Biltong is a kind of cured meat that
originated in South Africa. Many different types of meat are used to
produce it, ranging from beef through game meats to fillets of ostrich
from commercial farms.
Left: Homemade beef
biltong, based on the South African recipe.
It is typically
made from raw fillets of meat cut into strips following the grain of the muscle,
or flat pieces sliced across the grain. It is similar to beef
jerky in that they
are both spiced, dried meats, but differ in their typical ingredients, taste and
production process. The word biltong is from the Dutch bil ("rump") and
("strip" or "tongue").
Biltong as we
understand it today evolved from the dried meat carried by the wagon-travelling
colonists, who needed stocks of durable food as they migrated from the Cape
Colony (Cape Town) north-eastward (away from British rule) into the interior of
Southern Africa. The raw meat was
preserved from decay and insects within a day or two, and within a fortnight,
would be black and rock-hard after it had fully cured.
Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, the curing
process was used by pioneers to preserve all kinds of meat in South Africa.
However today biltong is most commonly made from beef, primarily due to its
widespread availability and lower cost relative to game. For finest cuts,
sirloin is used or steaks cut from the hip such as topside or silverside. Other
cuts can be used, but are not as high in quality.
The most common ingredients of biltong are:
Sugar or Brown sugar
Other ingredients often added include: balsamic vinegar or malt vinegar, dry
ground chili peppers, garlic, bicarbonate of soda,
onion powder, and saltpetre.
Ideally the meat is marinated in a vinegar solution (cider
vinegar is traditional but balsamic also works very well) for a few hours, and
finally poured off before the meat is flavoured.
The spice mix traditionally consists of equal amounts of: rock salt, whole
coriander, black pepper and brown sugar. This mix is then ground roughly
together, sprinkled liberally over the meat and rubbed in. Saltpetre is optional
and can be added as an extra preservative (necessary only for wet biltong that
is not going to be frozen).
The meat should then be left for a further few hours (or refrigerated overnight)
and any excess liquid poured off before the meat is hung in the dryer.
It is typically dried out in the cold
air (rural settings), cardboard or wooden boxes (urban) or climate-controlled
dry rooms (commercial). Depending on the spices used, a variety of flavours may
be produced. Biltong can also be made in colder climates by using an electric
lamp to dry the meat, but care must be taken to ventilate, as mold can begin to
form on the meat.
A traditional slow dry will deliver a medium cure in about 4 days.
An electric fan-assisted oven set to 40-70 Celsius (100-160 Fahrenheit), with
the door open a fraction to let out moist air, can dry the meat in approximately
4 hours. Although slow dried meat is considered by some to
taste better, oven dried is ready to eat a day or two after preparation.
Left: Biltong quick
drying using an electric oven.
Biltong is renowned for being chewed as a snack, it can also
be diced up into stews, added to muffins and pot bread, or
used as a