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So what is biltong?

May 14, 2021

Here’s a question - when was the last time you discovered a new snack? One that really blew your mind. And no, rediscovering that Christmas selection box at the back of your cupboard doesn’t count.

If you’ve never heard of biltong, traditionally a South African snack, be prepared for a whole new snacking experience. A nutrient-rich, satisfyingly meaty one at that. If you have heard of biltong, then what are you waiting for? Pick up one of our 1KG Original Biltong bags.

Homegrown Biltong

So what is Biltong meat? Seriously.

Funny you should ask. Beef Biltong is thinly sliced dried, cured meat originating in Southern African countries like Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa. If we had to compare it to something, we’d say it was a little like beef jerky. But trust us - it’s a whole different beast. Just like beef jerky, traditional biltong was used to pep up weary travellers on epic, long-distance journeys. But their similarities end right about there.

When it comes to traditional biltong flavour and curing, beef jerky and beef Biltong couldn’t be more different. Back in the day, the people of Southern Africa preserved their meat by curing it with salt and hanging it up. Then European settlers came along and changed the whole process. They brought vinegar, spices, pepper, cloves, and coriander to the mix. Ever heard of saltpeter? It’s a natural mineral source of potassium nitrate (good old KNO3), and is bitong’s best friend. 

Be sure to check out our favourite biltong recipe.

 

What is biltong? Biltong’s meaty history

We reckon food tastes better once you know a little more about where it comes from. When we say traditional biltong, we’re talking a whole range of dried, cured meats. Traditionally, it could be anything from beef and game to ostrich or kudu (yes, an antelope). South Africans have been rubbing their meat with salt and hanging it to air dry for over 400 years. And recently, the rest of the world has caught on. We ensure our beef biltong stays true to its South African roots.

We also recommend you check out the "What Is Biltong 2021" guide.

Biltong hanging to dry in Botswana

As for the word ‘biltong’ - it can be broken down into two parts:

Bil - the Dutch word for rump/buttock (eg. ‘Get off your bil and get me a snack’)

Tong - the word for tongue (eg. ‘This beef biltong’s so spicy my tong is on fire’) 

What meats are we talking?

Although beef biltong can be made from a whole load of different meats, you’ll most often find beef on the menu. Mainly because beef is readily available (and relatively cheap). But it can also be made using fish (usually made with dried, salty bokkoms, and sometimes even shark), sirloin of springbok or kudu, and ostrich meat. You are bound to love this South African snack.

Back to beef jerky - what’s the real difference between biltong and beef jerky?

Beef jerky and beef Biltong may look similar, but trust us - they’re worlds apart.

Beef jerky’s been in the game a long time. In fact, many believe it dates back to an ancient Inca Tribe called the Quechua, who coined the term ‘ch’arki’ (which we now know as ‘jerky’). It just means dried, salted meat.

Others think it was discovered by North Americans, with the word ‘jerky’ coming from ‘charqui’ - Spanish for dried strips of meat.

Since drying meat is one of the oldest and most common methods in the book for preserving food, it’s no wonder we get confused when looking at the origins. Most cultures have their own methods of drying and curing meat. So really, we can never 100% know where it comes from. But we can all agree that whoever discovered it is a culinary genius.

biltong

Typically, when we talk about beef jerky we’re looking at thin slices of lean beef (usually the sirloin tip or the eye of round), dried low and slow. There are a few different ways to create beef jerky, but smoking, salting, and dehydrating are the ones you’ll be most familiar with. Why all the salt? It helps gently draw out the moisture and give a bite of flavor to the meat.

The ideal beef jerky has minimal fat - because fat doesn’t dry well and can turn rancid. Which no one wants.

Beef jerky tends to be slightly thicker than biltong as you can see here

But back to 'what is biltong'. It’s been creeping into the market more and more over the last few years, but it’s never been as commercialised as beef jerky. Which we think it strange, as it’s made with far fewer preservatives and less artificial flavours. In fact, the best biltong makers stick to the centuries-old methods perfected in South Africa.

Traditional biltong is much thicker than beef jerky (and much more satisfying, we think). If you’re in the market for nice little bite sized pieces, it’s best to go against the grain -  and for a longer and chewier piece, you’d cut the meat with the grain. Or get your butcher to cut it, maybe...

So what is it that really sets biltong apart from its beef jerky neighbour? It’s all in the seasoning. The meat should be coated in a unique, moreish spice mix, made up of traditional rock salt, ground coriander seeds, all-spice and black pepper. But vinegar is the star of the show. As well as curing the meat as it dried, vinegar gives it a distinct layer of flavour, and softens up the meat to give it that steak-like mouthfeel.

Although originating in South Acrica, over the years, there have been modern upgrades to some of the ingredients. Most families and butchers making biltong will have their own unique twists - and will always swear theirs is the best. They might switch classic vinegar for the red wine or apple cider variety. Or add a touch of brown sugar to sweeten things up. Or even bicarbonate of soda to tenderise and neutralise the biltong strips.

All this is to make sure the meat air-dries just right. It needs to be in a place with plenty of air circulating, and will take between five-seven days, depending on how you like your biltong. Good things come to those who wait, and all that...

There are a few ways to tell if your biltong is perfectly dried. Firstly, it will have shrunk to half its original size. It’ll also be firm to the touch, but will be nice and bendy without cracking, and will have turned a shade of rich, deep maroon.

When biltong is fresh, you can eat it within four days (if you have really great self control...), but when stored and packed just right, it can last a few months. Hence being the king of snacks for travellers over the centuries.

Compared to smoky beef jerky, biltong has a much meatier, deeper flavour - closer to game than most beef you will have tasted. Jerky can be teeth-shatteringly tough, whereas biltong should be tender and chewy. Oh, and biltong is much healthier thanks to the curing process (and low fat, low sugar content) to the way that it is made. 

What is biltong? The delicious benefits

The people have spoken in recent years, and they want less processed more wholesome food. Which shouldn’t be a lot to ask. For meat eaters, choosing a healthy snack can be tricky. Luckily, biltong is made with natural ingredients, a big old dose of protein and all nine essential amino acids (for fat burning, muscle growth, reduced mental fatigue...the list goes on).

When you pit beef against other meats, it serves up more zinc, iron, B12, B6, and selenium on a pound for pound basis than anything else out there. It’s powerful stuff. Rather than cooking or dehydrating, air-drying locks in almost all of the meat’s minerals, vitamins, and proteins. Not to mention it’s super low sugar and naturally low carb. So choosing biltong over a bag of crisps or a synthetic protein bar is a bit of a no-brainer.

How do I eat this biltong?

Just ask a South African on a trek a few hundred years ago - biltong is the perfect on-the-go snack for energy, protein and a hit of meaty goodness. But it’s also the ideal accompaniment to a tapas-style snack board filled with gooey cheeses, sharp pickles, and hot mustard.

We also like throwing it on top of salads for an extra punch of protein and flavour. Plus, it keeps you full for longer. Biltong can also take a sandwich to the next level. If you want to go traditional (and seriously tasty), try making your own sweet, milk-brushed mosbolletjies bread. We promise it’s not as hard as it sounds...And don’t forget to add some parmesan. Because, parmesan.

Our take on a delicious biltong sandwich. Don't you just want to take a bite of that?

So you get our point. Biltong is a rich, delicious, protein-packed meat snack that has stood the test of time. While jerky has picked up flavours in all corners of the world, biltong has stayed true to its South African roots - a traditional snack for modern life.

Beef biltong - traditional South African Food

Biltong is a South African classic. It is air-cured meat immersed in vinegar and spices. Various types of meat are used to make biltong but it is most commonly made from beef because of its widespread availability and lower costs. Other meats that can be used to prepare biltong include game meats such as ostrich or kudu. Cutting methods also vary, you can either cut fillets of meat into strips following the grain of the muscle or cut flat pieces sliced across the grain.

Biltong is very similar to jerky in the sense that they are both spiced, dried meats but the ingredients used are different, the preparation process is also different and the taste too is completely different. So biltong and jerky are not the same things.

Preparing your biltong

Homemade biltong can take about 15 minutes to prepare and to achieve the best results, in the end, you will need a cut of good beef that is suitable for making biltong. After you've bought the perfect beef for making biltong, you can follow the steps below to prepare your biltong:

In the first step, you're required to cut the beef into flat strips about 1-inch-deep by 2 inches wide.

Then mix ¾ white vinegar and ¼ sauce into a large container where you can immerse the meat strips. Leave the meat strips in the mixture for about 3 to 4 hours to absorb and begin the curing process.

After the hours have passed, you should then remove the strips, squeeze and pat dry. Make sure you keep the mixture for rinsing the strips later on in the process

The next step involves mixing spices and then layer unto the bottom of a container large enough to lay the strips flat. Leave into the container to cure for about 6 hours. All the spices will then be absorbed into the meat.

Remove the spiced meat strips and rinse them into the initial mixture of vinegar. This is to remove all the spices outside the meat.

Finally, you can then add hooks to one end of the strips and hang them in your biltong box. It should take up to 5 or 6 days for the biltong to be ready, depending on the drying method and taste preference.

The best lean meat for biltong

If you’re thinking of investing your time in making your very own biltong, then you need to make sure you make the best tasty biltong that will satisfy you and your family members. Choosing the best meat for your biltong is the first step to achieving the best results in the end and the right means will improve the quality of your biltong as well. Organic grass fed beef is recommended or this and you can get it from a local butcher or local stores. When it comes to cutting, make sure you choose lean pieces without much marbling. Silverside bottom round makes the perfect biltong, sirloin and top round are also good lean cuts for biltong.

Drying your biltong

The biltong drying process is quite easy. After you're done with adding spices and other processes, you simply hook the meat on the thicker end of the strips and then hang the meat in a well aired, ventilated, isolated place to dry or you can use a biltong box. The drying process takes about 5 to 10 days depending on the drying method or personal preference.

How do you know when the biltong is ready?

The squeeze test will let you know whether your biltong is ready or not. When you squeeze the biltong, it should be hard but a bit squeezy because of the little moisture inside. Once you use the squeeze taste and confirm that it's hard and a bit squeezy, know that your biltong is ready.

Storing your biltong

When storing your biltong in a cool dry place, this will prevent it from going moldy. Freezing your biltong can make it last for a year, which is awesome. You can as well store your biltong in a paper bag, jar, or bowl it will remain good for a few days.

Biltong recipe

The following is one of the best recipes for biltong. It will give you results that are traditional as well as authentic.

Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Cook time: 5 days

Ingredients

Beef(2kg)

5 tbsp cider vinegar

2.5 tbsp coarse salt

2 tbsp of Coriander seeds

1.5 tbsp brown sugar

2 tap of ground black pepper

Instructions for the recipe

In a dry pan, toast the coriander seeds before grinding them in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder. It must be mainly powder, with some seed shells thrown in for good measure. Cut the meat into 1 inch thick length. Then place it in a metallic jar.

Mix all of the spices together and sprinkle over the beef. Sprinkle the vinegar and vigorously rub it all while keeping the hands on the beef. The biltong should then be cured for 24 hours. This should be done in the refrigerator, turning and rubbing the meat every now and then.

The meat should then be removed from the container. Next, pay it to dry using kitchen towels. Make sure to still keep the spice on the meet.

On each length of the meat, you should add a hook. You can use paper clips that are covered in plastics since this is very affordable. Then hang the Hilton in a box or in a space that is well ventilated. You can also add a fan to blow the air gently, however, this fan should not be pointed to your meat directly because this can harden the case.

The meat pieces should also not be touching, below the meat, a newspaper can be placed to catch the liquid.

How long it takes for your meat to dry will vary, this will be dependent on many factors including temperature, airflow as well as humidity.

You can test the meat every day go see if it's ready, this can be done by squeezing the sides. Make sure your fingers are clean. If it's completely dry, you shouldn't feel any give in.

When the meat is ready, you can cut it into some thin slices and then serve it.

 


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