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The Ultimate DIY Guide to Making Wild Game Jerky and Snack Sticks
By late January, the requests start rolling in—from close buddies to that brother-in-law you never hear from but once a year. Make any jerky yet? Got any extra?
Whether you hunt or not, wild game jerky and snack sticks are coveted commodities. Why? Because they taste better (and are far less expensive, especially for your “friends”) than the stuff hanging from the snack rack at Casey’s.
Making jerky is a trick that has been used for centuries to preserve meat. The dehydration process slowly rids meat of its moisture, which can cause it to spoil quickly. Wild game is also lean. It contains far less fat than farm-raised animals. More fat has the potential to oxidize and spoil more rapidly. It’s also very flavorful. Once you get a taste for home-made jerky, Slim Jims hardly compare.
There are some basic guidelines to follow for making jerky. And this do-it-yourself guide will help improve your process, no matter if you’ve been making jerky for years or are just getting started.
1. What Cuts of Meat to Use
Some of the best cuts for making jerky come from the hind quarters. (Jack Hennessy/)
When it comes to whole-muscle jerky (not snack sticks made from ground meat) from deer, elk, and other big game, I am a proponent of using hind-quarter roasts, which include the sirloin tip (football roast), top round, and bottom round. The eye of round, with its thinner nature, isn’t as ideal as the aforementioned roasts. Some hunters opt to use backstrap, but I believe that’s a waste. Backstrap is best enjoyed medium-rare and actually doesn’t make the best jerky.
You can use trim or even use cuts from the front quarters, but you may find the final product is chewier or tougher or contains hidden threads of fascia. I recommend saving trim and front-quarter cuts for snack sticks (more on that in a bit).
When slicing, it helps to have the roast partially frozen. This may mean putting the roast in the freezer for an hour if it’s already thawed. You can use a sharp fillet knife or a slicer to cut the roast. A slicer is more consistent, but a knife works fine if you’re adept with one, or you don’t want to spend money on extra equipment.
Trim away all silver skin, fat, and any connective tissue. Silver skin is an unpleasant texture and ruins the flavor. And if fat and connective tissue are not cut away, they can cause jerky to spoil sooner than expected (done right, jerky last upward of three months outside the refrigerator).
I recommend quarter-inch slices, though you can go thicker if you like a bit more tenderness in your bites. I wouldn’t recommend going thinner, though. Slicing with the grain of the meat (i.e. your knife slices parallel to the muscle fibers) will produce chewier and tougher jerky. Instead, you want to slice against, or across, the grain.
If you’re making jerky from wild birds—ducks, geese, pheasants, etc.— the same general rules apply. I recommend using breast meat and making horizontal cuts (against the grain) into ¼-inch strips. You can also pull the tenderloins from the back of the breasts and use those as their own strips. Here is an apple cider pheasant jerky recipe of mine that’s a good place to start. It works well for waterfowl, too.
2. You Need to Cure First
It's best to cure your meat with pink salt or celery juice powder before dehydrating it or cooking it on the smoker. (Jack Hennessy /)
Curing meat prevents botulism (a serious kind of food poisoning) and hinders bacteria growth that causes more common food poisoning. Meat kept between 40 and 160 degrees for too long has the potential to develop bacteria. We prevent this from happening with jerky by curing it beforehand.
You can make jerky without any cure, but I don’t recommend it. After all, one of the perks of jerky is its longevity—something you can make at the end of deer season and take afield for a protein-packed snack during spring turkey season. Uncured jerky will likely only keep for a couple weeks, if that.
There are three common options for curing. The first two are using pink curing salt insta cure#1 or insta cure #2. You can also use celery juice powder. Insta cure #1 is typically the choice for making wild game jerky, while insta cure #2 is used more for curing meats that take longer periods of time, like dried salami and pepperoni. Celery juice powder is an all-natural choice. However, it cannot be technically classified as “cured” according to the USDA. Regardless, when employed properly, it does preserve meat.
All curing options turn meat pink and add “cured” flavor. I honestly cannot tell the difference in flavor between pink curing salt and celery juice powder in jerky. Nevertheless, the decision is yours: synthetic nitrites and nitrates for a guaranteed cure (pink salt) or natural-occurring ones for a more organic (but not USDA-approved) approach. (Please do note that consuming pink curing salts means you are ingesting carcinogens at a very low level. As long as you’re not eating jerky for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, 365 days a year, you should be fine.)
Meat-to-cure ratios for insta cure #1 require a .2 percent cure per total amount of meat. For example: 1 pound (453 grams) of venison requires .032 ounces (.9 grams) of salt, though most people apply ¼ teaspoon of salt per pound. Celery juice powder calls for .45 percent to .9 percent, though I opt for .6 percent of total meat weight. It is possible for curing salts and celery juice powder nitrite contents to vary, so be sure to follow the instructions on whatever packet you purchase.
These measurements require precision, so I bust out my digital scale and get meticulous. Especially when making larger batches, eyeballing measurements in cups and teaspoons can lead to inconsistencies, so consider getting a scale and measuring in grams (that scale will come in handy for packaging home-ground burger, too). Salt granules can vary in size, for example, so it’s always better to use weight instead of measuring spoons or cups.
3. Packaged vs. Homemade Marinades
For first timers, I recommend picking up some spice packets specifically made for jerky. Both LEM and Hi Mountain offer good options. I have found that some packets do have instruction inconsistencies in terms of how much of the spices to use for 1 pound instead of 5 pounds of meat. I recommend you review how many grams the packet contains, how many pounds of jerky the entire packet makes, then divide accordingly by how much you are making. For example: LEM’s Backwoods Original Jerky Seasoning (reduced sodium) contains 103 grams, and the entire packet is good for 5 pounds of meat. If you are only making 3 pounds of jerky, multiply 103 by .6, which equals 61.8 grams from the spice packet (then add 1½ cups of water, if you’re making a marinade).
Once you get more experience, you can perfect homemade marinades. A common mistake beginners make is adding too much salt. Salt content, when also using curing salts, should not exceed 1.5 percent of the total meat weight. Say you have 453 grams of meat; your spice mix or marinade should not contain more than 6.8 grams of salt. Make certain to factor in the sodium content of any added liquids, including soy sauce. If 14 grams of soy sauce contains 1.3 grams of sodium, I wouldn’t add more than 70 grams to my marinade (per 1 pound of meat). Otherwise, the end product may be too salty. Treating sodium as salt, in this instance, will serve you well.
Knowing how much salt to use with curing salts or celery juice powder is the foundation to a great spice mix or marinade. From there, it’s up to you what else to include, though I would recommend that your overall spice amount not exceed 10 to 12 percent of the meat’s total weight. When making snack sticks with ground meat, I opt for the higher end of that ratio.
You can apply the spices directly to the meat or create a marinade. Spice mixes such LEM Backwoods jerky seasonings call for ½ cup of water per pound of game and that usually ends up about right. Basically, between ½ to 1 cup of liquid should cover meat in a bowl. Instead of water, sometimes I prefer apple juice, plus spices, or even ½ cup of bourbon and ½ cup of apple juice per pound of game. For both ground and sliced whole-muscle jerky marinating times (marinades and dry spice rubs), I aim for 12 to 18 hours for marinating and curing.
4. Should You Smoke or Dehydrate?
Smoked jerky is considered more flavorful, but using a dehydrator gives you more consistency in the texture of the meat. (Jack Hennessy/)
This comes down to personal preference. A dehydrator will produce a non-smoky, more texturally consistent final product because of the constant heat from the fan that draws out moisture. Smokers and pellet grills infuse meat with flavor, though this method can result in inconsistencies in the texture of slices. For example, I recently smoked half my ¼-inch football roast slices on a Camp Chef Woodwind and dehydrated the other half in on a six-tray dehydrator. The edges of the smoked pieces had a very fine char to them and were smoky, while the dehydrator produced uniform pieces without that smoke flavor. (That said, I handed off this batch to the landowner whose land I hunt, and he told me he couldn’t tell a difference.)
If you don’t own a smoker or dehydrator, you can also make jerky in the oven. Set the temperature as low as it will go and keep the door propped open to allow moisture to escape. Hang the meat from long bamboo skewers or toothpicks laid across racks (meat ideally won’t touch the oven racks) and rotate the racks every couple hours. Line the bottom with aluminum foil to catch drippings. At 200 degrees, it may take 4 hours to finish jerky. At 160, perhaps 5 hours.
No matter what you use to cook jerky, spray the steel racks down with thin layer of oil. This will make it easier to pull the jerky off when done.
5. How to Know When Jerky is Done
You should always taste-test jerky to see if it’s done. If it’s soft, that means it’s underdone. Let it continue to dehydrate for another hour at 140 to 150 degrees. If it’s too tough, pull the racks immediately. Some home-cooks prefer the bend test. Remove the jerky and let it cool for a few minutes. Pick a piece and bend it. If the meat breaks, it’s underdone. If it snaps to reveal white muscle fibers, it’s considered overdone, although I personally prefer my jerky more toward overdone, as I like that leathery texture.
Generally, ¼-inch slices should go in the dehydrator for two hours at 160 degrees, or 3 to 4 hours at 150 (depending on your preferred texture). Smoker times for ¼-inch slices range from four to five hours at 160 degrees.
Read Next: A Recipe for Smoking Wild Venison Jerky
6. Processing Snack Sticks
A jerky gun is an awesome tool for making snack sticks. (Jack Hennessy/)
To make your own snack sticks, you will need a meat grinder and a jerky gun—which allows you to create both sticks and strips—or sausage stuffer.
Well-done ground venison has the texture of shredded newspaper, so add pork shoulder meat (including the fat) to your ground mix. My preferred ratio is 30 percent pork shoulder to 70 percent venison trim (bits from the front quarter, neck, and anywhere else, though generally not hind quarters or loins). I grind them together then add spices and 1-ounce of water per pound to create that tacky texture.
I squeeze out strips on dehydrator trays and dehydrate for 4 to 4½ hours at 160 degrees (until the internal temperature reads 160) then shock in an ice-water bath for a few minutes to cool the sticks and settle the fat in place. This also helps to shrink the exterior beat quickly to give you that nice outer shell.
7. Proper Storage
Vacuum sealing your sticks and jerky will increase the time they remain edible. (Jack Hennessy/)
When vacuum-sealed (with a proper tight seal), jerky will last in a cool dry place (the back of a cupboard, for example) for one or two months. In the refrigerator, it will last for several months, and then for two to three years in the freezer. Because of their fat content, snack sticks will have a shorter shelf life of two to three weeks outside fridge and three to six months in fridge. In the freezer, they will also stay good for two to three years.