The Biltong Page

The following is a small project which was inspired by my initial attempts to make my own biltong. While the method is really easy, the variations are infinite and, as always, the nature of taste is a very subjective.

A significant proportion of the content of these pages is taken in original or slightly modified form from the publication "Make your own Biltong and Droewors" by Hannelie van Tonder of the South African Meat Board in collaboration with the Red Meat Industry of South Africa. I have also included recipes (suitably acknowledged) from friends and from the Internet. I have purposely excluded those recipes which are commercial or do not divulge the "secret ingredients" of their particular spice mix.

I have designed this page so that it can be comprehensively printed without having to follow too many links. Individual recipes will however have to be printed separately. Please feel free to forward the URL of this site to friends - happy to add more recipes so just email them to me...

What is Biltong?
The Basic Method
Drying the Biltong
Hints & Tips
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Make your own Biltong Drier

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What is Biltong?

Biltong [BILL-tong] is South African delicacy. The word comes from Dutch with BIL meaning buttock and TONG meaning strip. Developed in South Africa, and a staple in many African countries, biltong consists of strips of cured, air-dried beef or game. Though its keeping properties are the same, it is a finer form of jerked meat than American Jerky. The best biltong has been compared to Italian Prosciutto. For most South Africans, these strips of dried meat still remain the tastiest snack. This popular delicacy is synonymous with tradition and, although found in other countries, it is not found in the same form as it is in South Africa. [Extracts from THE FOOD LOVER'S COMPANION, 2nd edition, by Sharon Tyler Herbst, Barron's Educational Services, Inc. as published by Epicurious Dictionary and from MAKE YOUR OWN BILTONG AND DROEWORS by Hanalie van Tonder of the South African Meat Board, as published by Struik Timmins]

Uses for Biltong

Biltong was originally used as preserved meat. Nowadays it is served in many forms ranging from slices served at formal and informal events, to uncut chunks as finger-food and sustinence for hikers, back-packers, travellers and also as a "treat" for visitors to South Africa. It is not unusual to watch a Rugby or Cricket match while cutting slices from a chunk of biltong with a pen knife, and savouring every slice straight from the blade!

As a preserved meat, biltong can also be stored for a long time - especially in the freezer. It can be included in recipes (in thin slices, roughly crumbed or even ground) for bread and muffins, in spreads and savories, and even in salads.

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Basic Method

The basic method of preparing biltong includes the following steps:

Selection of the meat

In the past, farmers used the whole beef carcase for biltong and saussages but today the beef buttock, consisting of the silverside (from which 'ronde' or 'predikantsbiltong' and 'regte biltong' are made), topside and thick flank, is normally used.

The finest biltong is the 'garingbiltong' made from the eye muscles running down both sides of the backbone and which are cut whole from the side of beef. The most tender biltong is the 'binnebiltong' or 'ouma se biltong' which is made from the fillet.

Less tender cuts such as chuck can also be used but the pieces of biltong will be small and much time will be spent on removing the connective tissue.

Whichever cuts you decide to use, ensure that meat is of good quality: lean cuts from a young carcase containing little fat are best (excess fat on the biltong will cause rancidity). Fatty meat takes a long time to absorb the salt, while the biltong made from an old carcase will be tough and sinewy.

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Preparation of the meat

For the home biltong maker, it is most practical to prepare between 3kg and 5kg of biltong meat at a time. Remove as much connective tissue as possible and cut the meat into long strips ranging in width from 25mm to 50mm. The thickness of the meat is a matter of personal preference but in more humid areas it is necessary to use thinner strips which will dry more easily. Use a large sharp knife to make neat clean incisions into the meat - loose pieces of meat or multiple cuts and nicks can promote the onset of mould. Once cut, store the strips in an airtight container until you are ready to salt them. Cutting the meat should be done immediately prior to salting it.

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Salting the meat

Salting the meat is the most important step in preserving the meat. The salt tends to draw moisture from the meat and is thus also a preliminary stage of the drying process. As you will see in the included recipes, some methods recommend salting the meat for an hour while others recommend leaving the meat in a salt mixture overnight. Ultimately this is also a matter of taste and experimentation is the best method for you to discover your own preferred method.

Some recipes recommend salting the meat and then later spicing it, while others include the spices in the salt mixture. In general however, vinegar, which is also a meat tenderiser, is involved either to partially marinade the meat or merely to wash off the excess salt before the meat is hung to dry. Here too, various combinations with worchestershire, peri-peri, teriyaki or other sauces can be used.

The basic recipe for salting biltong is between 20g and 40g of salt for each kilogram of meat. The general trend in most recipes is to salt the meat, let is draw, wash it, and then hang it. The timing is just another one of those infinite variables that make your own recipe so special. Bear in mind however that the longer the meat remains in the salt, the more salt is absorbed and that the longer the biltong is left to dry, the more salty it becomes. A rough rock salt is usually the best.

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Spicing the meat

I have dedicated a section to spicing as this is the most subjective part of biltong making. As mentioned above, spices can be combined in the salting stage, or applied separately before the meat is hung to dry. There are only a few basic spicing ingredients (salt, sugar, pepper) but there are a multitude of additonal options and combinations. This aspect of biltong making lends itself best to the creativity of the biltong maker. Whether traditional or gourmet, this is the crucial element in determining the outcome of your efforts.

Here are some of the more common ingredients:

  • Brown sugar - counteracts the toughening effect of the salt. Usually used in small quantities so that it does not sweeten the biltong.
  • Bicarbonate of Soda - sometimes added to prevent the formation of mould on the biltong especially in more humid areas.
  • Pepper - adds flavour. rough ground back pepper is best.
  • Scorched Coriander - adds characteristic flavour. To scorch the Coriander place the seeds in a dry frying pan and heat, stirring constantly until they become light brown. Grind the seeds in a blender, using a pestle & motar, or crush them between two pieces of cloth using a rolling pin. Pass crushed seeds through a sieve to remove husks (although some recipes actually recommend using the husks as well). Crush 15ml (approx 6g) whole Coriander to obtain 5ml (approx 2g) of ground Coriander. An alternative, although not as full-bodied in flavour, is to use ground Coriander which has also been scorched - this is another point of experimentation.
  • Saltpetre - gives beef biltong its characteristic red colour. NOTE: The use of Saltpetre is illegal in the commercial preparation of meat products in some countries.
  • Aniseed, garlic salt, allspice and any other spices of your choice can be added but should never be used in quantities that will overpower the flavour of the meat.

Vinegar, which is invariably used in the preparation of biltong, also influences the flavour of the meat in a subtle manner. You should consider experimenting with balsamic or cider vinegar, and even combinations of vinegar with wine.

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Drying the meat

After salting the meat, dip the strips in a hot vinegar water mixture (you can try anything between undiluted vinegar to a mix of approximately 350ml of vinegar to 5l water) to remove the surface salt. Some recipes recommend dusting the meat with a (salt-free) spice mixture after the washing. Hang the strips of meat using string loops or thin hooks. The strips should be hung apart so that they do not touch as this may promote the onset of mould. Biltong can be sundried for a day before moving it into shade for the rest of the drying period. Biltong can be hung indoors but will usually require a draft or air-flow to aid the drying process and prevent mould forming on the meat. Refer to the section on
biltong-makers for more information and descriptions of biltong driers.

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Hints & Tips

  • Use plasic, stainless steel, enamal or earthenware containers for the salting of the meat. Metal containers, or even chipped enamal ones, are unsuitable as the salt mixture reacts with the metal or imputities in cracked containers, discolouring the meat and giving it a bad taste.

  • Cut the meat into slightly smaller (thinner) strips if it is to be dried in a biltong-maker.

  • Use plastic, stainless steel or coated metal hooks. Do not use uncoated metallic hooks for hanging meat as the metal will react with the meat leaving an area of meat around the hook that has a "rusty" taste.

  • As biltong dries it gets saltier - the more salt absorbed during the salting process, the saltier the dry meat gets. If you prefer your biltong very dry, consider using less salt or a shorter salting duration.

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