When it comes to succulent savory goodness, nothing quite matches the rich, meaty mouthful taste of moreish biltong. This legendary meat snack has grown in stature and culinary preference for more than four centuries, but does the perfect biltong recipe exist? What’s more, could it possibly be yours? Only one way to know.
Having been invented by Dutch settlers in South Africa over 400 years ago, becoming SA’s favorite culinary delicacy by a landslide since and more recently taking the globe by succulent storm, biltong certainly has no shortage of variations, techniques and spectacular recipes.
So, is there something like the perfect biltong recipe? In short, the answer is yes, although – and this is no cop-out – there are certainly more than one, as everyone’s mileage will vary. What makes the process of biltong-making so exciting is that there are no end to the variations a dedicated student (and eventual master) of the craft can produce. With enough skill, research and good old trial and error, you could come up with a flawless biltong recipe of your very own. What’s required?
Read on, True Believer.
As with all things food-related, the better the products or produce used, the greater the end result will be. Biltong’s certainly no exception. The star of the show is undoubtedly the meat. The most popular form of biltong is and always has been beef. Not only is it more readily available than venison, it’s also more affordable. You can make biltong from many other meat varieties including chicken, pork, bison and even fish, but most stick to the tried and true. Once you’ve decided upon your meat, the type of cut is the next consideration. Most biltong is made using protein-rich, lean cuts of beef with minimal marbling. If you desire a succulent fat content, rather choose a larger piece of lean meat with a strip of fat on the outer side of the cut.
The best cuts to use include eye of round, bottom round (also known as rump roast), porterhouse, tenderloin or other steaks that are cut from the hip. One thing to know right from the start is that the drying process will draw out most of your meat’s moisture, so expect to lose approximately half of your batch’s starting weight by the end of the process.
The good news is that it’s relatively simple to make your own biltong, and the principles you’ll use are basically the same regardless of which recipe or method you choose to adopt. Besides the meat, it all comes down to the cure (alongside a selection of delicious spices, of course). Mostly brown vinegar is used to cure biltong (although apple cider vinegar can add an interesting zing). Some spray or paint it on, but we advise that you should soak your meat in a tray of vinegar for at least 12–24 hours, keeping it refrigerated (recipes vary from as little as 1–36 hours, just to give you an idea of what’s out there). Cut your meat into half to 1 inch pieces before soaking. The thicker it is, the longer it will take to dry. If you’d like your biltong still wet inside, then don’t be afraid to cut slightly thicker pieces. Experiment to your heart’s content. Also slice away any gristle or tendons to ensure that the final product is pleasantly effortless to eat. Cut your pieces more or less 6 inches long before curing. Remember: practise makes perfect and patience is indeed rewarded. Eyes on the prize, folks…
The best biltong is made using the finest ingredients, spices included. Often the simpler, the better. Many practitioners sadly use spices containing MSG, colorants, preservatives and other additives; also sugar and sometimes even sauces. At MBT, we pride ourselves on using only fresh, all natural ingredients and zero sugar; we recommend that you do the same. Quality will always shine through in the end. Some spice their meat before soaking it in vinegar during the curing process. Others pat their biltong dry after removing it from the vinegar tray and only then rub it down with a selection of tantalizing spices before hanging it to dry. Again, your mileage may vary. A word of advice: you can’t go wrong with salt, cracked pepper and ground coriander as your base. Interesting flavors including chili, garlic and rosemary can also be added to the mix. Variety after all…
Some hang their meat with stainless steel or sanitized plastic S-hooks while others use string to tie it up and leave it in the breeze. Biltong’s drying time will vary depending on the type and style of biltong being made. Wet biltong, for example, will be ready to eat far quicker than a drier type. Standard biltong varieties that are slightly soft in the center and dry on the outside should typically dry for 4–5 days before sinking your teeth in (again, it all depends on the thickness of the slices). The one thing that hasn’t changed in over four centuries, however, is that biltong has always remained air-dried; there’s no heat involved and therefore no nutrients going to waste. Whether left in a cool, dry place with an oscillating fan blowing on it, hanging the meat up in a drafty area if you happen to live in a hot, dry place or even should you be surrounded by a cold, wet climate or simply want to expedite matters, we suggest buying a biltong cabinet where a fan and a hot, glowing bulb can help speed things along. Needless to say, wherever it’s hung, always ensure that your meat is safe from flies and other pesky critters, to ensure freshness all the way.
Remember: if at first you don’t succeed, get back on the bull, learn from your mistakes and try, try again. Who knows, with enough skill and dedication, you just might end up with the world’s finest biltong recipe (or at least one of them). It’s worth pursuing, because when done right, biltong is about as tasty as meat can get. Good luck, True Believers!