Biltong is a form of dried, cured meat that originated in South Africa. Various types of meat are used to produce it, ranging from beef and game meats to fillets of ostrich from commercial farms. It is typically made from raw fillets of meat cut into strips following the grain of the muscle, or flat pieces sliced across the grain. It is similar to beef jerky in that they are both spiced, dried meats, however the typical ingredients, taste and production processes differ. The word biltong is from the Dutch bil ("rump") and tong ("strip" or "tongue").
Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, the curing process was used to preserve all kinds of meat in South Africa. However today biltong is most commonly made from beef, primarily because of its widespread availability and lower cost relative to game. For the finest cuts, fillet, sirloin or steaks cut from the hip such as topside or silverside are used. Other cuts can be used, but are not as high in quality. Biltong can also be made from:
- Chicken, simply referred to as 'chicken biltong'
- Fish in this case, known as bokkoms (shark biltong can also be found in South Africa). Bokkoms should not be confused with other cured fish such as dried angelfish and dried snoek.
- Game such as kudu, springbok and Wildebeest Ostrich meat (bright red, often resembling game).
Traditionally biltong was only made during the cold winter months when the risk of bacterial growth and mould would be at a minimum. Some recipes require the meat to be marinated in a vinegar solution (grape vinegar is traditional but balsamic and cider also work very well) for a few hours, then the vinegar is poured off before the meat is flavoured with salt and spices. The spice mix is sprinkled liberally over the meat and rubbed in. Saltpetre is optional and can be added as an extra preservative (necessary only for wet biltong that is not going to be frozen). The meat should then be left for a further few hours (or refrigerated overnight) and any excess liquid poured off before the meat is hung in the dryer.
Other recipes, that were handed down from generation to generation, require the biltong to be left overnight in the vinegar, salt and spice solution (between 12 and 24 hours). The spice mix traditionally consists of equal amounts of: rock salt, whole coriander slightly roasted and roughly ground, black pepper and brown sugar. The vinegar serves as a primary inhibitor of Clostridium botulinum bacteria according to WHO (World Health Organisation). While the salt, coriander, pepper and cloves all have antimicrobial properties.
Traditionally biltong was made during the cold winters of the South African Highveld for best results. The cold, dry air typically dried out the biltong much more effectively, and in the best possible food safety environment. Mould and bacterial risk are at a natural minimum, and thicker biltong cuts can be hung to dry slowly for a richer texture, fuller flavor and dark colour. Heat has only been introduced into the process in recent years, and traditional biltong makers still stand by the fact that heat makes for an inferior end result. Due to increased risk of bacterial and fungal growth, the heated method such as that used in cardboard or wooden biltong boxes (urban) or climate-controlled dry rooms (commercial), cannot be used without the addition of nitrates or nitrites (curing salts). Depending on the spices used, a variety of flavours may be produced. Biltong can also be made in colder climates by using an electric lamp to dry the meat, but care must be taken to ventilate, as mould can begin to form on the meat.
A traditional slow dry will deliver a medium cure in about 4 days. An electric fan-assisted oven set to 40–70 °C (100–160 °F), with the door open a fraction to let out moist air, can dry the meat in approximately 4 hours. Although oven dried is ready to eat a day or two after preparation, traditional biltong makers still consider slow dried meat to be safer and of a much superior quality. Oven dried biltong just does not taste right.
Biltong differs from jerky in three distinct ways:
- The meat used in biltong can be much thicker due to the slower drying time in dry air conditions; typically biltong meat is cut in strips approximately 1" (25 mm) wide – but can be thicker. Jerky is normally very thin meat.
- Jerky is often smoked; biltong is never smoked.
While biltong is usually eaten as a snack, it can also be diced up into stews, or added to muffins or pot bread. Biltong-flavoured potato crisps have also been produced, and there are cheese spreads with biltong flavour. Finely shredded biltong is eaten on slices of bread and in sandwiches. Biltong can be used as a teething aid for babies. Biltong is a high protein food. Often, 200g of beef is required to make 100g of biltong, and the process of making biltong preserves most of the protein content. Some biltong can have up to 67% protein content.