‘I love it. There’s nothing like that you can buy in a store,’
Bruce Ofe knows venison jerky. He has been making it for more than a decade, and during that time he has perfected his methods and his equipment.
He also knows Antelope County. Having served as the county’s Weed Control Authority superintendent for 43 years, he has been over virtually every road, including some very challenging minimum maintenance “roads.” In fact, he knows the county so well that over the years he has been contacted by real estate agents with questions about particular pieces of property.
And over the years he learned a lot about human nature, realizing that some of the weed complaints had less to do about weed issues and more to do with neighbors who didn’t get along. Ofe eventually adopted a policy of not accepting anonymous weed complaints.
“I would always look at the complainer,” he said. “I always asked who it was. If they wouldn’t give their name, I didn’t follow up.”
The 68-year-old has spent his life in Oakdale. He graduated from Neligh-Oakdale High School in 1971. After graduation he worked for Carhart Lumber, driving a cement truck. He then worked in Norfolk, building metal buildings, such as grain bins. While working the construction job, the weed control position opened up. He remained superintendent for the next 43 years.
Ofe retired on the last day of 2020.
“It was hard,” he said because he was so used to going to work to do his job. “But you never know about your health. My wife Connie wanted to retire, so we just decided to quit.”
These days, besides spending a lot of time working on the property the couple owns in Oakdale, he drives weekly to Stanton County to deliver newspapers. The Ofes enjoy time with their family, including five grandsons and one great-grandson. Also, they bought a camper and hope to do more camping as time goes on.
Ofe also enjoys fishing and hunting. Every year, he hunts for deer and turkeys. And now he has more time for jerky, processing an average of about 40 pounds of deer meat into jerky every year. He loves making jerky for the grandchildren, and he also keeps other friends and relatives well supplied. One grandson, Kaden Cameron, said he eats the jerky regularly. His favorite is the whole muscle jerky.
Cameron, half-owner of C&N Firewood and Tree Removal based in Plainview, said his grandfather’s product is different from commercial jerky, which he thinks is too dry.
“There’s nothing you can buy like that in a store,” he said. He explained that his grandfather’s jerky is tender and mild with just enough spice. “It’s just great. I have it all the time. I love it.”
Ofe said he got started making jerky after obtaining beef hamburger jerky “sticks” made by a cousin’s husband. Ofe liked them and wondered if he could make his own.
“I tried some myself, and then I started using ground deer. I liked it even better.” Since he always had deer meat from annual deer hunts, he figured it was a good use of the meat, especially since it is leaner than beef.
As soon as he got started, however, he realized he had a problem: the jerky cooked on his wife’s oven racks made a big mess in the bottom of the oven. And the smell permeated the entire house. He jokingly said that in order to preserve his marriage he knew he needed to come up with different methods.
Ofe’s two major changes were to get an oven in the garage and to have special grates made for the oven. He turned to Quality Iron and Metal in Neligh and was able to get exactly the type and size grates he needed.
For those interested in his methods, Ofe said it’s best to use meat that is as lean as possible. Ofe noted he makes whole muscle jerky as well as ground venison jerky. He recommends making sure all the skin and fat are removed for either. “If you don’t take out the tendons and fat, it’s not as good.”
Once the meat has been trimmed and prepared, Ofe grinds it for the ground venison version. He then freezes the meat. For each batch, he uses about 5 pound of deer meat.
After freezing, he puts it in a pan. As it thaws some, he puts his packet of cure and seasoning mix – he uses the meat cure and flavor packages sold by Cabela’s – in a separate plastic bowl with warm water. The Cabela’s packet calls for a half cup of warm water, but Ofe has learned that it works better with about 3 cups of warm water. He also adds ¼ teaspoon of cayenne. After thoroughly mixing the cure, seasoning mix, cayenne and water, he gradually adds the liquid to the meat. The liquid is not added all at once, but rather a little at a time for a total of 4 to 5 additions.
Once everything is thoroughly mixed, Ofe puts the meat mixture into a gallon-size plastic bag and refrigerates it overnight.
The next morning, Ofe puts the meat mixture into his jerky gun and shoots it onto his specially made oven racks. He starts off with the oven set at 200 degrees, but he keeps a spoon in the oven door to allow moisture to escape during the drying process. After an hour, Ofe removes the spoon and cooks the jerky another half hour to an hour.
Ofe said the same process could be used for ground beef, but he noted that it’s difficult to find reasonably priced very lean beef. And more fat means more mess in the oven, he said.
For the whole muscle jerky, Ofe said he uses 5 pounds per batch, cutting it in strips, cross grain, not with the grain. He then cuts the strips about ½-inch thick. The strips are then marinated in the mix, but in this case he uses even more water. He covers the marinating meat with foil and sets it in the refrigerator for 6 hours. He then stirs it thoroughly and refrigerates it overnight. The next morning, the strips are put into a colander so that the liquid runs off. Once they have drained, the strips are put on the oven racks and dried in the same way the ground venison is.
Ofe said if the finished jerky is kept for any length of time in the refrigerator, it will become tougher. That’s never been an issue with his product, he said, because friends and family devour it quickly.
Ofe’s annual hunting usually yields 2 deer, so he has plenty of meat for the jerky. Ofe also makes bologna. That recipe, which is one he obtained years ago from a friend, calls for 40 pounds of meat. Ofe uses 20 pounds of venison and 20 pounds of pork. The meat is put through a cider press.
“I went to a lot of auctions before I finally found a press at an affordable price,” he said.
The meat for the bologna is cold-smoked with either apple or hickory wood, and the finished product needs to be cooked before eating.
Besides the enjoyment Ofe gets from creating a product people love, he likes the idea that he is participating in something Antelope County residents have done for more than a century. Preserving fruits, berries, vegetables and meat for the coming cold months has been done for generations.
Says Ofe: “The oldtimers did everything at home.” And so does he, at least when it comes to creating a healthy, flavorful, chewy snack.
By Alexandra McClanahan
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