Homemade Jerky Project

How Long To Marinate Jerky? Not What You Think

The ideal time to marinate jerky is 16 hours, but an acceptable range is 8 to 24 hours. This time frame allows the marinade to saturate the outside of the meat and the salt to penetrate beyond the surface, seasoning the entire piece of meat. 

Contrary to popular belief, marinades don’t penetrate much deeper than the surface. For that reason, longer marination times don’t offer additional benefits past the 24 hour window, and in fact, can turn the exterior of the meat to an unpleasant, mushy texture. 

Our recommendations come from an extensive experiment testing the impact of marination times on jerky from no marination time up to 72 hours.

We wanted to understand not only the impact of time, but also marinade ingredients such as salt, sugar, heat, acid, and cure.  Our beef jerky team conducted visual, technical, textural, and flavor testing at multiple stages to find the optimal time.

Want to learn professional secrets to perfectly sliced meat for jerky? Click to read our insider's guide on how to slice meat for jerky

Keep reading to get the science and details on the optimal marination time.

The Marination Test

We tested 4 different beef jerky recipes to isolate the key variables in a jerky marinade: salt, sugar, acid, heat, and cure. For this test, we used our top beef jerky sellers that are representative of the most popular homemade jerky flavors as well.

  1. Old Fashioned Original - salt predominant seasoning without any acidic elements.
  2. Classic Teriyaki - a sugar-forward recipe without any heat or acidic elements, with cure.
  3. Classic Hot & Spicy - sweet and spicy recipe with cure.
  4. Carne Seca Limón con Chile - acidic marinade with lemon juice.

Marinating over 250 LBS of meat to find the perfect marination time.







Old Fashioned Original






Classic Teriyaki






Classic Hot & Spicy






Carne Seca Limón con Chile






We worked with an industry average of ¼” thick pieces of meat for the test. We cooked and dried the jerky batches in our preferred at-home dehydrator, an Excalibur Food Dehydrator

Read our review of the Best Food Dehydrators for Jerky.  

The cook time and temperatures were maintained at 165°F for 6 hours.


We noticed the most significant difference in the concentration of flavor in batches that were marinated for longer than 8 hours.  No marination time up to one hour resulted in simple surface level seasoning.

The short marination time also made it more difficult for the marinade to fully coat and adhere to the meat.

Takeaway: Marinate for a minimum of 8 hours.

We did not notice any significant relationship between the the ingredients of the marinade and the impact on the texture or flavor of the meat, with one major exception.

The Carne Seca Limón con Chile marinade contained lemon juice, an acidic ingredient. When left beyond the 24 hour market, this marinade began to denature the color and concentration of the meat flavor. It was almost a jerky ceviche. 

It’s fairly difficult to over-marinate jerky, unless your marinade contains acidic compounds that can denature the meat, resulting in a mushy texture.

Takeaway: When working with acidic ingredients in the marinade, limit marination time to 24 hours or less.  

The team discussing the impact of marination on jerky.

Why is Marination Important for Jerky?

Marination is the immersion of a food into a liquid made with any combination of water, oil, seasonings, acidic components, and cure.

The marination of beef jerky impacts the flavor, texture, and shelf-stability of the final product.

Flavor - The aromatic and flavor compounds in the marinade penetrate the meat. Salt is the most important ingredient in a marinade as time allows it to penetrate and season more of the meat. 

Texture - Acidic ingredients in the marinade tenderize the meat, breaking down the muscle fibers. Acidic ingredients include vinegar (white, red, balsamic), citrus (lemon, lime, or orange), or pineapple. Think of the impact of citrus in ceviche. 

Cure - Most cures (both natural and artificial) require time and sustained contact with the meat to activate and cure the meat.

Marinades don’t penetrate much deeper than the surface of the meat. This makes  thin pieces of meat, such as beef jerky, great for marination.

How to Marinate Beef Jerky

Marinating beef jerky.

Here are the keys to properly marinating beef jerky.

  1. Choose your marination container. You can use a non-reactive bowl with plastic wrap covering the top, a lidded tupperware, or a resealable plastic bag.
  2. Place your meat and marinade in the container. Give it a good mix.
  3. Remove as much of the oxygen from the marination container as possible. Ensure that the meat is completely submerged in the marinade or has no contact with the air. Oxygen exposure can lead to discoloration. 
  4. Place in the refrigerator for the duration of the marination period. The ideal time is 16 hours, but 8 to 24 hours is perfectly acceptable.
  5. Give the marinade a mix or two during the marination period to ensure proper contact between the meat and the marinade. Sometimes the meat can get knotted.

Pro-Tip: We recommend a resealable plastic bag. A plastic bag is cheap, functional, and easy-to-use. It’s easy to massage and mix the meat during the marination process to ensure proper coverage.

Do not reuse a plastic bag for future batches. This will prevent cross-contamination and ensure a clean, safe work environment.  

Bottom Line

You don’t need a commercial vacuum tumbler or fancy tools to marinate meat for jerky. A plastic bag with the air removed and a few turns during the marinade process will yield perfectly marinated jerky.

The ideal time to marinate jerky is 16 hours, but an acceptable range is 8 to 24 hours. During that time frame, the marinade will sufficiently saturate the outside of the meat and the salt will penetrate the internal area.

Keep an eye on marinades with higher acid content as they can denature the meat during longer marination times.

Once your meat is marinated, you’re ready for the cooking and drying phase. Most recipes have specific time and temperatures to cook your jerky, but how can you tell if the jerky is done?

Home jerky makers don’t have the luxury of professional equipment or thousands of pounds of experience to tell when a batch of jerky is done. There are, however, some cues that signal when the jerky is cooked, dried, and ready to eat. 

Click here to read our tips on How to Tell When Jerky is Done.

Looking to spice up your jerky making game? Check out our beef jerky seasonings. (Coming Soon! Sign-Up For Early Access). We conducted hundreds of batches to find the perfect all-in-one jerky seasonings. Simply add water and meat to our seasoning and you’re ready for the best tasting jerky you’ll ever have.