubleshooting Tips for Jerky

Even experienced jerky makers can encounter issues. Here are some handy tips to troubleshoot problems:

Not Dry Enough

  • Increase drying time in dehydrator
  • Cut strips slightly thinner
  • Trim all visible fat from meat
  • Make sure air circulates properly around jerky

Too Dry or Brittle

  • Decrease drying time
  • Use thicker meat slices
  • If rehydrating, soak for short time in water

Lacks Flavor

  • Marinate meat longer before drying
  • Add more seasoning or salt to marinade
  • Use stronger flavored ingredients like soy sauce
  • Sprinkle with extra spices after drying


  • Discard moldy jerky
  • Use freshly sliced meat, not frozen
  • Ensure jerky is fully dried before storage
  • Check that humidity isn’t excessively high

With some tweaks to your process, you can overcome common jerky issues. Part of the fun is adjusting and improving your technique.

Storing Jerky Correctly

To maximize freshness, be sure to store jerky properly:

  • Cool jerky completely before storage
  • Use sealed containers or bags
  • Remove as much air as possible
  • Store away from direct light in a cool, dark space
  • Refrigerate for 1-2 weeks or freeze for months

With proper storage, jerky can retain its texture and taste for the duration of its shelf life. Keeping it in the refrigerator is ideal for short term storage while the freezer will extend its life significantly.

Jerky Safety Essentials

When making and eating jerky, follow these safety essentials:

  • Always wash hands and prep surfaces thoroughly
  • Use clean equipment and utensils
  • Refrigerate raw meat immediately; don’t thaw at room temp
  • Cook raw meat thoroughly if sampling marinade
  • Dry meat completely to prevent bacteria growth
  • Store dried jerky in sealed containers away from humidity
  • Discard moldy jerky or jerky kept beyond 2 weeks

Following basic food safety protocols helps prevent contamination. Jerky kept too moist for too long can allow dangerous bacterial growth. Be diligent and you can safely enjoy delicious homemade jerky.

Serving Ideas for Jerky

While jerky is great snacked on alone, it can also be used creatively in meals:

  • Chop jerky into salads for added protein
  • Crumble into pasta or rice dishes
  • Cook jerky into soups and stews
  • Dice and mix into cream cheese or hummus for a spread
  • Slice thin and use to top nachos or flatbreads
  • Mix crunchy jerky bits into trail mixes
  • Sprinkle crumbled jerky on pizza, tacos, or chili

With its intense flavor, jerky can enhance everything from snacks to sandwiches to hearty main dishes. Keep a supply on hand to sprinkle jerky goodness into all kinds of foods.

Making Jerky Without a Dehydrator

You don’t need fancy equipment to make jerky. With a simple oven, you can easily dry jerky:

Oven Method

  • Set oven to lowest temp (usually 170°F)
  • Place oven racks closer together
  • Arrange jerky strips directly on racks
  • Prop oven door open slightly to allow moisture release
  • Rotate trays and check jerky every 1-2 hours
  • Takes approximately 6-8 hours

Box Fan Technique

  • Place racks across top of box fan
  • Put jerky strips on racks spaced apart
  • Run fan continuously on low overnight
  • Rotate occasionally for even drying
  • Takes approximately 8-12 hours

With an oven or fan, you can harness ambient heat to dehydrate jerky. Adjust time based on thickness. Get creative with household items and you can DIY jerky easily.

Making Jerky in a Dehydrator

Using a dehydrator streamlines the process:

  • Arrange jerky flat on dehydrator trays
  • Set temperature between 145-155°F
  • Run for 5-7 hours, checking periodically
  • Rotate trays and shuffle jerky midway through
  • Refer to machine guidelines for exact times
  • Check for dryness; jerky should be leathery

A food dehydrator with temperature controls dries jerky evenly in bulk. Models with fans speed the drying time significantly. Take advantage of your appliance’s features for quality homemade jerky.

Marinating Jerky Safely

When marinating raw meat, follow these guidelines:

  • Marinate in fridge at 40°F or below
  • Don’t marinate more than 5 days
  • Use small non-reactive glass or plastic containers
  • Submerge strips fully in marinade
  • Discard used marinade; don’t reuse
  • Wash utensils that touched raw meat

Keep your jerky-making safe by marinating meat chilled in the refrigerator. Never let raw meat sit out unrefrigerated during this step.

Nutrition Information

For a typical 1 ounce serving of beef jerky:

  • 80-120 calories
  • 15g protein
  • 5g total fat
  • 380mg sodium
  • 2g sugar

As a protein-packed snack, jerky offers a nutritious bang for its caloric buck. The exact nutrition varies by preparation, ingredients, and drying method.

In Conclusion

With its intensely savory flavor and satisfyingly chewy texture, jerky is a longtime favorite high-protein snack. While traditionally used to preserve meat without refrigeration, today jerky is dried primarily for its delicious concentrated taste. The basic process involves selecting lean meat, slicing, marinating, drying, seasoning, and packaging to make this flavor-packed snack. With the proper steps, you can make restaurant-quality beef jerky from the comfort of your own home. Jerky is the perfect food for hiking, road trips, camping, or whenever your craving calls. With its combination of convenience, nutrition, and addictive flavor, jerky isn’t going extinct anytime soon.

How It’s Made : Beef Jerky


How is beef jerky made?

Beef jerky is made by slicing thin cuts of meat, treating the meat with various marinades and seasonings, cooking and dehydrating the meat, and packaging the resulting beef jerky in vacuum-sealed packaging. That’s the process in a nutshell.

How was beef jerky originally made?

The pioneers of early America relied on beef jerky as an essential food source; they used a range of processes such as sun-drying, smoking, and salting to make this lightweight, high-protein snack that provided them with necessary nutrients while traveling.

How does Jack Link’s make their beef jerky?

MADE WITH 100% BEEF: Our Hickory Smoked Beef Jerky starts with carefully selected cuts of lean, 100% premium beef. Marinated with brown sugar and slow cooked over hickory smoke means that each bite is sweet, smoky, meaty perfection.

How is beef jerky made today?

Modern manufactured jerky is often marinated, prepared with a seasoned spice rub or liquid, or smoked with low heat (usually under 70 °C/160 °F). Store-bought jerky commonly includes sweeteners such as brown sugar.

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