There are key sensory clues to help determine when a jerky is cooked, dried, and ready to enjoy. The secret is using the five senses and a bit of common sense.
In technical terms, beef jerky is “done” when it’s been cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160°F and dried to a water activity under 0.85.
In a commercial jerky factory, needle-thin probes and water activity meters can detect and measure these benchmarks to scientific precision. In our beef jerky factory, we have professional equipment and over 90+ years and four generations of experience to tell when a batch of jerky has reached these specific parameters.
The home jerky maker has to rely on smell, taste, and visual cues to determine when a jerky is cooked, dried, and ready to enjoy. How to know when jerky is done is important to enjoy jerky at its peak.
5 Key Steps To Tell When Beef Jerky is Done
- Cook time & temperature have been met without deviations.
- The jerky begins to produce a meaty, appetizing smell.
- Fat is rendered and the jerky has a dry, leathery appearance.
- The jerky bends and eventually breaks, but doesn’t snap.
- The jerky tastes dried.
Equipped with this insider’s knowledge, you can tell exactly when your jerky is done.
Keep reading to learn more about each step.
1. The cook time & temperature have been met without deviations.
The prescribed cook time and temperature in trusted beef jerky recipes are specifically designed to reach an acceptable doneness. The key word there is trusted.
Our beef jerky recipes, for example, have been rigorously and repeatedly considered, tested, and tasted. These tests guarantee a delicious, fully-cooked jerky.
This is important because when it comes to making beef jerky, there’s no single combination of time and temperature that achieves cooked jerky.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the governing body that oversees all meat production, offers Cooking Guidelines that demonstrate the range of combinations that reach lethality (industry-speak for fully cooked).
*Note these times and temps result in a jerky being cooked, but not necessarily dried.
In simple terms, to reach doneness, you can cook a piece of meat at a lower temperature for a longer period of time OR a higher temperature for a shorter period of time. As long as you hit and maintain the prescribed temperature for the required amount of time, you can be assured of lethality.*
*Lethality is an industry term that defines the process or steps used to destroy pathogenic microorganisms in a product to make the product safe for human consumption.
An important note here is that these time and temperature requirements are for the internal part of the meat. Not oven temperature or surface temperature, but internal meat temperature.
We’ve seen it all in our 90+ years of making jerky. We know enough to know there’s no single way to make jerky. Ultimately, it comes down to your preference and the recipe you select. The key is to choose a reputable recipe and follow the instructions closely.
Pro Tip: Pay attention during the cooking process to make sure there are no dips in temperature that would impact the required cook time. If there are dips in temperature, simply add more time.
For jerky sliced to a 1/4 inch, we recommend cooking at a temperature of 165°F for 4-5 hours, but even then, there can be variables outside of your control that require the following steps to make sure the jerky is done.
If the jerky has been cooked to the suggested time and temperature of your recipe, without any fluctuations in temperature, you can move to step two.
2. The jerky begins to produce a meaty, appetizing smell.
An easy and obvious indicator that the jerky is done (or at least approaching doneness) is the aroma. Cooked jerky will give off an appetizing cooked meat smell.
That appetizing smell is a product of non-enzymatic browning known as the Maillard reaction. Here’s a description of the Maillard reaction from the team at Serious Eats.
“The Maillard reaction is many small, simultaneous chemical reactions that occur when proteins and sugars in and on your food are transformed by heat, producing new flavors, aromas, and colors.”
The Maillard reaction is the reason we love cooked, roasted and browned foods such as coffee, bread, and steaks. Think of meaty, brothy, roasty, nutty, and umami-rich flavors in taste and smell.
Typically, the Maillard reaction happens at hotter temperatures from 280°F to 330°F, but it can also happen at lower temperatures when heat is applied for longer periods of time. The flavors that emerge in ripening and aging cheese, for example, are due from the Maillard reaction, or in our case, low and slow-cooked beef jerky.
That means once your oven, dehydrator, or smoker starts to emit an irresistible smell you know you’re close to done or fully done.
3. Intramuscular fat is rendered and the jerky has a dry, leathery appearance.
Time for the eyeball test. Remove a piece and let it cool for a few minutes. Warm jerky can obscure true doneness, so make sure it cools down to as close to room temperature as possible.
Once cool, check for the following visual signs:
- The jerky should have a dry, leathery appearance.
- Any intramuscular fat should be rendered and cooked out. Any residual fat should have a deep, rich, golden brown color. White or ivory colored fat is a sign the jerky still needs more time.
- There shouldn’t be any residual moisture from the marinade on the outside of the jerky (some grease or fat is normal and will have a shiny appearance), as seen on the photo above.
4. The jerky bends and eventually breaks, but doesn’t snap.
The “bend test” is the most important criteria to determine if jerky is done.
Working with the same test piece (ideally, close to room temperature), bend it in half to test the flexibility.
The jerky should bend and eventually break, but not snap off. If you’re unable to break the jerky into two pieces, and it’s still rubbery, that means it needs more time. If the jerky snaps into two pieces with bending, it’s most likely over-dried.
Pro Tip: Finished jerky should be like a green tree branch. It should be pliable enough that it can bend in half to the point where it eventually breaks. It should not be like a dry, dead tree branch that simply snaps in half.
5. The jerky tastes dry.
The final test is the best part — taste the jerky!
Sample the test piece of jerky. Does it taste dry like jerky, or does it have residual internal moisture more similar to a steak?
You’re the best judge here. Trust your instincts. Remember, you can always add more time to the cook process to be on the safe side.
The drier the jerky, the longer it will last.
By the time you check the jerky based on the recommendation of the recipe, it will almost always be cooked and safe to eat. At this stage, you’re checking to see if it’s sufficiently dried, which will make it shelf-stable.
If at this point the jerky isn’t “done,” don’t worry, simply keep cooking the jerky. Check the jerky every 15 minutes until it’s sufficiently dried based on our criteria. You can always add more time, but you can’t take it away, so be sure to check the jerky diligently at this stage.
Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to pull pieces that are done, while letting pieces that still need more time remain cooking. Jerky is a natural product that’s not going to cook perfectly every time. You have the power to adjust as needed.
When in doubt, go for more. We’d rather have a slightly drier jerky rather than a moist jerky that will mold in a few days.
If the jerky passes all five steps, it’s good to go.
It’s not an exact science (for that you’ll need professional equipment and years of experience), but with these visual cues you can get really close to how the pros do it.
Want to know the best way to maximize the freshness and flavor of your jerky after cooking? Check out our guide on How to Store Homemade Beef Jerky.
Ready to take your jerky to the next level? Check out our custom beef jerky seasoning blends (Coming Soon! Sign-Up For Early Access), specially designed to take your homemade jerky to the next level.