It is with regret that I refer to biltong as “South African beef-jerky” since this product is far superior. If you’ve ever tried biltong, you’ll know exactly what I mean–none of that sugary, rubbery stuff-it-in-a-dehydrator rubbish here, please!
As with many Biltong fans, I fell in love with this delicacy as a kid, and it has remained a lifelong addiction. I have been making my biltong for several years. I tweak the recipe as needed and feed it to others with “How’s it? Honestly?” and lots of feedback. This fool-hardy recipe is a great way to keep the traditional dried meat while adding refined finesse. It does not disappoint.
Biltong is a food created by Dutch pioneers, the “Voortrekkers,” in South Africa. They needed to eat well on their long journeys across Africa. In the past, the method and spice mixture has mostly stayed the same. However, variations, such as ‘piri-piri’ and the addition of Worcestershire and dried chilies, are now available.
There are many different opinions on the best curing method, spices, and how long they should be dried. Trial and error was my friend. It is unnecessary to undergo several stages of curing, washing spices off, and reapplying. I wouldn’t say I like to waste good herbs, so I only coat the sauce once, let it cure in the refrigerator, pat dry, and then hang. Why waste the flavor by washing it off? Over-salting biltong can make it nearly unbearable for larger quantities. (Let’s be honest, who wants only to eat one piece of biltong?) Too much salt can cause a burning sensation. Many recipes recommend washing off the salt with water and vinegar. My answer? Use less salt! Vinegar is a great way to sterilize meat without using mountains of salt. Salt is a great flavor enhancer, and it should be used just a bit less so you don’t have to wash the meat.
Temperature and airflow
When drying biltong, we want to concentrate the flavor by removing the most moisture. This is similar to “dry aging.” The key to making biltong is a combination of cool temperatures and good airflow. It is not necessary to heat the biltong to make it. Italians produce an excellent beef product called Bresaola, which is air-dried at low temperatures to ensure an even texture and dryness. Heat doesn’t improve the quality of the meat, but it can increase airflow around the core by using a temperature gradient. Don’t try to make it in an oven. Biltong can take several days to dry, and most ranges will not go low enough to allow the meat to be dried slowly enough. You want a gentle drying process and a slow, steady airflow. Many DIY biltong producers will use a “biltong box” with a fan or lightbulb to create good airflow. To avoid “case hardening,” where the outside of the meat becomes too harsh, and the texture gradient disappears too quickly, it is essential to circulate air around the beef without allowing the airflow to be too strong.
How to dry biltong
My first attempt at making biltong was to hang it on a piece of wood that I had jammed into the window frame next to an excellent window with a low-speed fan blowing air. You don’t need much to make biltong. You can upgrade to a biltong or other drying box for more control. Since then, I have upgraded to an older fridge stripped of its mechanics, with holes in the bottom and a fan pulling air past the meat. It is essential that the airflow be just proper to remove moisture but not so fast as to overdry the outside of the heart. You want cool temperatures and good airflow. In most homes, the temperature is perfect. However, airflow can be an issue. You want a steady but manageable stream of air to pass by the meat. You can create this condition in any way that you like. It would be best if you had some airflow. Otherwise, the heart will mold. I’m sorry to admit that this happened to me before! You can make or buy a biltong box if you want complete control of the drying conditions. Online, you can find them for a reasonable price.
2000 g Beef – Silverside or Toprump
Curing spice mix
5 tbsp brown (malt) vinegar or cider vinegar
Salt coarse: 2.5 tbsp (2% of meat weight).
2 tsp Ground black pepper
2 tbsp Coriander seed
Brown sugar is optional.
The coriander seeds should be toasted in a dry pan and ground in a pestle-and-mortar or spice grinder. The powder should consist mainly of sources but with some seed shells.
Cut the meat into 1-inch-thick lengths (2.5cm), following the grain, and store it in a nonmetallic container.
Mix all spices and sprinkle on the meat. Spread the vinegar over the meat and use your hands to turn it.
Cover the container, and let the biltong cure in the refrigerator for 24 hours. Rotate and rub the meat periodically.
Take the meat out of the container, and pat it dry with a kitchen towel. Be careful not to remove all the spices.
Add a hook at the thickest part of each length. Paper clips covered in plastic are a cost-effective solution. You can hang the biltong in your box or in an area that is well-ventilated and aired with a gentle fan blowing to increase airflow. Avoid pointing a fan at the meat directly (to prevent case hardening). Be sure that none of the pieces touch. Put some newspaper under the heart to catch the liquid.
The drying time will depend on humidity, airflow, and temperature. Squeeze the sides of the biltong with clean fingertips every two days to test its readiness. You can tell if the meat is still “wet” inside if you feel it is giving.
Cut the meat into thin slices using a sharp knife.