Introduction: Beef Snack Sticks in a Dehydrator

About: I'm a 49 year old Systems Architect living in the Midwestern United States. After travelling the world for 20 years as a consulting architect I became disabled, as a result, I am now embracing a Slow life. F…

We all have our guilty pleasures. We try to eat right, cook well, and improve our health. Sometimes however, you just crave that one thing that you know is really bad for you. In our house, that used to be Slim Jims and similar beef snack sticks...until we started making our own. Much less expensive, made with ingredients you can actually identify, and versatile in terms of flavor, these homemade beef snack sticks may be just what the doctor ordered when the craving hits.

This Instructable covers the basics of making snack sticks, but by no means will it result in snack sticks that taste like Slim Jims. With a little experimentation, you might be able to duplicate the taste, if not the texture. We prefer to invent our flavors, whether it be pizza, teriyaki garlic, or spicy habanero. For this example, we will be using a pre-mixed spice blend that comes with it's own bag of curing salts to keep sourcing ingredients simple.

A few caveats before we begin. As always, safety first. This Instructable involves working with raw meat for extended periods. Ensure everything is clean and sanitary before beginning. Also, ensure that you have set aside sufficient time. The preparation steps can take upwards of two hours, and the snack sticks will be in the dehydrator for 6-8 hours. In addition, stuffing meat into casings is a job really meant for two people, so it pays to have an assistant. Fortunately, in our house we have teenagers that like to cook. :)

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Step 1: Ingredients and Gear

In order to keep the cost of making these snack sticks down, we look for bargains on beef and pork roasts. When we find them, we buy enough to make a batch of these. We use a combination of beef and pork, but you can use 100% beef if you like. Be sure it is 80/20 meat-to-fat ratio. If you use a lower fat meat like venison, you should add at least 20% pork. We will also be adding citric acid to give the snack sticks a slightly tangy flavor.



*21mm is a fairly large casing size (technically it is a breakfast sausage casing), hence these are jumbo snacks sticks. You can find 15mm casings which are about the size of a Slim Jim, but the nozzles for stuffers and guns are hard to find and it is a very, very difficult process to force the meat mixture through such a small tube. For this reason I don't recommend using a casing smaller than 19mm.

**Depending on how comminuted (finely ground) and how lean your meat is, you may need to use an encapsulated citric acid AFTER your meat is ground for the last time. If your meat is of an emulsified texture (like a paste) and it is not very lean and cold, the non-encapsulated citric acid used here may break your emulsion.

Step 2: Meat Grinding - Stage One.

Be sure before you start that the meat is cooled to at least 30 degrees Fahrenheit. Cube the roasts and grind using a coarse grinding plate. Once all the meat has been ground, place it in the plastic tubs and set the tubs in the freezer for about 30 minutes. The warmer the fat, the harder it is to grind it, and the more it threads around the insides of the grinder. Cooling the meat this way ensures the grinder doesn't get clogged.

Step 3: Meat Grinding - Stage Two

Remove the tubs from the freezer and mix them quickly in a large bowl. Run this beef/pork mixture through the grinder again using the small grinding plate (be sure it is at least 3/8" or smaller).

Step 4: Season and Cure

Add the seasoning mix and curing salt to the meat and mix by hand for at least 5 minutes. Add 1 cup very cold water or shaved ice and mix by hand for at least 3 minutes.

If using, do not add the citric acid yet. Citrix acid powder is an encapsulated crystal shouldn't be run through a grinder.

Place the meat mixture back in the tubs and into the freezer for 30 minutes or, to use an old sausage makers technique, into the fridge for 12-24 hours. This will result in a much more flavorful meat mixture.

Step 5: Final Grind

Remove the tubs from the fridge or freezer and grind again using the small plate. This will sure the meat mixture is the proper consistency - almost emulsified, which will make for a better textured snack stick. Interesting side note, this is also how the consistency of hot dogs and bologna are reached.

If using citric acid, add it now and mix it in by hand for about 3 minutes.

Step 6: Stuffing Method #1 - Stand Mixer

Our first stuffing method involves using the sausage stuffer attachment of a stand mixer. This method has it's challenges, and I will point out the two biggest before proceeding.

Pictured above are two stuffing tubes. The one on the left is from a jerky gun, the one on the right is from the stand mixer attachment. If you notice, the one on the right is tapered, and as a result, the casing will not slip up over the nozzle the way we need it to. The one on the left has no taper, and fortunately, also fits our stand mixer attachment.

Also pictured is the pusher that comes with the meat grinder attachment. Note that it is a flat disc with hollow buttressing behind it. This makes it possible for our fine ground, near emulsified mixture to slip past the disc and prevents the meat mixture from getting into the stuffing tube at a decent rate. If possible, use something solid and cylindrical as a pusher or use the jerky gun method which will be demonstrated next.

If you want to try the stand mixer method, install the nozzle on the grinder according to directions, then thread a 3-4" length of casing onto the nozzle. Be sure the end is tied. In the photos, we are using the end that came tied from the manufacturer. Have your helper continually stuff meat into the stuffer while you hold on to the casing so that it only advances when full of meat. You can make long sticks or short sticks. Pictured above is a long stick. When you have stuffed the casing to your desired length, tie off the casing and cut. I will show this in detail next with the jerky gun method.

Step 7: Stuffing Method #2 - the Jerky Gun

This is my preferred method for stuffing casings for snack sticks. You don't have to worry about meat slipping past the pusher, and the gun holds enough meat for 3 medium length snack sticks. For this method we use the same nozzle as the previous method, installing on the gun this time.

Fill the gun. Slide the casing over the nozzle, and make sure the end is tied. While you hold your hand around the casing to provide a little resistance, have your helper click the gun so that the meat flows into the casing. When you reach the desired length, tied off the end as pictured. Sometimes it helps to give the casing a twist first. Cut the casing and then tied the end left on the jerky gun. Repeat this process until the gun is empty. Refill the gun and continue until you have stuffed all the meat into the casings.

Step 8: Drying Time...then Beef Snack Sticks!

Load the snack sticks onto the dehydrator trays. Do yourself a favor and use Clean-A-Screens over your trays. It will cleanup a heck of a lot easier. The snack sticks need to stay in the dehydrator until the internal temperature is at least 155 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point they are cooked, and the real drying begins. For them to reach the texture of a snack stick instead of a sausage, they really need to be left in for a long time. I leave mine in for at least 8-10 hours, sometimes as many as 12. The best way to judge is to start testing them for texture and flavor after 8 hours, and every 2 hours after that until you like them. They should be shelf-stable at this point, but just to be on the safe side I store them in the fridge in zippered plastic bags. Enjoy, and don't be afraid to experiment with your seasonings!