Smoking and dehydrating game meat is one of the oldest ways to preserve food. For thousands of years, people have used wind and solar techniques to dry their meat in order to preserve it. Nowadays, modern conveniences like charcoal smokers help us use smoking and dehydrating machines for a more controlled cure. And game meat jerky can be a valuable protein addition to your survival food stash (don't forget to include traditional hardtack and dried fish too.)
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Although dehydrating and smoking wild game meat isn't complicated, there are a few things you need to know. These tips will help you get started making your own delicious dried meats.
Prepping Your Game Meat for Jerky
Selecting the right cut of meat to cure is important in order to create dried meat that doesn’t go bad too quickly. Venison (from deer, elk, and moose) and other game meats are very lean and ideal for smoking and dehydrating, and perfect for making pemmican as well as jerky. Meats that are high in fat will go rancid faster due to the fat content. If you use a fatty cut of meat, do your best to trim it off as much as possible.
Once you’ve trimmed the fat, cut the meat into slices just over ⅛ of an inch thick, against the grain. Keep in mind, the pieces will shrink significantly as they dry out. If you have trouble slicing that thinly, freeze the meat for 20-30 minutes and try again.
Now it’s time to make your marinade or dry rub. There are lots of great recipes you can try, but this classic beef jerky recipe is a good place to start. Toss the meat in a freezer bag, removing as much oxygen as you can. Place in the fridge overnight.
Dehydrating Your Jerky
What's the easiest way to make jerky? Try using an electric dehydrator.
If an electric dehydrator isn't an option, consider solar dehydrator alternatives. And check your oven! Some new ovens have a dehydrate setting.
If using an oven setting or electric dehydrator, set the temperature at 140 degrees Fahrenheit for three to four hours. Make sure your strips of meat are spaced out evenly on the racks and not overlapping.
Your meat will still be pliable and feel soft to the touch when it’s done, so don’t keep trying to dry it out more. As the strips cool down, they will harden and firm up.
If the jerky seems to dry after cooling, put it in another Ziploc bag for an hour or so. This will allow some of the remaining moisture to slightly rehydrate itself. Make sure you dry any surface moisture off before you store it for good, or it may spoil sooner than expected.
Smoking Your Game Meat
As an alternative to dehydrating meat, you can smoke it. The smoking method is great for drying fish, or for adding a smoky flavor to your game meat. Using a smoker instead of an open fire will allow you to control the temperature and amount of smoke much easier.
Set your smoker to between 150 – 160 degrees Fahrenheit and leave it for about 24 hours. The thicker you cut your strips, the longer it will take to dry out, so check on them every 12 hours or so.
Similar to dehydrators, an electric smoker takes very little electricity to operate and doesn’t take up too much space. They're easy to use and most can be simply set at a temperature and left until finished. Traditional smokers are non-electric and require almost constant supervision to make sure your desired temperature and smoke are maintained.
You will have to adjust your cooking times and temperatures depending on which smoker model you are using. For jerky, using an electric smoker is ideal because they don’t generate too much smoke and are much easier to control.
A popular technique for smoking and dehydrating game meat is to start it off in a smoker, and then finish the process with a dehydrator. By doing this, the meat gains a desired smoky flavor before being fully dehydrated. If you try this method, just adjust your recipe to account for drying time in each vessel.
For beginners, check out this video from Bon Appetit's Brad Leone. Although he's making beef jerky, the principles and technique are the same for game meat.
Storing Your Dried Meat
If you have a vacuum sealer use it to package your dried meat. This will keep your jerky or dried meat fresh for a few months at room temperature.
If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, you can use a Ziploc bag with as much air removed as possible, but this will only last about a week or two. The best way to remove air is to submerge the bag in a pot of water, with the top held open just above the water. The water will push all the air out of the bag as it submerges, allowing you to seal the top with no excess air in the package.
If it’s your first time smoking and dehydrating game meat, start with an easy recipe. Use lean cuts of your extra game meat and make sure you have all the necessary supplies for your recipe. Remember to trim as much fat as you can to help extend the shelf life of your dried meat. No matter which method you choose to preserve your meat this fall, it will provide you tasty, nutrient-packed snacks through the winter.
More Great Resources for Smoking and Dehydrating Game Meat
- North Dakota State University: Jerky Making: Producing a Traditional Food With Modern Processing
- National Center for Home Food Preservation: How Do I Dry Jerky?
- USDA Food Safety & Inspection Service: Jerky & Food Safety