Throughout history people have sought to preserve food so that it is available to them during the lean times. One type of food they have been keen to preserve is meat and in different parts of the world different meat preserving techniques have been developed. In the Americas the result is called “jerky” and in Southern Africa it is called “biltong”. These dried meats differ in their preparation and taste and in this article I am going to focus on how to make biltong.
The History Of Biltong
The history of biltong is firmly tied up with the history of South Africa – the name comes from the Dutch “bil” meaning “hind-quarter” and “tong” meaning “strip” but long before the Europeans arrived in Southern Africa the drying technique was developed by the Khoi-khoi/ Khoi-San peoples who rubbed strips of meat in salt and hung it in the shade to dry. The Europeans established themselves in Cape Town in the 17th Century as a stage post for the trade that brought Asian spices to Europe – and it was no great leap for them to augment the salt drying process with various spices, in particular pepper and coriander.
Choosing The Meat
Biltong can be made from any meat and in South Africa a wide variety of game meat is used for biltong including antelope and ostrich. Most commonly, however, biltong is made from beef. As you would expect, expensive cuts of meat make fabulous biltong but for the best value for money save those cuts for cooking gourmet meals and use relatively lean topside or silverside for your biltong.
Some people like their biltong to contain lots of fat – but it is always more risky to dehydrate fatty meat and have the fat go rancid unless the conditions are ideal.
Set off with about 2 kgs (roughly 4 lbs) of meat – bearing in mind that the meat will lose a great deal of its bulk in the drying process. It won’t lose its caloric volume, which is something people forget sometimes!
Cutting Up The Meat
Cut away gristle and sinew that will be hard to chew. Cut the meat with the grain into strips that are roughly 6 inches in length (the longer the more space economical in the drying process) and about ½” thick. The thicker you cut your strips the longer they will take to dry.
The eventual flavor of your biltong is determined at this stage but basically you are soaking the strips in vinegar and spices (essentially salt, pepper and coriander). Most recipes also include brown sugar. It is also possible to experiment with:-
- Other types of meat,
- More or less of each ingredient,
- Different types of vinegar
- Trying out chili powder, garlic, cloves, etc.
- Different lengths of drying time
What follows is a very basic recipe (ingredients to marinade 2 kg of meat)
- 125 ml vinegar (experts recommend a variety of different vinegars or even combinations)
- 125 ml crushed coriander seed
- 100 ml brown sugar
- 30 ml coarse salt
- 15 ml bicarbonate of soda (to tenderize the meat)
- 1 tablespoon of coarse black pepper
- 1 tablespoon paprika
- Mix the dry ingredients into the vinegar.
- Massage the strips in the mixture to make sure they are all well coated.
- Lay the strips in a glass, ceramic or stainless steel dish, well covered by the marinade mixture.
- Keep in the fridge for up to 24 hours. (There is a great deal of disagreement about this length of time on the part of the experts but basically you don’t want the strips to still look pink, as opposed to saturated with the marinade.)
- Turn the pieces every couple of hours, making sure every surface is being treated.
Hang the pieces of meat on a line in a place with plenty of air circulation but excluding insects and birds.
You can see that I made hooks out of paperclips but serious enthusiasts have S-shaped wire hooks. Make sure the pieces are not touching each other. The pieces will drip marinade for a while.
The drier the atmosphere the better. I suspect that under conditions of over 50% humidity you would be in danger of encouraging the meat to go off rather than dehydrate.
Under hot (40-50°F) dry conditions you should be able to produce soft, moist biltong in four days and very dry biltong by the end of 14 days.
When your biltong has dried to your taste you can cut it into slices and store it in a cool, dry place. (I have to continually seek new hiding places for biltong to prevent my family from making themselves ill with over-indulgence.
Biltong can, of course, be dried in a commercial biltong-making gadget, or dehumidifier, or you can make your own biltong drying space with a light bulb heat source and small fan.
There are a bewildering range of suggestions made by biltong-making experts but after you have mastered the straight-forward process you can experiment to suit your taste!