Is Beef Jerky Cooked?
Most beef jerky that you purchase in a convenience store, grocery store or any other store where beef jerky is sold is cooked. There is one kind of jerky that is not cooked and we will cover that in a minute. Flying G beef jerky is a cooked beef jerky. We use a combination of a dehydrator and a smoker working together and we follow strict USDA guidelines when manufacturing our beef jerky to make sure that we are 100% compliant on everything. By using the dehydrator with a smoker, we are able to achieve that perfect, steady heat of a dehydrator coupled with the wonderful flavor of natural smoke. Not the less than desirable chemical taste of liquid smoke.
In the interest of getting the jerky safe for consumption, the USDA states that to get a total kill on all bacteria and mold spores, a beef jerky needs to be cooked with the following guidelines. The beef jerky needs to reach an internal temperature of 160 degrees or above and sustain that for 1 hour or better. Beyond that it can be cooked to the preferred dryness of the manufacturer. That translates to however dry their customers prefer it to be.
There are a few different ways to cook jerky. Either a dehydrator, oven, smoker or sun and air dried. A dehydrator is usually the best option because of its ability to hold a set temperature. Smoking it in a smoker at a low temperature is nice for flavor but it sometimes hard to keep a constant temp to cook it to perfection. An oven can also be used but I recommend only doing this in a pinch. Finally, it can be sun and air dried to create a biltong. Let us take some time to explore the different ways jerky is cooked.
In our honest opinion, this is the method that works best. A Dehydrator is like a convection oven. It uses the combination of a heating element and a fan. The difference is that the dehydrator specializes in working with lower temperatures so it can hold a temperature plus or minus a couple degrees for a long period of time. By doing this, you can count on even cooking and getting the outcome you want for your jerky. Another plus is that most racks in a dehydrator are made to be dishwasher safe. They can easily be rinsed in a sink and put in the dishwasher for easy cleaning. We all love easy cleaning, right!
Another method that can be used to make beef jerky is to utilize a smoker. This method can absolutely lead to a wonderfully, flavorful batch of beef jerky. If you use a great combination of seasonings and spices and cook your jerky in a smoker, the flavor you can achieve is out of this world due the natural wood smoke that is soaked up by the meat. One great health benefit of using a smoker is that you can get that natural smoke flavor (if that is what you prefer) instead of using liquid smoke, which is not healthy for you. Liquid smoke is an allergen and that is why you see it stated on jerky packages from companies that use liquid smoke. That is a USDA/FDA requirement.
The oven method can be used to make a good tasting beef jerky. It is a plus if you are using a convection oven because of the air flow provided by the fan in the oven. You can still use a regular oven to make beef jerky but it just takes longer because of the lack of air flow provided by a convection fan. Most ovens are meant to cook at higher temperatures and some of them do not go low enough to cook jerky. Ideally, you want to cook it under 200 degrees. You would want the temperature somewhere around 170 degrees. Also, you definitely do not want to use the broiler function. If it comes on it can really scorch the jerky even at the lowest oven setting. Should the broiler on top come on when the oven is at its lowest setting, foil or a baking sheet would need to be placed above the jerky to deflect the heat. You don’t want to expose the jerky to any kind of direct heat. If the oven can go that low and hold that temperature very well then you are in business. One unfortunate outcome of using your household oven is that it can make a mess of your oven if you do not properly line the bottom of the oven and the racks.
Sun and Air Drying (Biltong)
One form of jerky called biltong is not cooked. For biltong, they use a combination of a vinegar solution with seasonings and spices for a marinade and then the meat is dried in a large room using ambient air temperature with air flow created to help dry it. By USDA standards, beef jerky needs to cook at ~160 degrees or higher for a certain amount of time with a certain amount of humidity to get a total kill on bacteria. Biltong manufacturers use the vinegar solution to get a kill on bacteria. This cooking process is not outlined with the USDA or FDA so it is up to the manufacturer to prove that their process accomplishes a total kill on all bacteria and mold spores. If they can achieve this proof, they are allowed to make biltong to package and sell to stores for end consumer consumption. This process makes a much different tasting and texture product compared to jerky. The origins of Biltong is believed to come from the southern part of Africa.
That should give you a good idea of the different ways that beef jerky is cooked, or in one case, not cooked. To avoid the risk of food poisoning, one should always want to seek out beef jerky that has been cooked.