Equipped with these tips and tricks on how to make tender jerky, you can craft the perfect recipe to achieve soft jerky at home.
When you make beef jerky at home, you are seasoning, curing, and removing moisture from the meat. The drying process helps prevent the growth of bacteria in your meat due to the low water activity.
Water activity is the ratio of the water vapor to the food. In simple terms, it’s the amount of moisture in a food. Low water activity means there is not enough moisture for bacteria to grow.
As it relates to the softness of the jerky—the less moisture, the tougher the jerky. Too much moisture, however, and the jerky can mold. The goal is to strike the perfect balance for your preference.
The most important thing when making jerky at home is to make a jerky that is fully-cooked and shelf-stable. We always err on the dryer side when making jerky at home.
Shelf-stable means a food can be safely stored at room temperature in a sealed container. Foods that are shelf-stable would normally be stored refrigerated but have been processed so that they can be safely stored at room temperature for extended periods of time.
The following tips and tricks can help you create a shelf-stable jerky that leans on the tender side. You can achieve a beef jerky with a safe water activity level, but still offer a tender texture.
Here are the top ten tips on how to make jerky more tender.
1. Select cuts of meat with more internal marbling
When working with jerky, the rule of thumb is to use lean cuts of meat.
Traditionally, selecting a lean cut of meat that has very little fat is key. Fat does not dehydrate like lean meat and can lead to spoilage.
The most traditional cuts of meat for beef jerky include Top Round, Bottom Round, Eye of Round, and Sirloin Tip. Learn more about the Best Cuts of Meat for Jerky.
When looking to make a softer beef jerky, however, you can test a cut of meat that has slightly more marbling.
Intramuscular vs Intermuscular Fat
Intramuscular fat, otherwise known as marbling, runs between the muscle fibers.
Intermuscular fat, on the other hand, sits on the outside of the lean meat. It should be removed before the jerky making process.
Intramuscular fat contributes rich flavor. It also helps keep the finished jerky tender and juicy.
We recommend using the following cuts of meat when trying to make a soft jerky — Lifter, Brisket, and Tri-Tip.
Remove as much external fat as possible. Make the beef jerky your standard way and see if the type of cut contributes to a more tender jerky.
2. Slice against the grain
Slicing against the grain of the meat yields a softer jerky. Slicing against the grain breaks down the long, tough muscle fibers.
Think of slicing against the grain like doing a little pre-chewing.
What is the grain?
The grain in a piece of meat refers to the direction that the muscle fibers run. You can see the grain by the streaks that run through meat, often accentuated by white strips of marbling.
Learn more about How to Slice Meat for Jerky.
3. Slice the meat a little thicker
This might sound counterintuitive, but slicing the meat a little thicker will prevent the meat from drying out and becoming crispy.
When looking for a more tender jerky, we recommend slicing the meat between ¼” to ⅜”.
Experiment with different thicknesses to find the perfect balance between thickness and softness for your desired tastes.
It’s important to note, however, that the thicker the cut, the longer the drying time. Adjust accordingly.
4. Add additional sugar
Adding sugar to your standard recipe will help maintain more moisture in the meat and improve the tenderness of the finished jerky.
The sugar will envelop the water molecules and limit the growth of bacteria. The sugar will also prevent the moisture from cooking out of the meat.
We recommend adding between 15-18% of the total meat weight in sugar and 17-20% in water.
Completely dissolve the sugar in the water and then add the mixture to your standard meat and seasoning recipe.
For example, if you are making a batch of 10 LBS of meat, we recommend adding 1.8 LB of brown sugar and 2 LBS of water.
The only drawback of adding sugar is the jerky will have a distinct sweetness and stickiness to it. If you prefer a more traditional, savory jerky, then we would recommend skipping this option.
5. Test acidic ingredients and other meat tenderizers
There are a variety of ingredients you can add to your jerky marinade that will help tenderize the meat.
Vinegar, lemon juice, wine and other acidic ingredients weaken the collagen and protein in the meat. Collagen are the connective tissues that make meat tough. Acidic ingredients can tenderize and break these down.
There are a variety of meat tenderizers on the market that can accelerate the softening of meat during the marination process. These meat tenderizers feature enzymes such as papain (from papayas) or bromelain (from pineapples) that help break down collagen.
Here is a meat tenderizer seasoning from McCormick Spices.
6. Vacuum seal the meat during marination
The extraction of air in the bag will help the marinade penetrate the meat. The vacuum process pulls apart the fibers of the meat so that more of the marinade can come into contact with the meat.
The end result? A softer, more tender jerky.
7. Massage the meat during the marination process
During the marination process, mix and massage the meat every few hours. The massaging process will allow the muscle fibers to relax even more.
We use a vacuum tumbler in our commercial jerky factory that combines the vacuum and massaging steps. The vacuum tumbler has paddles on the inside chamber that slowly move and massage the meat.
You can easily do this at home with your hands.
8. Cook the meat in a dehydrator instead of an oven
Cooking the meat in a dehydrator will result in a slightly softer jerky than when cooked in other cooking methods such as an oven.
The consistent relative humidity of a dehydrator results in a slower extraction of the moisture through dehydration than pure heat.
9. Dehydrate at a lower temperature for a longer period of time
Play with the time and temperature of the cooking process. We recommend dehydrating at 165°F for 3-6 hours, but you can adapt the combination of time and temperature.
Test lower temperatures for a longer period of time to test the impact of softness. We don’t recommend going lower than 135°F.
10. Try ground beef jerky
There’s a limit to the tenderness of a whole-muscle jerky. An alternative type of jerky that offers a much more tender texture is ground beef jerky.
Click here for our Ground Beef Jerky Recipe.
There’s no perfect recipe for a tender beef jerky. Trial and error is your best bet. Follow the steps above to find the perfect recipe for soft beef jerky.
Find more homemade beef jerky resources at our Homemade Jerky Project.
Sick of using seasonings with preservatives and fake ingredients? Shop our homemade seasoning line made specifically for home jerky makers like yourself.
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