By Mike Deming
The thermometer says minus nine degrees, the days are short and football season is coming to a close. This might mean ice fishing time for many of you or time to grab your FoxPro and head to the woods to call in a few coyotes. For me, it says its’ time to get out my grinder, slicer, sausage stuffer and smoker and get busy making tasty treats with all of the meat I harvested over the year.
Since we travel the country evaluating outfitters as well as hunting numerous units throughout the west for our do-it-yourself hunts, we end up with a lot of meat by the end of the year. It is safe to say that I’m a bit of a food snob and I take great pride in processing my own meat. I like my backstraps cut into 9” sections and trimmed up and clean, double plastic wrapped, plus one wrap of freezer paper before I dump them into the deep freeze. Then all I need to do is cut them into appropriate portions when I pull them out of the freezer.
When I am butchering my game, I only like to do a couple of roasts from each back leg. The whole muscle sections of the back leg that aren’t turned into roasts will be wrapped up and labeled as jerky meat. The remainder of the animal is cut into 1” cubes and frozen. This time of year is when all of those cubes and whole muscle pieces come out of the freezer and get turned into edible table fare. This includes various types of sausage, jerky, burger and meat sticks. This is also a good time of year to go through the freezer and pull out those roasts that might be left from the year before. This isn’t my preferred method for choosing meat, but it is a great way to clean out the freezer of older pieces. Make sure the meat isn’t freezer burned or it will taint your jerky or sausage. The double wrap of plastic wrap and one of freezer paper will usually get you two solid years of storage without any freezer burn issues.
Jerky is a staple around the Deming house and my three girls eat it just like candy. They also look forward to this time of year because they enjoy helping out with the process. This is great family time and they all learn to value the animals we harvest and know we make the most of them.
Jerky is also one of the easiest products to start with in your home processing. Your kitchen is probably already equipped to handle the majority of the job. You will need a cutting board, sharp knife, drying rack (probably the only thing not in the kitchen already) and your oven. The drying rack can be picked up at your local Sportsman’s Warehouse or online at www.sportsmanswarehouse.com for about ten bucks.
Multiple racks will allow you to do more jerky at one time and I recommend at least two racks. The drying rack allows the jerky to lay flat on an oven rack while circulating air all around the meat. This will make the meat dry evenly.
Seasonings for your jerky is the next decision you will need to make. A quick Google search will yield you about every recipe and flavor you can imagine for jerky. Although some of these recipes might be old family favorites and very good, I prefer the numerous flavors Hi Mountain Seasonings provides. They provide over a dozen different flavors to choose from and this process is much simpler for the novice. Pick the flavor that you want, mix the dry ingredients, sprinkle over the meat, let sit overnight and dry. The Hi Mountain Seasonings are less expensive than purchasing all of the multiple ingredients needed for the online recipes and much less messy.
Once you have all the equipment and seasonings you will need, you can get started. I like to have my 3-5 pound piece of meat (whole muscle group) still partially frozen. This allows you to make good uniform cuts of the meat. Choosing the thickness of your jerky is a personal preference. I prefer a more pliable and chewy jerky, so I cut my pieces into 3/8” sections which will take a little longer to dry, but will yield a little more moist finished product. If you like your jerky a little crispy, cut it at 1/4” thick strips. Regardless of your choice, do your best to get each piece as close to the same thickness as possible.
Next, lay all cut pieces out on a flat surface like a cookie sheet or a table. Mix your ingredients for your Hi Mountain Seasoning according to the amount of meat you have sliced. The two packages of dry ingredients in their jerky kit are a seasoning packet and a cure packet. Once the appropriate amount of seasoning is mixed, put it into the enclosed shaker. Apply seasonings evenly on one side of the meat and then turn over and apply the remaining amount to the other side. Stack the flat slices of meat and put them into a ziplock storage bag and then into your refrigerator overnight to allow the seasoning to penetrate the meat.
An insider note when making jerky with the Hi Mountain Seasonings is; to increase the flavor, add more of the seasonings, but make sure to keep the cure the same. I personally use almost double the seasonings recommended. This is especially true when talking about the inferno or jalapeno flavors. After several batches, you will figure out what you and your consumers like the most. After 24 hours seasoning time in the refrigerator, you will place the slices across your drying rack, making sure there is no overlapping. Remember, you want good air circulation around each piece of meat which will produce uniform drying. Turn your oven onto the lowest setting (mine is 175 degrees) and prop the door open slightly with a chair. Remember, you want to dry the meat and not cook it. I like to do this process at night when the house is cold and nobody will accidentally shut the oven door. When I wake up in the morning, I have a completed batch of tasty jerky to take with me to the office.
Once you become a jerky master or decide you want to simplify the process, there are several items you can pick up at Sportsman’s Warehouse which will make your life much easier. LEM Products makes an electric meat slicer, which makes cutting large volumes of meat a snap. I can slice 50-60 pounds of meat for jerky in about an hour with this great tool. When you have this much meat ready to be made into jerky, you also need to step up the process of drying as well. The big LEM 800 dehydrator is the only way to go. It holds 10 drying racks that are 16” X 14.5” and has a built-in timer. Once you load up the dehydrator, you can set the timer and in about five hours, you will have about a third of your sixty pounds of jerky done and ready to eat. The dehydrator is great for drying fruits and veggies, which make great snacks for your pack as well. Both of these items are a must if you are going to do large volumes of jerky.
After you have mastered the jerky program, you will be ready for the next level; making meat snacks and sausages and this will require a little more equipment. All of these processes will require you to grind the meat, so an inexpensive hand grinder is the cheapest route, but the LEM electric grinders are my favorite. Choosing the correct size and horsepower grinder is an entirely different article, so we will leave that for another day. Just remember, bigger is usually better when it comes to this category and will speed up the process.
Meat snacks such as pepperoni are one of my all time favorites. Once again, Hi Mountain Seasoning has just about every flavor you can imagine. They have over a dozen flavors and some of our family favorites are Cajun Blend, Mandarin Teriyaki Blend, Hunter’s Blend and Pepperoni Blend. Each kit has everything you need to put together 20 pounds of product.
You will need a large glass bowl or plastic tote to use for mixing. I like to use a high side, 20 qt plastic tote with a lid for these types of projects. You will also need your grinder and a sausage stuffing tube that fits onto your grinder or a separate unit specifically designed for this job.
This is where we will use those 1” cubes of meat that have been in the freezer for the past month or two. Grinding these lean pieces of meat with a coarse grind will get you started. I will usually recruit my youngest daughter to run the grinder and plow through approximately 100 to 150 cubes of meat at one time. We then put the ground meat in coolers and allow them to sit outside. This is one of the main reasons I do this production during the coldest months of the year. Processing over 100 pounds of meat isn’t something we can get done in just one day and we have limited refrigerator space. Your initial batches will probably be much smaller and won’t be a problem. I don’t recommend doing large batches until you figure out your favorite flavors as well as the recipe adjustments to get you the perfect product.
Most sausages require the use of a lot of pork to be mixed with your game. However, this isn’t the case with meat sticks. I will mix in about a half pound of pork for every four and a half pounds of ground venison, but you can do it with no pork added as well. Once you have your course ground meat in your bowl or tub, you can sprinkle the correct amount of seasonings and cure over the top of the meat. Add the appropriate amount of cold water and mix vigorously by hand for about five minutes. I tend to go heavy on the seasonings for my meat sticks as well. I like spicy, full flavor products and adding more than the packaging calls for is something you will learn with time.
Never add more cure than the amount of meat you have weighted out. Extra cure will give your product an extreme salty flavor. Cure can be completely eliminated, but you will be required to keep your finished products frozen or refrigerated. Now that you have the product mixed, it is time to get busy grinding and stuffing. Replace the course grind attachment on your grinder with a fine grind and stuffer attachment if you have this setup. This will allow you to do the finished grind, which aids in mixing and stuffing the finished product into the casings in one process. If not, run your seasoned ground meat through the fine grind one time and then immediately put it into the sausage stuffer. These come in various handheld models and LEM makes larger volume sausage stuffers, which I prefer. The cure will start to set the meat immediately which will make it hard to push through the stuffer, so make sure you are ready to get this job to completion when you get it started.
Putting the seasoned meat into the casing is something that deters most people from getting into this process. It is much simpler than the directions make it sound and after a few broken casings, you will be pumping out meat sticks like a seasoned professional. Simply feed the empty casings onto the sausage stuffing tube until the tube won’t hold any more material. Once you start pumping the seasoned meat mixture through the stuffer and it starts to come out the end, pull the casing over the end of the meat and tie it in a knot. This eliminates most of the air that was within the system. Hold slight pressure on the casing as you slowly pump the mixture into the casing. Once the casing has come to the end or you run out of mixture, tie the other end of the casing in a knot. Place on a bread pan or cookie sheet and let it sit in the refrigerator at least overnight to season.
You can now slow cook your meat sticks in your oven just like you did with the jerky. However, my favorite thing to do with our meat sticks is to finish them in a smoker. The Bradley Smoker is ideal for just this type of smoking. It is one of the simplest smokers on the market to set up, use and maintain. It is a 500-watt electric smoker which will achieve temperatures of up to 250 degrees. This is much hotter heat than you will ever need for jerky, meat sticks or sausages, but is ideal to slow cook other items. It can also work as an extra warming oven when your main oven is working overtime. Since this is an electric smoker, which allows you to achieve very low temps, you can use it for cold smoking as well. There are a lot of exciting and tasty recipes that can be used with cold smoke, but that will be a future article.
The smoke generator is the key to this smoker. Instead of getting the smoker itself up to a specific temperature, which is hot enough to get your wood chips to start smoking like a traditional unit, the Bradley Smoker has a separate heating element for its wood Bisquettes. These wood Bisquettes are specifically designed by Bradley for their smokers. They come in various flavors like mesquite, hickory, alder and whiskey oak just to name a few. Fill the Bisquette tube on the smoker and they are automatically fed into the smoke generator, which gives you a perfect smoked flavor each and every time. It has four different racks, which is more than enough to handle even the big jobs we do. Jerky racks and sausage hangers can be added accessories that are good to have in your arsenal as well.
The Camp Chef Smoke Vault is also one of our favorite smokers. It is a propane-powered smoker, which allows you to smoke your favorite meat sticks and sausages. But it is also an awesome asset to your camp as well as an emergency preparedness piece of equipment. It will achieve temperatures in excess of 400 degrees, which will allow you to use it to cook pies, breads or anything else you can think of. Just remember, smoking and making meat sticks will require you to be around to add wood chips and insure your temperature stays consistent. Either of these great smokers will get the jobs done with ease. Both will make your meat snacks something your family and friends will look forward to each and every year.