Drying meat as jerky is one of the oldest methods of food preservation. Smoking the jerky as it dries adds flavor during the drying process. Different kinds of wood each have their own flavor profile. Combine and tweak them to suit your personal preference. Traditional smokiness comes from mesquite or hickory, oak or other hardwoods; while fruit woods such as apple, pear, plum or cherry contribute distinct sweetness to the jerky.
Packaged wood chips are convenient, but you can also use local chips. They are most flavorful when cut in spring or summer when the wood is saturated with sap. Bag and label leftover unburned wood chips and store them in a dry place for future use.
Prepare the Venison
To reduce gamey taste in pieces of uncut venison, make a simple brine of 1 tablespoon of salt per quart of cold water, or use 1 cup of vinegar per quart of cold water. Make enough brine to completely cover the meat. Soak the meat in the brine for several hours or overnight in the refrigerator. After soaking, pour off and discard the brine and pat dry the meat.
Soak the wood chips in water for several hours or overnight. Moist chips produce smoke rather than burning when you place them inside the smoker or grill.
Cut or Form the Jerky Strips
Traditional venison jerky is made from very thin slices of lean meat. Any part of the carcass is suitable for jerky, so process the prime cuts from the carcass first and make jerky from the remaining meat. Trim as much fat as possible.
Fat can create undesirable flare-ups in the smoker, and it may give stored jerky a rancid taste.
Cut the strips uniformly, about 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick. The thickness of the strips determines the length of time required for proper smoking and drying. Slice the meat lengthwise with the grain if you like to pull long fiber strips of jerky from the slice as you eat it, or slice it across the fibers to make it easier to nibble bites from the strip. Dust the strips with spices, if desired. For example, combine finely powdered dried onion, garlic, savory herbs or chili peppers with salt and pepper to taste.
As a general rule, 1 pound of properly dried deer meat should weigh about 4 ounces after drying.
Because the meat shrinks as it dries, you may need to reduce the quantity of spices proportionately.
Jerky can also be made from lean, ground venison. Add spices of choice to the ground meat and mix well to distribute the flavors throughout. Press the ground meat in a thin layer onto a heavy-duty aluminum foil sheet and slice it into strips with a pizza cutter. Use just enough pressure so the blade rolls through the meat without slicing the foil. Flip the sheet of sliced jerky upside down onto the smoking rack and peel off the foil. Another option for making ground venison jerky is to use a jerky press. This gadget has a flat nozzle that you press the ground meat through, creating strips of uniform width and thickness directly onto the smoking rack.
Into the Smoker
Preheat the smoker or grill to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Arrange the jerky strips evenly on the smoker rack or a flat pan. The goal of smoking jerky is to infuse the meat with smoke flavor as it dries slowly at a moderate temperature.
Place a foil tray of moist wood chips in the smoker or grill. If you’re using a charcoal grill, you can scatter the moist chips over the coals. Put the racks of deer jerky in place in the smoker or grill and close the lid, keeping air vents open and adjusting them as necessary to facilitate airflow while maintaining the 160 F temperature. If your smoking chamber doesn't have a thermostat, monitor the temperature by placing an oven thermometer inside. Add more moist chips as necessary.
Some dehydrators suggest lower temperatures for making jerky from commercially processed meat. Because wild game meat can harbor a variety of pathogens, a higher temperature of 160 F helps ensure safety.
Is It Done Yet?
Monitor the temperature inside the smoking chamber and keep it as close to 160 F as possible. Depending on the thickness of the jerky strips and the size of the smoking chamber, the smoked jerky is done when it has reduced in size by about 75 percent. Smoked deer jerky typically turns dark pink or reddish-brown in color when it is done. Jerky should not be crispy, but should have a stiff, leathery texture. The smoking process can take between 10 and 24 hours. Visually check the jerky, then test a strip for doneness by bending it gently -- it's done when it cracks slightly without breaking.
Remove the finished jerky from the smoke chamber and allow it to cool. Wrap the slices individually in plastic wrap, or place the strips loosely in airtight containers. Smoked jerky is safe to store at room temperature in a cupboard or other dry, dark place for 1 or 2 months.
Although making smoked jerky is typically considered a way to preserve fresh venison, frozen deer meat also works well. Thaw the meat completely. The meat must be at an even temperature when you place it in the smoker so it reaches the safe temperature and dries uniformly.