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4 Tips for Homemade Beef Jerky

December is the month of miracles and magical thinking. And why lean meat, seasoned and dried to within an inch of its life, is so darned good is beyond me. It is one of the mysteries of the universe.
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December is the month of miracles and magical thinking. And why lean meat, seasoned and dried to within an inch of its life, is so darned good is beyond me. It is one of the mysteries of the universe. We made a few batches on the set of Project Smoke. Suddenly, everyone on the crew seemed to have a transparent excuse to pass through the kitchen tent. The draw? Sriracha Beef Jerky.

Jerky (from the South American Quechua word ch'arki) is a $1.5 billion industry in the U.S. Sales are up 46 percent since 2009. No surprise, really. It's a terrific snack -- high-protein, low-carb, gluten-free, low-fat. Even our primitive Neolithic ancestors, who smoked and dried it over their fires, appreciated jerky's portability and long shelf life. It's still a favorite of today's nomads and road trip takers.

You can buy jerky through high-end food purveyors or at gas stations. But homemade jerky... well, it's out of this world.

  • Use only lean cuts of meat. Fat resists drying, and will shorten the shelf life of jerky. For beef jerky, use top or bottom round, flank steak, or sirloin. Partially freeze the meat before slicing against the grain with a sharp knife. (For chewier jerky, slice with the grain.) Turkey breast, lean cuts of venison or other game meats, and even chicken breast are good candidates, too. Slice into strips that are 1/4-inch thick or less.

  • Marinate the meat for at least 24 hours in the refrigerator before smoking or dehydrating. I use resealable plastic bags and turn them every few hours.
  • Before smoking or drying, drain the meat on multiple layers of paper towels. If I'm in a hurry, I sandwich the meat between paper towels and use a rolling pin to press out excess moisture.
  • Set up your smoker or grill according to the manufacturer's instructions and preheat to 165 degrees. You will need only a few coals if working with a charcoal grill. Presoak wood chips in water for at least 30 minutes, then drain before tossing on the coals. Replenish as needed. Stovetop smokers can be used to give the jerky that home-smoked flavor. You can finish drying the jerky in a low oven if necessary. Set the temperature as low as you can, then prop the door open with the handle of a wooden spoon to allow the moisture to escape.
  • SIGN UP for Steven Raichlen's UP IN SMOKE newsletter to learn more about barbecue!

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    Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Project Smoke on public television. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.