Home dehydrators are a boon when you've got a bumper crop of apples or tomatoes, you're tired of canning, and your freezer is filling up fast. But is there anything to use them for the rest of the year, or should you tuck yours away on a closet shelf? Mine has been perched at one end of the kitchen counter since I got it. When fresh produce isn't in season, we use it for applesauce-based fruit leather, craft projects such as cinnamon-applesauce ornaments, and beef jerky.

It's the beef jerky that convinced my husband that our new Excalibur dehydrator had been a great purchase. Apple slices and tomatoes were easy enough to dry by following the instructions that came with our previous circular dehydrator. We wondered, however, if that unit would be hot enough or quick enough to safely dry meat. Quick drying is important to limit the opportunity for bacterial growth. The added assurance of a thermostat setting for "beef jerky" on our new dehydrator put an end to our hesitation and started us on the road to making great jerky. See "Choosing a Dehydrator" for details on types and features of commercially manufactured home dehydrators.

black and white image of bison grazingJerky -- dried, salted meat -- has been around for hundreds of years. Nomadic Native American tribes, cowboys of the Wild West, present day explorers and Boy Scouts are all familiar with its chewy texture and concentrated flavor. The preserving qualities of salt (and sometimes also smoke) make jerky a portable protein source, easy to tuck into backpacks and briefcases. Recent emphasis on low-carb diets has made jerky more popular again. Making your own lets you experiment with different seasonings to get a product that's exactly to your taste. Using a home dehydrator, you can create jerky that's more consistent in quality and probably safer to eat than sun-dried strips of salted bison.

cowboy on horse roping a white steerTop round is a good cut of beef to choose for jerky. We like to use local beef, grown without antibiotics or hormones, for a finished product that's probably leaner and more wholesome than most store-bought jerky. Have the butcher slice it across the grain into slabs a quarter inch thick. If you're slicing it yourself, partly frozen meat may be easier to cut evenly. It's easiest to work with the meat if you leave it in wide slabs while marinating and drying. The finished dried jerky can be cut into strips or bite sized pieces with a sturdy pair of scissors.

Mix up the marinade of your choice, and put it with the beef in a zip-top plastic bag. We've experimented with different recipes, sometimes using a different marinade for each tray of sliced meat. My husband favors a mixture of soy sauce, crushed garlic, and homemade hot sauce. We've found you can add a generous amount of heat to the marinade without making the jerky overwhelmingly spicy. My favorite so far is commercial terriyaki sauce mixed with a can of crushed pineapple in juice. Both the meat and the fruit go onto the dehydrator tray, for a wonderful spicy-salty-sweet combination.

Marinate the meat for at least a couple of hours. Longhorn white and brown cattle grazing near some rocksYou can use a dry rub of seasonings and salt instead of or in addition to the marinade. Drain the slices, and arrange them on the trays with some space between them for air flow. Unless your meat is really lean, you may need to blot some oil off the surface of the beef as it dries. Follow the manufacturer's recommendations for safe and complete drying of jerky and other foods. Jerky is ready when the surface is dry but the meat is still pliable. If in doubt, let it go a little longer, and you'll get a jaw workout when you eat it.

Although beef jerky would probably store safely at room temperature for a while, I don't take chances with ours. If you are experimenting with lower-salt marinades, then freezing is an even better idea. I bag jerky in snack-sized portions, which then go into a heavy duty gallon zip-top bag for freezer storage. strips of jerky on blue plate with wedge of cheese and loaf endIt takes up less room than the same amount of frozen meat, although it usually doesn't last long enough for space to be a concern. Beef jerky, a chunk of cheese, crusty bread, and handful of dried fruit makes a no-fuss, portable meal for busy days.

Put your new (or old) dehydrator to use in any season!

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Follow manufacturer's recommendations to ensure food safety. Beef jerky is probably not compatable with a low sodium diet. If you choose to reduce the amount of salt in a jerky recipe, you could increase the chance of bacterial contamination during drying or while in storage.

Image credits

The beef jerky photo was taken by the author. Other images are non-copyrighted photos, as follows:

Bison photo and cowbody roping steer photos contributed by "Taliesin" to MorgueFile.com

Longhorn image contributed by "bobainsworth" to MorgueFile.com

Red & xhite steer photo contributed by Magnus Rosendahl to public-domain-photos.com

My thanks to sundownr for helping with the caption on the thumbnail photo.