A couple of previous attempts at beef jerky were tasty, but didn’t quite achieve the goals I had set for quality: chewy but tender, sweet & savoury, spicy/salty but not overpowering. The most successful red-meat jerky I’ve made so far was the ras el hanout lamb, which was done with a dry cure and spice rub.
Applying that same technique to Chinese five-spice flavoured beef has finally yielded great results. This attempt also confirmed a theory I had been mulling over about the cut of beef. I had read, both online and in a couple books on butchery, that my beloved flank steak was not a good choice for dried beef—too tough, too much connective tissue.
I’m here today to testify to you good people that flank steak is the ideal cut for beef jerky, if you treat it right.
Step one: Put the flank steak flat on a tray in the freezer for 15 minutes. Remove from freezer and slice thinly across the grain at a very slight bias.
This is the real trick to this recipe. Flank steak is very flavourful but has little fat and a lot of connective tissue. Sliced thinly against the grain its fibres are short enough to be tender, but that connective tissue helps keep the dried beef from crumbling like other cuts might when sliced the same way. I think flank is ideal for jerky: not much fat, which tends to go rancid in jerky, but easy to chew and full of beef flavour.
Step two: Toast all the spices in a dry cast iron or other skillet just until fragrant and the fennel begins to colour.** Put the spices in a clean coffee grinder (or mortar and pestle) and grind to a rustic powder.
Step three: Lay the beef strips out flat (I used wax paper on my counter) and season each side generously with kosher salt, demerara sugar and the five-spice powder.
Step four: Put all the strips into a plastic bag and leave in the fridge for a couple days.*** The ideal way to do this is using a vacuum-sealer machine, but you can also suck most of the air out of a ziplock with a straw. Removing the air helps to inhibit bacteria and makes the cure work faster.
Step five: Remove the beef and pat off any excess moisture—there shouldn’t be much, the beef is essentially cured at this point. Lay the beef out onto racks in a dehydrator, making sure they don’t touch, and set the temperature for 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
Note: Special shout-out to my son Harry who was super-helpful with this step—that’s him in the “towel” t-shirt, which those in the know will recognize—and who also provided some photo-editing and special effects services for today’s post.
It took me approximately 6 hours to dry the beef, but times can vary due to ambient moisture—somewhere between 5 and 8 hours should do it…12 at the most. Tear a piece in half, there shouldn’t really be any visible moisture inside if shelf-life is a concern. Taste a piece and see if you like it.
If your beef jerky is properly dried, it should last a month or two, but I prefer to make small batches and eat them within a couple weeks. I store the beef in vacuum-sealed bags, but a mason jar will work well. Frozen in the vacuum bags this jerky should keep almost indefinitely.
I’m not really doing this for storage as much as flavour, and the flavour is excellent—salty, sweet with that liquorice and earthy spiciness of Chinese five-spice. What’s surprising too, is how well the beef flavour stands up.
*I used a full tablespoon, but the resulting jerky has that “…strange tingling, buzzing, numbing sensation…” Harold McGee refers to as a distinct sort of aftertaste. I like it, but if you want to make something a little more crowd pleasing, just ease up on this ingredient.
**Feel free to use a store-bought five-spice powder.
***Most jerky is marinated from between 4 and 24 hours, but I prefer to go slightly longer, almost a cure.