This is one of the best South African snacks, especially if you love beef! You’ll find biltong on every South African charcuterie board and if there isn’t any then its most likely already been devoured. The texture combination between the silky-smooth fat, soft-meaty middle and dry-seasoned exterior is beautiful. Making your own biltong at home is actually pretty simple. My first round of biltong was my test run and I had to deal with a lot of mold so made some changes by drying less meat at once, increased the airflow and neutralized ANY sign of mold (I was seriously on it!) and tried again. My second try was an absolute stunner, so tastebuds, you can definitely go for it!

The taste profile of biltong is rich and savoury, with a texture that can range from soft and chewy to dry and brittle, depending on the thickness of the slices and the drying time. The spices used in the curing process typically include coriander, black pepper, and sometimes brown sugar, giving biltong a complex, slightly tangy flavor with a hint of sweetness. The salt is the most important seasoning as it’ll help preserve the meat. The vinegar adds a bit of a tangy kick, balancing out the savory and spicy notes. It’s a snack that is not only delicious but also packed with protein, making it a popular choice for outdoor activities and as a convenient, nutritious snack.

I usually buy my meat from Frankie Fenner Meat Merchants. They supply local and ethically sourced grass-fed beef amongst a many other wonderful animal products.


History of South African Biltong

Biltong is a form of driedcured meat which originated in Southern African countries (South AfricaZimbabweMalawiNamibiaBotswanaLesothoEswatini, and Zambia). Its history dates back to the early Dutch settlers in the 17th century. These settlers needed a way to preserve meat during their long journeys across the country, especially in the harsh climates where fresh meat would spoil quickly.

They used a traditional method of curing meat with vinegar and spices before drying it. The word “biltong” itself comes from the Dutch words “bil” (meaning buttock or meat) and “tong” (meaning strip or tongue). The practice was influenced by indigenous methods of meat preservation and was adapted using local ingredients and techniques.

Various types of meat are used to produce it, ranging from beef to game meats such as ostrich or kudu. The cut may also vary being either fillets of meat cut into strips following the grain of the muscle, or flat pieces sliced across the grain. Experienced biltong makers will tell you that c-grade silverside beef is the best cut for good biltong as the older cows meat and fat is far more flavorsome than younger cuts. It’s also less tender, perfect for drying as the process ironically tenderizes the meat.

Over time, biltong became a staple food in South Africa. It was not only a practical way to store meat but also a cherished snack. During the Boer War, biltong was an essential source of nourishment for the soldiers. Today, it remains a popular treat, enjoyed both as a snack and as an ingredient in various dishes.

It is related to beef jerky; both are spiced, dried meats; however the typical ingredients, taste, and production processes may differ. Any South African will tell you that Biltong far out weighs jerky and is almost an insult if compared.

Drying tips: My parents used to run a wire across the roof’s beams in their garage and then hang the biltong. They’d also place newspaper on the floor to catch any drippings. You can easily buy a Biltong Box, they’re very affordable but make sure you don’t overcrowd the box as that’ll definitely generate too much moisture for the box to handle (I dried about 1kg of meat at a time). I unscrewed the Biltong Box’s light. I personally just felt more comfortable minimizing any additional heat as this’ll increase the temperature in the box and it was already quite warm in Cape Town. I don’t think you NEED a Biltong Box, great if you have one but it’s not a necessity.

Making biltong in smaller batches, more regularly is recommended when using a Biltong Box. The ideal temperature should be between 70f and 80f (21.2c – 26.6c) and a humidity between 50% and 60%. Also airflow, too much airflow will result in a thick, hard casing (black portion or ring around the biltong). This means that the middle of the portion of the meat may not be able to dry out. Test your product by slicing off the bottom, if the casing is hard and the middle is too wet, the airflow needs to be turned down.

Wherever you decide to hang your biltong, you must just make sure you’ve got the basics down – near sunlight but not in direct sunlight, enough cool air to circulate in between the biltong (you can use a fan but just make sure it doesn’t blow directly onto the meat as this’ll cause the biltong to form a casing), low humidity as the biltong will give off heat and moisture and this is a breeding ground for mold so cool airflow is crucial and cover with a thin net to prevent flies etc. from contaminating the meat.

Storage: I prefer freezing my biltong, it thaws very quickly and makes slicing easier. It also stays fresher for longer. Otherwise, I’d keep the cut up pieces in a brown bag in the fridge for no longer than 5 days. Naturally, biltong will continue to dry out as time goes on so to prevent this I revert bake to freezing my biltong. No matter what happens, if the meat has a foul smell, colour or serious mold, then discard immediately.

Mold: check for mold at least once per day. Dab a kitchen cloth in some vinegar and neutralize the affected area immediately. Also, adjust the airflow. Mold will only grow if the environment is too humid. White on biltong isn’t always mold. Some varieties of biltong may have white, non-fat clumps on them. If your biltong is from a reputable vendor, it’s more likely to be a salt crust from the meat than mold! If you don’t like the look, use a drop of cider vinegar to wipe it away.

 

South African Biltong

A basic but seriously tasty biltong recipe. Biltong is air-cured cuts of meat, specifically silverside, that have been seasoned with a spice mix - perfect for snacking.
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Course: Appetizer, Snack
Cuisine: South African
Keyword: air-cured meat, biltong
Prep Time: 15 minutes
7 days

Equipment

  • Plastic hooks to hang the cured meat
  • labels to note weight
  • spice grinder or pestle and mortar

Ingredients

  • 1.5 kilograms silverside c-grade beef see notes
  • 45 grams coriander seeds toasted
  • 45 grams black peppercorns
  • 25 grams chili flakes optional
  • 45 grams sugar or honey
  • 45 grams course salt see notes
  • 90 grams brown (malt) vinegar or cider vinegar
  • 90 grams Worcestershire sauce

Instructions

  • Start by toasting the coriander seeds in a dry pan. Add the toasted coriander seeds and black peppercorns to a spice blender or in a pestle and mortar. It should be mostly powder, with a few pieces of seed shells left in.
  • Using a sharp knife, following the grain of the meat, cut into 1 inch (2.5cm) thick lengths.
  • Pour the vinegar and Worcestershire sauce into a large marinading dish. Add the sectioned meat and coat with the vinegar mixture. Sprinkle half the spice mixture over the meat. Rub everything in thoroughly whilst turning the meat with your hands. Add the remaining spice mix and repeat.
  • Cover the container and let your biltong cure for 24 hours in the fridge, turning and rubbing through the meat occasionally.
  • Remove the meat from the container and pat dry with kitchen towels, taking care not to remove too much of the spice. Weigh each cut of meat, add a hook to the thickest part of the cut and stick a label on each hook. The label helps you know how much moisture loss has occurred. I prefer no less that 50% water loss otherwise it's too dry for me. So I usually start checking around 65%. For example: write the starting weight (S) 140g grams and the target weight (T) (no less than 50% moisture loss) 70g grams. So anything between 50% and 65% dryness is perfect for me.
  • Hang in your biltong box, or in a well aired, ventilated space with a fan blowing gently to increase air flow but don't point a fan directly at the meat as this will cause case hardening. Make sure none of the pieces are touching. You can spread some newspaper below the meat to catch any liquid.
  • Drying times will vary with humidity, airflow and temperature. I dried the meat for 5 days and most pieces were ready. The thicker cuts were left to dry further. You can test the readiness of your biltong every couple of days by squeezing the sides together with clean fingers. If you feel any give in the meat, it’s still ‘wet’ inside. It can take anywhere from 4-10 days to air-cure. Be ruthless with any signs of molding - dab a kitchen towel in some vinegar to neutralize any mold and increase the air flow.
  • Once you've reached your preferred dryness you can slice away - enjoy!

Video

Notes

  1. Beef: try your best to use grass-fed c-grade silverside beef as this will yield the best results. Otherwise, a-grade/b-grade is perfectly fine or other cuts such as topside or sirloin etc.
  2. Seasonings: feel free to add any additional spices such as chili flakes, crushed aniseed etc. If you don't have any course salt and need to substitute with table salt, double check that it's not iodated salt as it'll leave a bitter taste in your mouth. Make sure to use 1/3 less salt if you're using fine salt as you don't want the cured meat to be too salty.
  3. Mold: check for mold at least once per day. Dab a kitchen cloth in some vinegar and neutralize the affected area immediately. Also, adjust the airflow. Mold will only grow if the environment is too humid.
  4. Storage: I prefer freezing my biltong, it thaws very quickly and makes slicing easier. It also stays fresher for longer. Otherwise, I'd keep the cut up pieces in a brown bag in the fridge for no longer than 5 days. Naturally, biltong will continue to dry out as time goes on so to prevent this I revert bake to freezing my biltong. No matter what happens, if the meat has a foul smell, colour or serious mold, then discard immediately.

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