Jerky is a popular product made by hunters wishing to preserve their bounty for later enjoyment, though it is not as simple as just drying and/or smoking thin strips of venison. Underprocessed venison jerky can be home to many ill-doers such at pathogenic E. coli. It’s often forgotten that deer can harbor the same pathogens as cattle or other farm animals.
In fact, cases of pathogenic E. coli outbreaks and deaths have been linked to the consumption of underprocessed (likely because it was insufficiently heated) venison jerky. USDA FSIS has developed guidelines for jerky processors, but these guidelines are probably too complex for the DIY jerky maker (and remember, these guidelines apply to beef, venison, and other species). The “short” version of those guidelines can be located here. Even so, it’s doubtful that any of us can assess the moisture-to-protein ratio of our jerky or the humidity under which it was processed.
What we can do, however, is exercise some control over temperature. This fact sheet from USDA provides good information about temperature control in home jerky making. In short, most food dryers don’t get hot enough (usually only to 130ºF – 140ºF) to kill pathogens, namely E. coli O157:H7 (160ºF does the trick, though). So, you need to figure out a way to heat jerky before drying to 160ºF (and no, this will not ruin the product).
Heating. How do you heat it to 160ºF? One common way is to cut venison into thin strips (and the rule of thumb for jerky making is to cut with the grain of the meat) and then submerge the strips into a boiling marinade of your choosing for a few minutes (the time depends on how thick your jerky strips are, but usually they’re rather thin and heat up quickly). After removing the strips from the boiling marinade, transfer them to your dryer or oven or whatever drying apparatus you plan to use.
If your making jerky from ground venison with one of those caulking gun-looking kits, then just about the only way to get your restructured jerky strips up to temperature is by heating them in the oven.
Drying. Often meat is dried but not the point of it technically being jerky (in the regulatory sense). There are recommendations for how much water can be present … since some bugs can grow if there is sufficient moisture. Rather than recommending that you send out your homemade jerky samples for a water activity test (just not feasible), just make sure the stuff is good and dry. As an example, think of something like kippered beef or those new “nuggets” you can buy at convenience stores and compare that with the much drier jerky. I’d target a dryness similar to that of the jerky just to be on the safe side…