Making a Healthy Wild Game Jerky with the Kids

Do you have elk or deer in the freezer from last year? The year before? Pull it all out right now, get your kids or grand kids, and begin the journey to making the manliest snack of them all, jerky!

This is our mule deer and elk jerky method. Guys that praise their smoker and count red pepper flakes on dried meat are going to have a conniption fit, but this is a tried-and-true method. We process over 70lbs of elk and deer into jerky a year. It’s simple, time effective, can be done with kids, and makes a consistent product.

What will you need? Just bite the bullet and buy tools similar to the following. I’m not going to bullshit you and say that this can be done with a knife and a plastic spoon. Spend $200 and get the following. I’ve used the same set of tools for the last eight years.

Dehydrator-

Oh the shame! I do have a smoker, but it’s too much of a pain in the ass for jerky. You are dealing with thin strips of meat that are unwieldy in a smoker unless you are working with tiny volume. There is close to zero difference in finished product. These circular dehydrators are inexpensive, durable, and easy to clean.

Meat Slicer-

Buy this one, Chefs Choice Meat Slicer. It’s inexpensive and will save your fingers and patience.

Marinating dishes-

Anything will work with the exception of containers made from aluminum or aluminum foil. Aluminum reacts with ingredients to cause spoiling.

Do not use every Tupperware and mixing bowl in your house. Your wife will be pissed. Pissed off wives = less hunting trips. Marinating big batches of 30+ pounds takes a ton of space. Plan accordingly.

Durable Basting brush, like this one.

Optional- Vacuum packer, like this one.

You can use any cut of meat from deer or elk. I do my jerky in January as a way to clean out my freezer of older game meat. I will turn backstrap to roasts to neck meat into jerky. Some people hate to jerky prime cuts, but it's better than letting it sit in the freezer. Jerky will get eaten, I guarantee it!

Now to the actual ingredients. Our system has a “base” and independent flavors applied during drying.

Base marinade per 30lbs of trimmed meat:

86oz Yoshidas or Soy Vay Marinade

2 Cups Worcestershire

4 Table Spoons Brown Sugar

1 Table Spoon Pepper

4 Table Spoons Liquid Smoke

Mix all of these together for your marinade. After a few cycles, you will adjust this to your own preferences. This marinade introduces a teriyaki base to the meat. 95% of people consider this the “jerky” taste they are accustomed to.

You may need to adjust the total amount of marinade based on the marinating dishes you use. The meat needs to be completely covered.

For “flavors” you can have some fun and try new things. These are my go-to options. Keep in mind that our system allows for as much variation in flavors, per batch, as you would like.

Honey – Used on all flavor applications.

Buffalo Sauce

Red Pepper Flakes

Jamaican Jerk Sauce

Habanero Sauce

Our System:

Step 1. Remove meat from the freezer and start defrosting in the refrigerator. Depending on the size of the pieces, you will want to defrost for 4-8 hours. You DO NOT want the meat completely thawed. You want the meat to remain partially frozen. It will be easier to slice and handle.

Step 2.Trim off any external fat or sinew.

This is what your meat should look like. Solid red. This stuff will turn you into a mound of twisted steel and sex appeal.

Step 3. Mix your base marinade. It is best if you mix it all in a centralized pot or mixing bowl. This way you can ensure a consistent mixture across marinating dishes.

Step 4. Begin slicing your meat. Slice into pieces less than ¼” thick. Try to slice against the grain. You won’t be able to all the time, but it makes the end product easier to eat.

Step 5. Go through the sliced pieces and trim off all sinew and fat. I’m talking 100%. Deer and elk fat on finished jerky tastes like shit. Sinew can make pieces of jerky nearly impossible to eat. This is an area where you have to recognize you are not using beef. Tendons and fat on beef are much more forgiving. Most real men could eat today’s beef before they had their first baby teeth.

Step 6. Fill a marinating dish with the meat slices. Make sure meat is completely covered. Repeat until all meat is in marinating dishes.

Step 7. Refrigerate the meat for a minimum of 12 hours. You can only dehydrate so much meat at a time. This means large batches will end up with significant variation in marinating times. This has never been an issue for us. The later batches are marginally more flavorful.

Step 8. Layer your dehydrator with meat. Do not allow the slices to touch each other. You need proper air circulation. Always start by layering your bottom shelf and moving your way up. This way you won’t end up with raw meat marinade all over your counter top. Set your dehydrator for 160 degrees. Check to make sure you hear the dehydrator's fan.

Step 9. Run the dehydrator for 2-3 hours and then apply your “flavor” sauce. Dehydrating the meat for a few hours before applications gives you a dry meat surface to apply the sauce to. This keeps things clean and raw meat juices away from your flavoring.

When the meat is ready it will look like this. Starting to dry but still "plump".

Flavor Sauce Process:

  1. Warm up a 3-4 Tablespoons of honey in a small dish. 10-25 seconds in the microwave is plenty.
  2. Honey alone is a great flavor. However, used in conjunction with other sauces it gives you the essential “stick” you need for application. Mix the flavor of your choice in with the honey.
  3. Kids love to help on this step. Using a basting brush, apply your sauce to the meat slices. You only need to apply sauce to the top side of the slices. Again, start on the bottom layer. Note, that you will get some dripping, so it makes sense to use the same flavor on each dehydrator batch.
  4. "Dry" flavors like red pepper can be directly added to the honey or sprinkled directly after the honey basting.

Some sauces will leave a slight white discoloration on the meat after finished drying. It doesn't affect the taste, but you will have to play around if you don’t want this appearance. Salty buffalo sauces are usually the culprit.

On a large batch of jerky, you can try 6-12 different flavor combinations.

Step 10. Let the meat continue dehydrating at 160 degrees for 3-5 additional hours. The total drying time is usually 7-9 hours. Use your finger to test the meat. There should not be any “softness” to the meat when it is finished. The slices should be firm throughout.

Step 11. If you consistently sliced the meat, you should be able to remove all the meat at the same time. Double check that there are no soft thick areas. If there is, you are introducing an environment for bacteria growth. That little pocket is basically raw meat. The meat should pull off the racks without tearing.

Let the meat cool down in mixing bowls. Package according to your preference. Vacuum packing is a great way to go.

Final Notes:

Take a look at the ingredients above and then compare to a purchased bag of jerky. We aren't using all the intense preservatives. The salts and sugars that end up in our final product are minimal. Most of the junk stays in the leftover marinade. Hence, you are making a protein-packed, healthy snack.

Keep in mind that you need to freeze or refrigerate this jerky. All the nasty shit in store-bought jerky does give it an almost endless shelf life. We don’t have that convenience. I do routinely use our jerky for pack trips and guiding where it is unrefrigerated for 3-5 days, away from high temps. I wouldn't push beyond that.

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This article was originally published on FlatTopsWildernessGuides.com by the author.

By Cliff Gray

Cliff is a registered outfitter in the State of Colorado, guiding and outfitting over 80 hunters a year for elk, bighorns and mule deer in the White River National Forest and Flat Tops Wilderness Area of the Rocky Mountains. He has years of experience hunting big game in the Rocky Mountains via remote backpacking and horse/mule packing. He is a private pilot and a certified wilderness first responder.