Nothing screams South Africa like biltong. Yes, it’s true, there is such a thing as jerky out there, but from what we’ve heard foreigners simply don’t know how to dry a piece of meat properly.
Although we can’t ship biltong to each of our South African expats, we’d like to help you bring a bit of safa flavour to your new homes.
The heritage of biltong
The word biltong hails from the Dutch word ‘bil’ which means ‘rump’ and ‘tong’, which means ‘strip’ or ‘tongue’.
The original ‘biltong’ came about as a way of preserving and curing meat in the days before fridges. Although the Voortrekkers and preceding settlers added things to the recipe such as coriander, pepper and cloves, the Khoikhoi people dried meat for ages before this by simply using salt.
Choosing your meat
The most popular type of biltong is normal beef biltong, but you can choose almost any meat to cure.
Just take special care with chicken and pork. With chicken there’s always a risk of salmonella. Though the curing process usually negates salmonella, it’s still a risk to take. With pork cuts, it’s advisable to freeze the meat for at least two weeks before curing to rid it of possible tapeworm infestation. And, of course, you will not use our normal biltong recipe for chicken biltong, cured pork (ham), cured lamb or for making bokkoms (fish biltong).
The types of meat which work well for biltong are:
- Blue wildebeest
For the finest cuts choose a fillet, sirloin or steak cut from the hip such as a topside or silverside. Many people also prefer the meat with ‘yellow fat’ found on C-grade meat.
Choosing your marinade
Many an aspirant chef has added novel spices and sauces to biltong to create unique flavours. However, the most common ingredients in biltong spices and marinades are:
- Black pepper
- Coriander (dried, toasted and cracked)
- Brown sugar
Non-traditional ingredients which can be added, include:
- balsamic vinegar
- malt vinegar
- dried, ground chili peppers
- bicarbonate of soda
- Worcestershire sauce
- onion powder
The spices and liquid you choose for your biltong will depend on your personal taste.
Ways of drying biltong
To ensure a properly dried biltong, it’s important that your drying area is:
- Dry: this goes without saying, as moisture can lead to the meat rotting or growing mould.
- Sterile: you don’t want flies or any other foreign objects getting to your meat.
- Cool: if your meat gets too warm it may spoil or grow unhealthy bacteria, in areas that are too cold though, it may struggle to dry properly.
There are many commercial biltong and dehydration boxes available and these work really well for drying biltong.
Of course, if you have a bit of DIY flair in you, or don’t have the money for a commercial dryer, you can make a drying container. The only things that are important is that the area is safeguarded against pests such as flies and that there’s a constant flow of air.
We’ve seen people build biltong dryers from computer server room cabinets and wooden boxes with mesh, electrical lamps and desk fans. Choose what works for you, but remember to add a drip tray below your biltong or your box may be a single-use container.
Making your biltong
Now that you’ve decided on your cut, marinade and drying method, it’s time to begin.
- Sterilise your knives and surfaces by washing it with hot water and soap. Slice your biltong in suitable strips of about 1cm – 2cm by 5cm -15cm thick, depending on how dry you want it – make sure to cut it with the grain.
- Sprinkle your strips of meat with coarse rock salt (don’t use normal salt) and spices and leave it in your fridge for about an hour. The longer you leave it, the saltier it will be – some people prefer skipping this step altogether.
- Take out your strips and scrape the salt off.
- Leave your strips to marinade in your chosen concoction for up to twelve hours. Some people prefer simply brushing it with the marinade. It really depends on the taste you want.
- Once it’s marinated, dry the meat properly with a kitchen towel. It’s crucial that the meat not be dripping wet when you hang it.
- Sprinkle the meat with more spices.
- Sterilise your hooks by washing it with hot water and soap. Metal objects can also be boiled for a few minutes.
- Hook your biltong onto the hooks and hang them in your dryer.
- Wait for about 3 – 4 days depending on the thickness of your meat.
- Enjoy your biltong
And voila! There you have it. Your own edible pieces of South African heaven!
We’re hoping this will add a bit of sunshine to your stay abroad. If you need help with other aspects of your emigration, such as moving your money abroad from South Africa, just leave your details and we’ll call you.