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, be prepared for a whole new snacking experience. A nutrient-rich, satisfyingly meaty one at that. Be sure to check out our favourite biltong recipes.
Funny you should ask. 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, biltong was traditionally used to pep up weary travellers on epic, long-distance journeys. But their similarities end right about there.
When it comes to flavour and curing, beef jerky and 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.
We reckon food tastes better once you know a little more about where it comes from. When we say 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.
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 biltong’s so spicy my tong is on fire’)
Although 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.
Beef jerky and 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.
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.
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.
Through 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.
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.
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.