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A brief history of biltong

The word biltong comes from the Dutch words "bil"(rump) and "tong" (tongue or strips) so roughly translates as rump strips. It was created by the early Dutch settlers who quickly realized that meat would not stay fresh for long in that hot climate and that you would need to make provisions for your journey as there was no guarantee that you would find meat along the way. When Voortrekkers where moving though the wilderness of South Africa, they changed the indigenous curing process from one that used salt as the key curing ingredient to that of vinegar.They also used saltpetre and then of course they added the various spices including pepper and coriander which has come to be the signature taste of biltong today. Using this method they were able to take supplies along with them that would not spoil and easy to transport.

While we no longer need to make biltong for survival it has become a widespread and much loved snack and can be found all over the world now. Where ever there are Southern Africans you will find people making and selling biltong.

What type of meat can you use to make biltong?
Because there was a shortage of livestock in the early days, people began to look at other types of meat they could use including the local animals. As a result of this today you will find that any self respecting South African butcher will stock a variety of meats ranging from traditional beef to Eland, Kudu, Ostrich and many more. There are even specialist shops that will make biltong out of almost any meat including Giraffe meat.

Having said all of this it should be noted that many of the different game meats are an acquired taste and I would recommend that you stick to the traditional sliver side beef when making this as this is the staple meat and one for the easiest to get right.

I would also recommend that you buy the pre-made seasoning packs as people spend a long time working to get the right combination of spices for this. For someone who is just looking to give it a go them this is the best option. It is quite easy to buy this spice mix where ever you are, just look on line there are people who sell it.

I personally like to add in some dry crushed chilly as I love spicy food.

Biltong is best eaten with friends, if you are having a sports night with friends or a BBQ in the back yard biltong is the snack of choice. If you were to go to a similar event in South Africa there will almost always be biltong there.

Making biltong

What you will need to make biltong
Two kg of meat if you can (silver side if possible; American's would most likely call this rump roast).
1-2 litres of brown vinegar (malt vinegar).
Pre made biltong spice (at least 45 g for every kg of meat you have).
Wire s hooks to hang the meat with (must be strong enough to hold the weight of the meat).
Flat bottom container big enough to hold all of the meat.
Very sharp big knife to help you cut the meat well.
Somewhere warm and dry to hang the meat

There is a very definite process when you are making biltong, it is advisable that you have all of the spices and vinegar marinade ready before you start as once you have started you will need to see this through until the meat is hanging to dry.

The other very important thing to remember is that making biltong in not science, it is an art and you will need to practice it to get it right. I will tell you this, if you get this right it will be worth it as there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.

Cutting the meat
Cutting the meat right is one of the most important things to do in the process, depending on how thick that you make it will get you different results. It should be noted that drying meat will loose about 50-60% of its weight(meat is about 80% water remember. If you make the strips to too thin they will become too dry (unless that is what you are looking for) and too fat will mean that the inside will not dry and will still be red and wet when cut open(this is the way that I love it).

Make sure that what whatever thickness you decide that you cut the meat as consistently as possible so that you get a stick of biltong that is the same consistency all the way through.

It is a good idea to start with a medium thickness, I like to make them just over an inch thick and you really should try to make sure that there is a line on fat on the one edge If you are using the silver-side cut this should be OK as there is a fatty edge to it.

There really are a few ways to do this and other people will use different cuts, at the end of the day it is a matter of personal preference. What I am offering here is a good safe bet that will most likely hit the spot.

Marinating the meat
Once you have meat sliced into stripes you will need to add it to the brown vinegar marinade and leave it there for a while

The best method of doing this is to have a container that you can lay the meat down in. Your container should be big enough so that you can lay the meat out fully. Your best bet is to have a container that has a flat bottom
Once you have you have your first layer of meat then you can sprinkle on the brown vinegar. You don't want to pour the vinegar on, rather use your hands to sprinkle it so that you get an even cover on the meat. Once you have done this on one side then you will need to turn the meat over and do the same process on the other side.

Once you have done this process you will want to add the biltong spice. You are going to be looking at using about 45 grams of spice for every kg of meat that you have.
You need to make sure that this is evenly spread over the meat as well, so you should repeat the process above with the spice, if you have two layers of meat them do this on the first layer and then on the second.

At the end of this process you should have meat that has been covered by vinegar and them by the spices. You can rub them a little to make sure that everything is as even as possible.

You are then going to leave the meat in the container for about 24 hours. You can turn the meat every once in a while to make sure that both sides of the meat are getting an even cover. Make sure that the container is covered and left in a cool place.

Drying the meat

Once the meat has been sitting for 24 hours it is time to hang the meat.

At the top of the strip of meat and about 2 cm in make a hole in the meat and put the hook on once this is done then you will need to hang the meat to dry.

You should be looking to find a place where it is warm and dry. I would also advise that you use a place where there is some ventilation so that this process works as best as it can. For people in the colder areas one of the ways that you can create this is by having a light on in the cupboard or area that you are drying the meat, this will help you keep the temperature up a little. You need a warm place to make sure the process of drying is relatively fast but you do not want to cook the meat so be careful.

For most hanging it in the garage will do the trick nicely.

How long should the meat hang?
Usually this process will take about 3 days, but again there is no real accurate answer as there are so many variable that will need to be taken into account( air temp and humidity etc)

You will notice that the meat will go black and this is perfect the process has begun, for me the best way to tell how it is getting along is to pinch the meat with your thumb and forefinger. The more give there is the wetter the biltong is. As I like mine a little wet I will not let the meat sit there for so long.
I am afraid that this will be a bit of trial and error, if you have strips that are different in thickness this will also make the drying time different.
If you aim for 3 days you should be ok, start testing on the second day to see how it coming along.

You can also take some off early to see if you like it and leave the others longer until you find the sweet spot for you.

You should also see that the little bit of fat on the biltong has gone slightly transparent, when it has done this then you are good to go.

Storing the meat
You can store biltong for while but there is a catch, the longer you want to store the meat the drier it will have to be. For most people biltong will not last more then a few days so this is never really an issue.

There are a few things to consider with biltong. Your biltong can go moldy if stored incorrectly. The wetter the biltong is the greater the chance of mold popping up. If you like wet biltong then you will need to consume it with in a few days. You can put it in the fridge to help it keep better.( if you store biltong in the fridge take it out and let it warm to room temperature, it tastes better that way)

The best way to store biltong is to simply leave it hanging where you have been drying it. One of the things that can ruin your biltong is putting it into a packet or paper bag as this will create a damp environment which will potentially bring on mold.

You should remember that the drying process does not really stop so if you leave biltong in a confined area then moisture id going to build up.

Some people will vacuum pack and freeze it and this will work to, but to be honest if you want to be getting the best out of your labors you should just eat it as soon as possible. To be honest we have never had this issue in our house as we just eat it, it is one of the most more-ish foods I know.

Once you have done this a few times you will get hang of it. One thing I will say with certainty, you will either love biltong or hate it. But if you love it, you will never get enough of it.

Happy eating!!

Originally from Zimbabwe, Sebastian now lives in the UK where he spends some of his spare time in the kitchen cooking and experimenting with food and the gadgets that you find in the kitchen. You can visit his site covering his take on cookware and kitchen gadgets that interest him.
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Written by Sebastian Beaton
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