Jerky is one of America’s favorite snacks, which is no surprise when it offers a nearly unlimited variety of delicious flavors, on top of being filling and protein packed. It is, however, one of the highest cost snacks you’ll find in a grocery store by weight. When it’s sometimes found for $2 an ounce or more, and meat cuts are usually $5-10 a pound, and is then dried until it becomes the food we love, why is it so expensive? There are a few very good reasons.
What Makes Jerky So Expensive?
1: Water Weight
The single biggest reason why jerky is so expensive is that the meat it’s made out of is bought by the pound and the dehydration process will result in a big drop in weight from water loss. For one pound of beef jerky, you will need 2-3 pounds of beef. Different cuts and different animals (beef is 60% water by weight, for example) will have a different amount of water in them to remove through the dehydrating process, but your finished jerky will always be less than half the weight of the meat you started with.
2: Expensive Meat Cuts
On top of the weight loss from dehydrating, jerky is typically not made from inexpensive cuts of meat. The three most common meat cuts for beef jerky are round (~$3/pound), flank (~$7/pound), and sirloin (~$6/pound). Prices obviously may vary by year, season, and region, on top of the fact that larger operations will likely be getting bulk discounts on their meat purchases. However, the point remains that it’s not cheap meat that goes into making jerky, so the starting price is always going to be sizable.
3: Labor Costs
Making jerky, working with meat in any situation, isn’t generally something that is fully automated. The labor costs involved are significant in the process of making jerky: whether you have a one person business out of your garage, or hundreds of employees, it’s going to be a significant part of the price of production.
4: Energy Cost
The approach for dehydrating meat to make jerky is an energy intensive process, no matter what kind of machine you use to do it. The basic process is heat and time, requiring 4-5 hours or more for each batch of jerky. If the process being used includes smoking, this will take even longer. Imagine leaving just your oven on at home every day 9-5, your bill would be huge! Now think about having a whole operation based on keeping those going nonstop.
5: Other Ingredients
The meat is certainly taking center stage in the weight and cost of the final product, but it’s never just the meat. Simple ingredients like curing salt and vinegar are standard, and spices like pepper are common, but the list grows from there. Most jerky making is going to include a wide range of flavor lending ingredients that don’t come cheap. Any marinades in particular, which drip off during the dehydrating process don’t get to be reused in the next batch, but are crucial for that flavor packed strip of jerky that has my mouth watering right now just thinking about it. The higher quality the ingredients used, the more expensive your jerky is going to be. A company using natural preservatives over chemical preservatives is going to add money to each bag you buy, but with a better result.
6: Traditional Business Expenses
While labor is an obvious traditional business expense that comes to mind fairly easily, a lot of people don’t always think about the rest of the typical expenses are businesses have to pay for. This includes things like building or space rent, the equipment and other setup costs, packaging and shipping the final product, advertising and marketing so that you can hear about their product in the first place, as well as all those smaller expenses like business licenses, legal and tax fees, office supplies and so on. Add to this the after sales costs like taxes and traditional business expenses often become more than the cost of the materials and creation of the goods themselves.
7: Middle Men
Unless you’re buying directly from the company that made the jerky, a double digit percentage of the price you’re paying at the register for your jerky is going to the store you’re buying it from. The more of the company’s jerky that is sold to stores and not direct to the customer, the higher the price has to be for them to meet their costs and earn a profit. What the price mark up is compared to the wholesale price varies based on the product and the store, but grocery store averages are over 10%, but can be significantly higher depending on the product.
8: USDA Inspections and Compliance
As a meat product, all jerky sold commercially in the US is required to be inspected by the USDA, which means that inspections and all the expenses required in maintaining compliance (such as additional labeling, not just product safety) can be significant. Depending on the size of the operation this may be a minor additional cost, to a much more modest one, which may not be relevant for a lot of the other items in your shopping cart. You can check out some of the details involved with simple hourly based inspections here, which is far from the only cost involved.
Can I Just Make Beef Jerky At Home?
The simple answer is yes, you definitely can. Making jerky at home is not a terribly hard process, and without the need for paying for typical business expenses, USDA inspections (only needed if you’re going to sell it commercially), labor, transportation, packaging, etc. it’s much more affordable. You’ll still need to buy quality ingredients, but this will drop the price pretty dramatically and let you experiment with your own flavors and techniques.
You will, however, need a heating device that can offer the proper temperature. The ideal temperature for a dehydration method is 160 degrees fahrenheit, which most home ovens can’t do as their minimum is usually closer to 250 or 300 so can be quite tricky. A dehydrator or smoker of some kind is usually a much better idea, so will be an added expense in getting into making your own jerky.
Want to get into making your own jerky? We’ll definitely talk about this more, but to satisfy your curiosity now, take a look at this video which will guide you through the process of making jerky at home in a dehydrator.