Introduction: Biltong:NOT Jerky

About: I have my own lab where I teach Science & Mathematics to children of all ages. When not teaching, I "tinker" with whatever I can lay my hands on. I like to play with fire.I have never been bored in my life - t…

A great South African classic. Although many people compare American Jerky with South African Biltong, it is just not the same thing. I helped my Dad to make biltong since I was very young and have made at least 50kg (100 pounds) on my own since I left home. I do not claim to be an expert (like Dad) but would like everyone to try this authentic South African recipe. My version is most certainly not the best. My three boys and I like to do it every winter, it's a tradition and nowadays they insist to do most of the work.

Whereas jerky is mostly made of thin strips of meat containing little fat, biltong is made from a large variety of cuts, sometimes containing more than 50% fat by volume. The cuts are generally thicker than other dried meat cuts and the moisture content of the final product varies with taste. I prefer my biltong moist, with a thick strip of fat, whilst my wife likes it dry with no fat. Some people argue that venison biltong should be very dry - almost to the point of crumbling, while others like it soft. There are as many preferences as there are South Africans. Pity is that most people can either not afford it or, even sadder, do not know how to make it.

SAFETY WARNING: You should not do this if you cannot replicate the environment that is needed for the meat to dry. You WILL suffer from food poisoning if you do not get it right. Keep everyting CLEAN!  More about this in another step.

Step 1: Materials

Materials, or rather, ingredients for this lovely food:

1. Meat. This must be red meat. Lamb and mutton does not work great. I have eaten: Beef, Impala, Kudu, Elephant, Ostrich, Oryx, Gnu, Zebra, Warthog, Springbok, Duiker, Baboon, Blesbok etc. etc. Any cut wil do, although marbled meat is not a very good material. A strip of fat on the outside of the meat works well if you prefer to have fat in the final product. Only soft fat must be used. Hard fat (as is mostly encountered with venison) is horrible, to say the least. In this example I used a tender beef fillet.

2. Vinegar. Brown spirit vinegar (5% strength) works the best

3. Brown sugar. Not treacle sugar. Normal cane sugar may also be used

4. Dried Coriander seeds

5. Water

6. Coarse salt

7. (Optional) Finely ground white pepper

Step 2: Tools

The picture shows me & the boys using our tools to "construct" our favorite snack.

You will need:

1. A sharp butchers knife
2. Hooks (I use plastic covered paperclips)
3. A container (or two) to hold the cuts of meat
4. A line where you can hang the meat to dry

About the line: It should be of sturdy construction, preferably made of steel wire and able to support the weight of the undried product. I have four lines, made of 3mm steel wire, properly anchored to the walls of my garage. The lines I use are 4m long. I have the lines indoors so that no insects, birds, rodents or the like can get to my biltong. During daytime I open all the doors to allow enough influx of cool dry air.

Step 3: Cut the Meat

Cutting time! Here I show how I cut through the fillet, creating a 2cm thick slice. It is of extreme importance to cut the meat ALONG and NOT ACCROSS the grain of the meat. The picture in the previous step shows the gang cutting up a 6kg (12pound) chunk of beef silverside (roast).

Did I mention cleanliness? Keep all surfaces, hands and tools clean at all times.

Step 4: Spice the Meat

Spicing is a truly personal thing. That which I provide here, makes for an authentic South African biltong. You may vary ingredients, change quantities and do whatever you like. It is an art which many would like to master.

Two important things:

Use enough salt. Remember that the final product weight will be about at third of the original weight, so DO NOT OVERSALT. Salt is the main preservative of Biltong and if you do not use enough you wil end up with rotten meat. Easy? Experiment till you get it just right!

The meat must be MOIST during the initial 24 hours.

Here goes:

1. Coarse salt, as shown on all raw biltong cuts (about 1.5 tsp/pound of meat)
2. A very fine sprinkle of brown sugar, as shown (about half a teaspoon/pound of meat)
3. Sprinkle with water and brown vinegar (about 1 tbsp/pound of meat)
4. Coriander seeds (ground rather coarse). Amount to taste.
5. Optional spices (to taste). Experiment with this.

Layer the meat in your container as you spice it. Make sure that all layers have the same amount of spices.
Let the meat stand for 12 hours, then turn it over and let stand for another 12 hours. The meat must be kept at a temperature between 5° and 10°C  (40 to 50°F) during this process. Refrigeration should work good, although I have never used it because I only make biltong during winter when the average temperature is around 10°C (50°F)

Step 5: Make the Hooks & Hanging Wire

You may use commercial meat hooks if you want to, but I found that bending plastic-covered paper clips works just as fine. My dad uses special stainless steel hooks that he made himself but I consider those too expensive. Make sure that you properly wash the hooks and keep them as clean as possible. I re-use my hooks.

The hanging wire, as already mentioned, should be of sturdy construction, so that it can carry the weight of the wet product. I remember my grandfather hanging biltong in his closet!

Step 6: Hang It to Dry

The picture shows one of my handy helpers hanging a biltong next to some others that are already in an advanced stage of drying.

Important things to remember about the area where you hang the biltong:

1. It should not be accessible to insects, birds & the like.
2. Individual pieces must not touch.
3. Dripping will occur. Make sure the floor surface is protected or may be easily cleaned.

4. IMPORTANT: The average temperature should be between 40°F and 50°F and relative humidity below 50%. Should you not be able to meet these conditions, a fan aimed directly at the drying meat may help. This, however, affects the taste. You may use a commercial biltong dryer, but do not expect the final product to be of the best quality.

Step 7: Eat!

This is the most difficult step. When can I eat the biltong? It depends on your own personal preference and on the thickness of the cuts. Should you like it dry, you will have to wait at least 14 days, but if you prefer the meat to be moist, you can eat it after four days hanging at the right conditions. Slice it thinly, thick, in chunks, or rip at a whole piece using your teeth only!

Biltong may be frozen should it not be properly dried. If it is very dry, you can keep it for more than a year in a dark, dry and cool place. It will not spoil.

Happy eating!