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How to Use a Dehydrator for Jerky – Your Ultimate Guide

My oldest daughter, Astrid and I love beef jerky and have long wondered how to use a dehydrator for jerky.

So I decided to investigate. Here’s what I found out about how to use a dehydrator for jerky.

Using a dehydrator or oven that reaches 160°, take lean meat & remove any excess fat. Then cut into long strips going with the grain. Soak the meat in white vinegar for 10 minutes. Drain & marinate overnight. Dehydrate at 160° for 4 hours, flipping halfway. Not chewy enough? Continue dehydrating for 1-2 hours.

But there’s a lot of questions about how to use a dehydrator for jerky. After all, store bought jerky is often loaded with sugar, MSG and preservatives. It’s also hard to know if the meat they were using was good quality or not.

So let’s dig a little deeper.

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

What is the best kind of meat for jerky?

Of course, you can use just about any kind of meat to make jerky with.

That being said, beef is probably the most common. With beef jerky, it’s crucial that you select lean cuts of meat. Like oils, fat can easily become rancid, so choosing lean cuts of beef like any of the following work best:

  • Top Sirloin
  • Sirloin tip side steak
  • Porterhouse steak
  • Eye of round steak
  • Bottom round steak
  • Top round steak
  • Flap or flank steak

You also want to trim any excess fat from those cuts before dehydrating.

Aside from beef, chicken, and turkey naturally work well also being lean to begin with. However, with poultry (or pork or game meats) you will want to cook in an oven at 160° oven for a minimum of 60 minutes before dehydrating. This reduces the risk of salmonella. It’s recommended to freeze game meats first as an additional precaution.

Pre-cooking or freezing beef before dehydrating is not necessary.

Beef jerky preparation

As we’ve mentioned, it’s important to choose lean cuts of meat and to remove any excess fat from the meat before dehydrating.

When cutting your strips. cutting with the grain gives a traditional leathery chew and snap. However, cutting the meat strips against the grain gives a brittle jerky that falls apart easily. So decide which style sounds more appealing.

You can also place your meat in the freezer for about 30 minutes to make slicing it easier.

While you don’t have to use a kitchen mallet to pound the strips flat, doing so will decrease dehydrating time.

That can also be useful if your strips are extra thick.

Typically you would then do a quick soak in white vinegar for about 10 minutes, drain and place in a ziplock bag with your favorite sauce or marinade for at least 8 hours if not overnight. Once drained from the marinade (but not rinsed or wiped), you’re ready to begin dehydrating.

Do you have to cook jerky before dehydrating?

No is the short answer for beef jerky.

The dehydrator will extract the moisture from the meat and naturally cure it for you. The initial vinegar soak will help preserve the meat and keep bacteria from growing on it.

However, if you are using pork, chicken, turkey, or other game meat, to reduce the risk of salmonella, cook in a 160° oven for a minimum of 60 minutes before dehydrating. You can also freeze the meat first as a precaution.

Do you have to cure beef before making jerky?

No is the short answer here also.

That being said, there are some reasons you might want to salt cure your beef first. For one, if you are using ground beef to start with a salt cure is helpful to prevent bacteria growth. Ground meat has been exposed to a lot more air and has been handled more, so it’s naturally more susceptible to bacteria.

A salt cure also helps keep the jerky fresher longer.

Salt cured beef jerky could last up to 3 months, whereas un-salt cured beef jerky will only last about 2 weeks. In both cases, you will want to seal in an airtight container and keep refrigerated.

How much salt does it take to cure a pound of beef jerky?

While you don’t need to salt cure your jerky, doing so will give you a considerably longer shelf life.

Thus, if you are making a ton of jerky and won’t be eating it quickly, salt curing is a great place to start before learning how to use a dehydrator for jerky.

You will make a salt brine of about 1/2 cups of pickling salt in 1 quart of water. That is the right amount for about 5 lbs of meat. For one pound of meat, you would need about 1 oz of salt (2 tablespoons).

You can also add additional spices to your brine or a tablespoon or 2 of sauces like Worcestershire.

After it’s been in the brine for 1-2 days, remove it from the brine and dry with a paper towel. Discard the brine. Then move forward with using the dehydrator to make your jerky.

But for something so simple, there’s an awful lot of confusion about the world of salt.

In a recent article, however, my wife, who does most of the cooking in our house, wrote the ultimate guide to salt.

She breaks down each kind of salt, what the health benefits or concerns are, the differences between each type, and much more.

So if you’ve ever wondered if pink Himilayan sea salt was a total scam or the next health craze, you’ll want to check out this article.

Just click the link to read it on my site.

What does the cure do for jerky?

Curing any meat helps preserve it.

In the olden days before refrigerators, people would often kill an animal, butcher it and then cut and cure it so they had food to eat for the coming months.

Salt naturally removes moisture from whatever it touches. As an example, when you eat something really salty you naturally get thirsty faster than you normally would.

Thus, salting meat or salt curing meat removes excess moisture from the meat helping to keep it fresher longer.

How long do you use a dehydrator for jerky?

4-6 hours is the typical range for using a food dehydrator to make jerky at 160°.

But how thick the strips or chunks of meat are can vary that wildly. Really thick strips could take as much as 15 hours.

You can speed up the process by pounding your strips flat with a kitchen mallet before dehydrating. Just place the strips side by side between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and pound thin.

So always start checking at the 4-hour mark checking for excess moisture, tenderness or bendability. If you are seeing any of those, keep it going for at least another hour and check again.

How do you know when beef jerky is done dehydrating?

Start to check the jerky after 4 hours.  If your strips are really thick, it will take considerably longer than that, but 4 hours is a great place for your initial check.

You will know when your jerky is ready by:

  • It’s dry with no remaining marinade or temperature variations in different spots
  • It cracks easily when bent but still remains connected by a few strands

Can you overcook jerky in a dehydrator?

The short answer here is yes!

While over-cooked jerky will stay fresh longer, when it’s super brittle and chews like a piece of leather, it’s not the most appetizing thing in the world. That’s why it’s crucial to set your dehydrator to 160° and then check it after 4 hours.

Your jerky may well need 6 or even 8 hours to fully dehydrate, but you do want to monitor it throughout the process to get it to the right consistency.

Make no mistake, over-cooked jerky is safe to eat, just not as tasty and can have an unpleasant texture.

If you are doing your jerky in an oven rather than a dehydrator, you can run into some issues with over-cooking too as the oven is just baking the meat instead of dehydrating it. Some ovens also don’t go as low as 160°.

So for oven-baked jerky, it may help to crack the oven door a little bit with something like a wine cork to let moisture escape and I might begin checking at 3 hours.

Does homemade beef jerky need to be refrigerated?

Yes, is the short answer. Just to be safe.

Store bought jerky often contains preservatives so it can sit there on the shelf for a long time. Because we aren’t doing that, always refrigerate your jerky.

Salt cured jerky will last in a refrigerator up to 3 months. Jerky made without the salt brine can be refrigerated up to 2 weeks. Just make sure to keep your jerky in an airtight container and periodically check for mold.

Final Thoughts

In this article, we took an in-depth look into the world of jerky, both beef, as well as other meats. We looked at the best cuts of meat that get the best results, examined why lean meats make better jerky, and answered all the top questions and safety concerns about making homemade jerky.

But ultimately, we explored exactly what settings to use on a food dehydrator to get you the best results every time!

What’s your favorite beef jerky recipe?

If you’re looking to buy any small kitchen appliance, don’t forget to check out my Recommended Products Page (click to see my page) which breaks down all my best picks by category.

I always hand select items that I either own, have used, or have researched well to ensure they are great items. I also give not only top of the line as well as inexpensive alternatives so my choices work for any budget.

Jeff Campbell