MAKING BASIC SOUTH AFRICAN-STYLE BILTONG AT HOME
All you need to know.
Chris Westinghouse. Updated 30 April 2014.
Most South Africans will tell you that, despite all the fancy spices and flavours that are available, traditional beef biltong without the frills is still the best.
- A kilogram of silverside (known as London Broil in the USA), cut with the grain in strips about 1 – 2 cm thick.
- Lots rock salt.
- A small basin of vinegar, any vinegar, but brown or apple cider vinegar are best.
- Some cracked pepper.
- Coarsely ground coriander.
- Any of your favourite spices or blends of spices – I make up all kinds, including chilli, depending what I am in the mood to make.
- A Biltong Box, i.e. a container that is well ventilated (close any holes with some sort of gauze or mesh to prevent insects from getting inside).
- An electric fan – it doesn’t have to be very powerful, but must be positioned in such a way that the air flows well over the meat. The moist air is driven out of the ventilation holes in your container. This is the primary mechanism for the drying process.
- A 60 Watt light bulb positioned at the bottom of your container. This will produce only a small amount of heat, but its purpose is not heating – its purpose is to assist to dry the air. If you’re using a strong fan, or even a dehumidifier, then you can dispense with the light bulb. I’ve stopped using a fan and electric light bulb, and instead have conscripted a room dehumidifier that fits nicely into an old glass-door hi-fi cabinet that is now my state-of-the-art Biltong Box.
- Some small S-shaped hooks (plastic or stainless steel – you can even just bend some clean paper clips), that you will insert at the top of each piece of meat and use to hang the meat. Make sure that the pieces of meat don’t touch each other during the drying process.
- Racks, tubes, rods that you will insert into your container’s walls to give you racks, onto which you will hang the meat.
- NOTE: The meat may drip slightly during the first few hours, so make sure that this doesn’t drip onto your fan or onto your light bulb – this will make an unhygienic mess. If you cover either of these items, make sure that you don’t use something flammable too close to the light bulb, or something flimsy that might get caught in the blades of your fan.
- Buy a kilogram or two (as much as you like, but don’t overfill your container – too much meat risks too much moisture in your container and you don’t want the meat to rot). Start with a kilogram of silverside (London Broil).
- Cut the meat with the grain into strips about 1 – 2 cm thick. The thicker the meat, the longer it will take to turn into biltong. You can make your strips much, much bigger (the way I like it), or much, much smaller (making Biltong “sticks”).
- After cutting, lay the meat in a tray with enough salt (rock salt) to more-or-less cover the meat on both sides. Leave it for at least an hour. This not only gives the meat its saltiness, but more importantly it is aimed at making the fluids in the meat seep out. After an hour or two your salted meat will usually have shed quite a lot of blood and water.
- Use paper towels to soak up all the water that will have been sucked out of the meat by the salt. Brush off the salt with a clean brush. NEVER use water!
- Dip each piece of meat into a bowl of vinegar, just for a second or two. This is important as it will discourage any moulds from attacking your biltong.
- Sprinkle (or smother!) your choice of spices over the meat (both sides). Cracked coriander and cracked pepper are the traditional favourites, but add anything you like.
- Insert the clean hooks into the meat at one end.
- Hang the meat on the racks that you’ve put in your container.
- Switch on the electric light bulb and the fan (or, if, like me you’re using a dehumidifier, just switch it on). Close your container.
- And wait…. Depending on how much meat you’ve used, you can expect proper South African-style biltong in as little as 3 days (less if you’re using a dehumidifier). The longer you leave it the drier and harder the meat will become. Most South Africans prefer it to be soft inside and to have a slightly rubbery feel in the middle, with a hard, black crust on the outside.
- NOTE: The meat will thoroughly absorb the salt and spices, so you really don’t have to overdo it. You will quickly discover how much suits your taste, and you’ll want to experiment with each subsequent batch.
- You can keep an eye on your meat during the drying process. It will change colour, from grey (that’s what it may have looked like after you dipped it in vinegar) to black. If the meat starts to turn green – throw it away, it’s started to rot. This will happen if your drying container is not well ventilated and there is still too much moisture in the air, or if there is not enough airflow over the meat. Make more ventilation holes.
- If you notice a bit of white mould forming on your meat, the problem is the same: your drying container is not ventilated enough. BUT you don’t need to throw away the meat – simply dip it into vinegar for a second or two, and hang it up again, making sure that you’ve improved the air flow in your biltong box.
- Basic hygiene is important. But there is no need to go overboard and try to create a hospital-grade sterile environment: biltong was “invented” in the field to accompany settlers on wagon treks and it was traditionally hung outside in a shady spot, or in the back of an ox wagon.
Here’s a photo of my first arrangement for making biltong at home.