'Tis the season for creating tasty and clever homemade gifts for friends and family, but not everyone needs another tray of cookies or pound of fudge. Cut the sweet stuff this year with some flavorful jerky made at home using venison or beef.

Wes Schilling, associate professor in the Department of Food Science, Nutrition and Health Promotion at Mississippi State University, said with the right tools and ingredients, home chefs are just a few steps away from creating a popular, high-protein holiday treat. "If you're buying beef, I recommend using top round, and get a select cut, not choice or prime," Schilling said. "Trim the outer layer of fat. With jerky, you want less fat, because fat oxidizes and gives your product a rancid, fishy taste."

With both beef and venison, Schilling said to cut the meat parallel to the muscle fibers so the jerky holds together well. Cut slices about 8 to 10 inches long, 1 inch wide, and 1/4 to 3/8 inch thick so the surface area will dry properly. If the cut is top round, ask the butcher to slice it into strips.

Once the meat has been cut to size, home chefs must decide how to flavor and dry it. Schilling, who is also a food scientist in the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station, said jerky can be made using a purchased spice mix or a homemade marinade. "The top ingredients are salt, which dehydrates the product, and sugar, which also dehydrates the jerky but helps counteract the salty flavor," he said.

Adding sodium nitrite will prevent fat oxidization and protect the jerky's flavor over time. "Sodium nitrite is not required for homemade jerky, but the jerky will have to be eaten more quickly if sodium nitrite is left out," Schilling said. "Without sodium nitrite, jerky can have that warmed-over flavor and lose its color faster."

Schilling suggested using a large, plastic tub to marinate large quantities of meat in the refrigerator overnight. He also recommended massaging the venison or beef to help the marinade soak in. Do not reuse marinade.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends steaming or roasting the slices of meat to an internal temperature of 160 F as measured with a food thermometer before dehydrating them to kill potentially harmful bacteria. Once the strips of meat have been properly heated, home cooks can dry jerky in the oven or use a dehydrator.

In either case, Schilling said generously spraying both sides of the drying racks with cooking spray is critically important. "After all of the work and time invested in the product, you don't want it sticking to the rack," he said. "When laying out the strips of meat, be sure none of the pieces are touching each other."

Cooking times depend on the method used, Schilling said. Drying jerky in a conventional oven usually takes about three to five hours. Line the bottom of the oven with foil to make cleaning up easier. "Ideally, you'll cook the jerky at 140 F for one hour, 150 F for one hour and then 160 F for approximately two hours," he said. "I recommend putting a pan of water in the bottom of the oven so that it will increase the humidity in the oven for the first two hours and then take the pan of water out so that the jerky will dry more fully."

Tim Armstrong, manager of the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station's Meat Lab, teaches students how to make jerky in large batches. At MSU, Armstrong uses a computerized smokehouse to dry the product. But at home, he uses a dehydrator.

"When I make venison jerky at home, I basically make my own marinade with a little bit of Worcestershire sauce, salt, black pepper and celery seed," he said. "You can get a little nitrite from the celery seed to extend the jerky's shelf life, but people eat it pretty quickly after it's made so that's not usually a problem."

Because venison is so lean, it is ideal for jerky. "There is a lot of work involved in making jerky, which is why it costs so much, but that's also what makes it a valued homemade gift," he said.

Dried jerky can be stored for one to two months at room temperature in an airtight container. To prolong the jerky's shelf life, put it in the freezer or use vacuum-sealed packaging.

To watch an instructional video on making jerky, go to http://techoutreach.msucares.com/practical-tips-making-beef-deer-jerky. For marinade recipes and more tips on making jerky, visit the MSU Extension Service Pinterest page at http://www.pinterest.com/msuextservice.

UPCOMING EVENTS

• Dec. 23-Jan. 2 - County 4-H Office Closed for Christmas and New Year's Holidays.