For Stacee and Buster Hopkins and family, the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays smell like deer jerky rather than pumpkin spice or roasted turkey. The same is also true for their friend Scott Turner, who taught them the art of homemade venison jerky, the making of which has become a family holiday tradition. The excitement begins with the opening day of deer season.
“Step one is Stacee shoots the deer,” Buster said. “Then, I process it.”
Once the meat is off the carcass and cut into strips, the entire clan gets involved, mixing in the spices, spreading the strips on smoker racks, and moving it all to dehydrators at just the right time. Even those who don’t help in the making get in on the taking. When the smell finally permeates every part of the house, everyone knows the jerky is done.
“My house smells like a mesquite-smoked barbecue pit,” Stacee said. “I love the smell. If I could bottle it up or put it in a candle, I would.”
The work is hard and the process long for an outcome that doesn’t last beyond a week. Yes, it’s the same stuff that cowboys packed for trail drives because of its longevity, but in the Hopkins house in Marble Falls, it is gobbled up quickly.
“We tried hiding it once,” Stacee said, “but the kids sniffed it out. You can smell it wherever you put it.”
The process used by Scott, Buster, and Stacee is nuanced and somewhat vague. It has been perfected through years of trial and error to achieve the best results, which vary with every batch and truly depend on personal taste. Here’s how it happens on the Walking T Ranch north of Marble Falls.
1. Kill and process your deer, saving the hindquarters and shoulder for jerky. Take the time to clean and process the meat so no fat is left on the muscle.
“The fat taints the meat,” Scott said. “It gives it a funky taste.”
2. Cut the meat into thin strips. Buster uses a deli meat slicer to cut his about one-eighth of an inch thick. Scott says anything under a quarter of an inch is good.
Unlike steak, you don’t want to cut jerky strips on the cross grain. Buster cuts his along the grain.
“That way, you can strip it off easy like string cheese,” he said.
3. Lay the strips flat and season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. The trick is to start with a light dusting of garlic powder.
“I start with garlic so I can see it land on the meat,” Scott said. “I don’t want to put too much.”
Salt goes next. Sprinkle until the meat is coated.
“When you think there’s enough, you put a little more,” said Scott, who doesn’t measure any of the spices. “You just know when it’s right.”
He sprinkles black pepper “until it looks like there’s almost too much pepper.”
4. Here’s where anyone can get involved: kneading the spices into the meat. After cramming the spiced strips tightly into plastic bags, Scott likes to open them and take a whiff to make sure the spices are right.
“It if smells bland, I lay it back out and sprinkle it and knead it again,” he said.
The bagged meat is then left to marinate in a refrigerator for five to seven days. Scott likes a full week for the best flavor.
5. Lay the strips of meat on the metal grates of a smoker so the smoke can permeate each piece. None of the strips should be touching. Buster said it usually takes about four grates to hold the meat of one deer.
6. Getting the fire just right is perhaps the trickiest part. Scott has managed to perfect the process by making mistakes that paid off in the end.
“I learned one time, accidentally, that a cold smoke doesn’t give it the same flavor,” Scott said. “Instead of putting in coals, I created a fire and thought I ruined my jerky because the smoke was so warm.”
Instead of drying up as he feared, the meat soaked in the flavor.
“I discovered that you want to make the meat sweat,” he said. “The moisture opens up the pores and pulls the flavor in.”
Let the meat smoke for two to four hours, he advised. Scott and Buster like to use a mixture of oak and mesquite for the best flavor.
7. The meat can touch in the dehydrator but not overlap. Buster and Stacee leave the meat in overnight. It usually takes six to eight hours before the jerky is ready. Test your jerky by pinching it between your fingers for just the right “toughness.” You don’t want it too moist, where it can be squeezed easily, or too dry, where it’s hard like leather.
8. Jerky can be frozen; just don’t dehydrate it completely if you’re going to store it in a freezer. Take it off the dehydrator early so the strips are still a little limber. Seal it in vacuum bags. When you’re ready to eat it, cut the top off of the bag and leave the meat out for a day. The air dehydrates it the rest of the way.