Biltong is an air-cured meat product with origins in South Africa. Large(r) strips of meat are cured in vinegar, salt and spices, then hung to dry in the right climate. Cured, dried and stored correctly, biltong will remain edible for years, which makes it an excellent survival food. Better than this, however, is that Biltong is a healthy and wonderful snack food. As a result, stores of biltong are depleted quickly in most households.
Making Traditional South African Biltong
At its most basic, biltong is salted meat that is treated in vinegar, rolled in spices and hung in the right climate to dry for 4-7 days, depending on the thickness of the meat.
Almost every meat of the planet has been used for making biltong, but by far the most popular meats are beef, venison and other red meats. Fish, pork and some poultry meats have been used to make biltong-like products, but safety concerns may prevent you from experimenting with these types of meats. As with any charcuterie enterprise, using the highest quality meats, as well as meticulous attention to cleanliness and safety are paramount to safe and tasty end product.
In picking the proper meat cuts for biltong, it is best to look for lean cuts with long, even grain such as brisket, flank or top round.
Traditionally, the spices are a (roughly) 1-1 mixture of rough ground pepper and rough ground coriander. However, regional tastes and modern experimentation have led to a wide range of spice mixtures that add to this basic recipe. Some additional flavors are:
- hot dried peppers
- lemon zest
- brown sugar
The critical elements to the process boil down to the salt (either as an initial salt cure or as a part of the rolled spice mixture) and the vinegar. Both of these ingredients aid in the curing process and inhibit bacterial growth as the meat dries. Black pepper was traditionally used both for taste and as a method for keeping flies off of the meat as it dried. If this is a concern, black pepper can be considered critical as well. Beyond that, the spice mixture is largely a matter of taste.
- Prep the Meat- Cut into long strips 1" x 1" by 9-12" long, WITH the grain. It is important to cut with the grain for a few reasons. First, it aids in proper curing. Meat cut against the grain just seems to come out too salty. Second, Biltong is meant to be shaved or cut into bite sized pieces for consumption. Cutting with the grain at this stage makes for a final product that is easier to eat.
- Salt Cure - If the spice mixture includes salt (meaning it tastes salty), this step can be skipped. If the spice mix does not contain salt (as is traditional) spice mix without salt, this step is mandatory. In a large, non reactive container, using rock salt, liberally cover meat on all sides (the meat can be buried in rock salt. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 1-3 hours. the longer the meat is cured this way, the saltier the end product will be. The salt will help draw moisture from the meat and aids in preservation.
- Vinegar Rinse - For each piece, knock off all of the salt, then rinse it in a vinegar bath. This can be white, red wine or cider vinegar according to taste. All it needs is a rinse. The meat does NOT need to be soaked for any length of time. Some recipes call for a mere misting of the meat with vinegar. This step is, however, mandatory.
- Hook it - Using plastic coated paper clips, create a hook for each strip of meat. (bend the paperclip into an S-shape and push on end through the end of each strip. It is neater and easier to install the hooks before rolling the meat in the spice mixture.
- Spice Mix - Put about 2 cups of spice mix in a tray and roll the meat in the spice mix, coating it liberally.
- Hang - Hang the meat in a dry place with plenty or air circulation. For some climates, it may be necessary to use a "Biltong Box", but many makers in drier climates simply hang the meat in their garage with a fan blowing on it. Keep in mind that initially the meat will be wet and dripping juice. This may result in a mess if hung over unprotected floors.
- Dry - Hang the biltong until the meat is to your liking. The final product is another area of broad disagreement among South Africans. Some like it fairly wet, some like it bone dry. A happy medium may be a good start. The meat will be quite dark on color on the outside. with some red still evident in the middle when cut into. The texture will be firm, with little if any give when the meat itself is squeezed.
- Store - Biltong is best stored in a dry place with room to breathe. Brown paper bags are an excellent method of storing biltong, either in the pantry or on top of the refrigerator. Stored properly, biltong will last a very long time. Plastic bags are not usually a good idea due to the fact that over time, the biltong will give up more moisture, which could"rehydrate" the surface of the biltong, leading to spoilage.
- Eat it - First, inspect the biltong. Any obvious mold, or rotten odor should result in discarded biltong. Biltong should be dark on color, with some lightened areas if the surface was slightly over dried. Biltong should never be green or fuzzy. Also, Biltong is not beef jerky. If you try to gnaw down a Biltong stick, you'll be messing around a long time. Use a sharp knife to cut the strip into bite sized pieces for an excellent snack. Biltong can also be grated to be used as an ingredient in soups or dips, or sliced with a meat slicer.
- Experiment - Try new spice mixes. Too Salty? Cure for less time. Sweeter? Spicy? Dry? Wet? Fat? Lean? How much of a vinegar bath? Long Soak? Dip and Swish? Mist?