Cooking meat before dehydrating is the surest way to eliminate any harmful bacteria. You can skip the pre-drying cooking step, however, as long as you ensure proper dehydrating practices.
Heating meat to an internal temperature of 160°F and poultry to 165°F kills any harmful bacteria and pathogens of concern. You have three options when it comes to reaching these temperatures when dehydrating meat — before, after, or during dehydrating.
- Pre-Dehydrating Cooking Step - heating the meat before dehydrating.
- Post-Dehydrating Cooking Step - heating the meat after dehydrating.
- Cooking During the Dehydrating Process - heating the meat during dehydrating.
Each of these options offer a combination of benefits, drawbacks, and risks. Ultimately, it comes down to your risk tolerance, how closely you follow official food safety guidance, and preferred jerky taste, color and texture.
For example, high-risk individuals who are susceptible to the risks of food poisoning, can feel most comfortable with the assurances of cooking meat before dehydrating. Jerky purists who are comfortable with fully cooking the meat during the dehydration process can skip the cooking step altogether.
The most important thing? Making sure your meat reaches the minimum time and temperature to kill all bacteria (160°F for meat and 165°F for poultry).
When we make homemade jerky, we achieve the required temperatures through the dehydrating process and do not use a cooking step. We believe this method achieves a safe-to-eat jerky with the best flavor, texture, and color. To do this, we ensure the best practices of dehydration and food safety.
Keep reading to learn more about the three methods to cook and dehydrate meat.
1. Pre-Dehydrating Cooking Step
The USDA recommends the safest way to make jerky is to heat the meat to 160°F and poultry to 165°F before the dehydrating step.
The risk in dehydrating meat and poultry without cooking it to a safe temperature first is the bacteria can become heat resistant during the drying process before reaching the target temperatures.
The USDA revised their jerky compliance guidelines in 2003 to address a Salmonella Kiambu outbreak in jerky produced in New Mexico. One possible cause of the outbreak was the very slow drying process under low humidity conditions. The bacteria became heat resistant before the proper temperature was reached.
For clarification, the conditions in which bacteria can harden during the drying process are fairly extreme. You would have to dehydrate for a very long period, at a fairly low temperature, and very low humidity. It’s possible, but unlikely.
To cook the meat before dehydrating you can cook the meat in an oven or boil the meat in the marinade until the desired temperature has been met.
To cook the meat before dehydrating follow these steps:
- Place the jerky in a sealed oven until the internal temperature of the meat reaches 160°F or 165°F for poultry (around 10 minutes depending on the thickness of the meat).
- Maintain a constant dehydrator temperature of 130°F to 140°F during the drying process.
- Remove from the dehydrator when fully dried, let cool, and enjoy.
One of the drawbacks of the pre-dehydrating cooking step is the degradation of taste, texture, and color of the finished jerky. This method creates a jerky with a dry, crumbly texture. Less than ideal for most jerky lovers.
Nonetheless, if you’re comfortable sacrificing flavor and texture, but want to take all necessary precautions, then cooking your meat before dehydrating is the way to go.
This method is the most conservative in terms of risk. The cooking step before the dehydration process eliminates any possible bacteria before dehydrating.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that the USDA mandates guidelines that provide maximum safety for the general population.
2. Post-Dehydrating Cooking Step
An alternative method to cooking meat when dehydrating jerky is the post-dehydrating cooking step. The meat is cooked after the dehydration step.
The Department of Animal & Dairy Sciences at UW Madison has been an authority on meat snacks and jerky since 1998. When dehydrating meat, they recommend an alternative approach to the USDA. An approach that achieves a more traditional flavor, texture and color of jerky.
To cook the meat after dehydrating follow these steps:
- Dry meat at 145°F to 155°F for at least four hours and up to six hours.
- Move the meat into an oven preheated to 275°F for 10 minutes.
- Remove from the oven, let cool, and enjoy.
The University of Wisconsin believes the post-heat treatment to be safe and superior to the USDA recommendation. The result is a jerky with a classic, chewy texture.
This method is a good option for those that still want a full cooking step, but don’t want to sacrifice taste and texture.
3. Cooking During the Dehydrating Process
The first two methods recommend separating cooking and dehydrating into two distinct steps—before or after. This ensures that the proper temperature has been achieved and all pathogens are eliminated.
However, if you follow proper dehydration practices as listed below, the meat should reach the target temperatures during the dehydration process in a safe amount of time, ensuring the elimination of any harmful bacteria.
Here are important guidelines when dehydrating meat.
- Use only lean meat in excellent condition.
- Maintain meat under refrigeration or keep frozen until use.
- Marinate meat in a refrigerated environment. Do not reuse marinades.
- Prevent cross contamination by keeping raw meats and juices separated.
- Wash hands, tools, and surfaces with hot soapy water, and rinse with warm water.
- Select a reliable dehydrator with temperature control settings.
- Determine the true temperature of the dehydrator with a thermometer or probe when it is operating empty.
- Run the dehydrator at a minimum of 165°F during the cooking and dehydration process.
We have run hundreds of batches in our home dehydrator following the method above and have never had any issues. Every batch has reached the desired temperature in sufficient time to ensure that all pathogens are eliminated.
This method also ensures the best texture, flavor, and snackability for your jerky.
The decision to cook your meat before dehydrating comes down to your risk tolerance. We have crafted hundreds of batches of homemade jerky without the cooking step without any issue. But if you have an elevated risk profile or like to play it on the safe side, cooking the meat before dehydrating is a perfectly-acceptable step.
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