What is Biltong and why Should I Make it Myself?
Biltong is a form of dried, cured meat (usually beef or venison) that originated in South Africa. It is made by soaking slices of meat such as beef or venison in a marinade for a period of time and then hung out to air dry. The word Biltong comes from the words “bil” (from Middle Dutch bille) which means rump, and “tong” (from Middle Dutch tonghe) which means tongue. Literally, tongues (or strips) of meat from the animal’s rump.
How Biltong should be made is all up to personal preference – I prefer it to be dry and lean while others may prefer it to be moist and fatty. I also prefer Biltong to be lightly seasoned with a few basic spices while others may prefer their Biltong plain, or heavily seasoned with coriander and other spices.
One batch of Biltong can easily be made to cater for several different taste preferences. At the end of the marinating period, simply sprinkle the dry spices of your choice on a portion of the batch before hanging it to dry. For moist Biltong, cut the meat strips thicker – for dry Biltong, simply cut the pieces thinner. Thin strips will dry quickly in 1-3 days while the thick pieces will take anywhere from 2-14 days, although most Biltong is ready in approximately 3-4 days. The length of time the meat will need to be left to dry will depend on the thickness of the slices and the temperature/humidity of the room.
Making your own Biltong saves money, caters for personal tastes and textures and with a Biltong Maker, it’s actually quite simple!
Just follow these simple instructions:
- Slice the meat into suitable strips, marinate in a brine of your choice.
- Pat thoroughly dry with kitchen paper towel and sprinkle with Biltong spice
- Hang the strips in the Biltong Maker using hooks or skewers.
- Cover with the lid or close the door, switch on and wait for about 3-4 days depending on how thick the meat is sliced and how wet or dry you prefer your end product.
Guidelines and Tips:
Preparing the Meat:
Biltong can be made from virtually any meat or venison although nobody really seems to recommend using pork for obvious reasons. Remember that the texture and taste of the Biltong will depend on the quality of the cut and grade of the meat. Topside or Silverside is what most Biltong makers recommend since it is quite lean. (For those of you who don’t know, these cuts come from the buttock of the animal.) Slice the meat with the grain and use a very sharp carving knife for the best results. Using a blunt knife will result in you mangling your meat beyond recognition. Well, not quite, but it sure helps if your knife is very sharp.
The thicker the meat, the longer it takes to dry. For dry Biltong, aim for slices of anything up to 1 cm thick. The meat of this thickness should take no more than 4 days to dry. For moist Biltong, aim for slices around 2.5 cm thick, meat of this thickness can take up to 14 days – maybe even longer. I can’t be too specific as I currently have not made Biltong with meat thicker than 1.5 cm, so I don’t know for sure how it will turn out.
Do not hack at the meat, stop to assess your progress and then slice further. If you hack at your meat, it will end up covered with unappetizing nicks and cuts – almost like you used a chainsaw. Slice the meat to within about 2cm of the hanging height allowed by your machine. You will waste space or even run out of space if you do not utilize full hanging height.
Hanging the Meat:
Some Biltong Makers make use of skewers to hang the meat, while others make us of hooks. Skewers/hooks may need to be purchased separately if your Biltong Maker does not come with them, or if you made your own.
It is important to remember the following tips to create a free airflow for quicker drying and to prevent the possibility of mold.
- Always hang the meat with the thickest part to the top.
- Do not let any of the meat touch each other or the sides of the machine.
- Always fit the cover or close the door tightly after hanging the meat to prevent insects such as flies spoiling the batch.
- Take note of air holes, they may be large enough for a fly to get in. You may need to cover these holes with fly screen. If the fan is behind the holes and the air is blowing out of them, it is unlikely that a fly would attempt to enter.
Storing the Biltong:
Biltong should be consumed within a week of preparation to get the maximum benefit regarding taste and texture. If you are planning to store Biltong for extended periods, you should invest in a good vacuum sealer (A cheap one will not seal the bags properly). Place the Biltong in the sealer bags being sure to not overfill them, and follow the instructions that come with your vacuum sealer. Properly dried Biltong vacuum sealed should last up to a year, maybe longer. You may want to put in an oxygen absorber before you vacuum seal the bag. You can always cook the Biltong if you don’t quite like the idea of eating year old dried meat. One major problem I have had when trying to vacuum seal Biltong is the cracked pepper. You will have to make sure that you grind the pepper very fine. Otherwise, it will pierce the bag when you go to seal it. You may also need to snip off sharp edges of the Biltong with clean cooking scissors as they can also pierce through the vacuum sealer bags.
This has only happened to me once on one piece of meat, and that was because the piece of meat folded in half during the drying process. Mould is more likely to occur when making Biltong during hot and humid summer periods especially in areas along the coast. Biltong is best made in the winter months but can be made all year round in your Biltong Maker provided it is situated in a cool and dry environment.
Following these simple tips will greatly reduce the occurrence of mold:
- In the summer months cut the pieces of meat thinner so that they can dry quicker.
- Never dry the meat in a musty room that has bad circulation. The fresher the air and the better the ventilation, the less danger there is of mold occurring.
- Most people use Biltong Makers in their kitchens. However, take care if you have a compact kitchenette as steam from cooking pots, kettles, and the washing-up creates humidity.
- Stay away from pre-packed meat that has been on the cold rack of a shop for days.
- Wipe your meat with a clean paper towel soaked in vinegar to remove any traces of blood before continuing any further preparation.
A batch of meat contaminated with mold can become a serious health hazard if left alone. It will not dry no matter how long it is left – throw it away. Buy your meat fresh from your local butcher or farmer if possible.
Under no circumstance should flies be allowed anywhere near the meat at any stage of preparation. When flies land on foodstuffs such as meat, they lay eggs – it does not take long at all for them to deposit a rather nasty batch of eggs into your meat. These eggs will hatch, and the resulting maggots will spoil your meat. Your nose should be able to tell you if your meat has been spoiled by flies. Well actually, it’s best not to let it get to that stage in the first place. However, if you are unfortunate enough to find maggots on any of your meat strips during the drying period, it is unlikely that your whole batch is contaminated. Isolate the strips that are obviously contaminated and throw them away. The sight and smell may be a little off-putting, so you may find yourself commissioning the whole batch to the trashcan anyway.
Easiest Method of Making Biltong:
Marinade: Apple Cider or Balsamic Vinegar (The vinegar serves as a primary inhibitor of Clostridium botulinum bacteria.)
Dry Spices: Black pepper, ground coriander seed (adds flavor and is also anti-bacterial meaning it will kill or reduce the growth of bacteria that cause meat to spoil), salt
- Cut the meat into strips of approximately 1cm thickness.
- Layer in a bowl with the vinegar for ½ hour.
- Mix all dry spices together.
- Roll meat in the mixed dry spices in a CLEAN bowl.
- Allow meat to draw in its own brine for 3 hours. (thicker pieces to the bottom of the bowl)
- Remove meat and put back into vinegar mix for around 10 minutes.
- Remove again and wipe meat with same vinegar to make sure NO SALT sticks to the meat.
- Squeeze meat with your hand to get rid of as much liquid as possible.
- Hang until ready.
Biltong is a high-protein food that can be eaten as a healthy alternative to processed protein bars – if you are non-vegan, that is. Making just 100 grams of Biltong often requires around 200 grams of fresh meat. The air drying process of making Biltong also preserves most of the protein content meaning the Biltong can have a protein content of around 60%.