Biltong is a type of cured meat snack that originated in the 17th Century in South Africa. At that time, Dutch settlers brought with them recipes for curing meat with vinegar, salt and spices. Pioneering “voortrekkers” needed to preserve food as they traveled in wagons from Cape Town into the African interior. The hard, dark cured meat was protected against decay and could last for weeks or even months without rotting. Biltong is similar to jerky, but the flavors and texture are different.
Step 1 – Assemble Biltong Ingredients
The first step to making your own South African biltong is to assemble the necessary ingredients. You’ll need the following:
- 1-2 kg. beef, sliced into strips
- 2 tbls rock salt
- 2 tbls coarse ground black pepper
- ½ cup coarse ground coriander
- 250 ml vinegar
The traditional type of vinegar is the apple cider variety, although you can use balsamic as well. Moreover, other meats work, as well. Chicken, pork, or game meats like venison all make delicious biltong.
Step 2 – Marinate the Biltong Meat
Remove all excess fat and gristle from the steaks. Slice into thin strips. Then, layer a mixture of vinegar and spices in the bottom of a wide, shallow dish. On this, place several of the beef strips side-by-side. Next, add an equal measure of the mix on top. Any additional spices (paprika is very popular) can be added to the top at this time. Place in the refrigerator and allow the beef to marinate for three or four hours. Once the spices and vinegar have thoroughly seasoned the meat, you can begin drying the meat.
Step 3 – Dry the Biltong Meat
To dry the meat, it must be hung in a place free of insects and moisture. This can be a closet with the door open, a top shelf, or any other place where moving air can wick the moisture from the beef. Humidity is the primary cause of spoilage. The simplest way is to hang the meat and place a fan in front of it to keep air circulating. However, if the ambient air is very humid, the meat can still spoil. If you are particularly ambitious, you can buy a biltong maker or food dryer. Each of these devices lets you control the temperature and the moisture of the air. In general, the warmer and drier the space, the more quickly your biltong will cure.
Depending on whether you use a machine or simply hang the meat to dry, the curing process can take between 1 to 10 days. A slow dry in a dry climate should take about four days. A fan-assisted dry in a dry climate may take less than 24 hours. Hanging the meat in a cardboard box in a damp climate may take a week or even longer. The length of time it takes is, of course, partly due to personal preference, since some people prefer harder, chewier biltong, while others like theirs more moist and tender.
Step 4 – Eating the Biltong
Biltong is normally sold and eaten as a snack food. However, traditionally it was used as a staple of the South African voortrekker’s diet. It can be added to soups or chopped up into stews. Some parents give it to teething babies to chew on. It can be used in other, more unexpected ways as well: manufacturers produce biltong-flavored potato crisps, and many people have been known to add biltong to muffins or pot bread.
However you choose to eat it, this great food source is a spicy, flavorful food with origins in the heart of South Africa. Dry up a batch and serve it to friends at your next gathering, or feed a strip to your teething baby.
Emily Starr is a freelance writer and avid traveler. She recommends tasting as many different exotic and wonderful foods and cultures so that you can to widen your knowledge of the world and suggests starting with biltong as it is easy to source and tastes great.