Want to know how to make the best biltong of your life? Good. Then you're in for a treat. This is the ultimate way of making the famous South African cured meat, often confused with beef jerky. Truthfully, it beats jerky by a mile.
Below is an in-depth explanation of everything surrounding the making of biltong. If you want to see how it's done, jump to the video in the recipe using the above button.
What is biltong?
It's cured meat which has its origins in much the same way as many other famous cured types of meat.
It was invented or happily came about because Dutch settlers needed a way to preserve fresh meat for their long travels exploring the rugged South African terrain.
They were known as the "Voortrekkers" and the biltong story started with them.
With generation after generation using roughly the same method and ingredients to make it.
To this day it's enjoyed in excessive quantities as it's such an addictive snack.
Perfect for game days, high protein diets and anyone that enjoys great food.
Biltong vs jerky
Both are cured meats but with a difference in the method, texture and flavour.
Jerky is a much sweeter, chewier meat snack and the method of making it has changed from air drying to high-temperature drying which basically cooks the meat.
Biltong traditionally did not include sugar at all and the preservation is mainly achieved by the addition of vinegar.
Jerky does not usually contain vinegar.
Texture-wise biltong is more similar to bresaola when made correctly and beef jerky is more of a leathery sometimes wet and chewy consistency.
Either way, both are tasty meat snacks with a very loyal global following even though they differ a lot.
Curing process explained
The aim of curing food is to accomplish two things.
Avoid spoilage and make the food more delicious.
There are many curing methods used for a variety of cured foods and the method used depends on the raw product and the desired final result.
Biltong curing consists of salting the meat and then giving it a dredge in a marinade or vinegar solution.
The meat is then air-dried in a dry environment with very good airflow.
Salt and vinegar both act as detergents against bad bacteria by displacing water and lowering the Ph level.
By drying the meat we get rid of excess water which in turn helps to preserve it and also give it amazing flavour.
Thus giving us a delicious product that is safeguarded against spoilage.
Making biltong does not require a load of fancy equipment and many DIY methods are available online.
However, it's nice to have everything you need instead of having to buy stuff on the go.
Below are a few items that will make your life easier.
The best meat to use
Let's discuss beef as it's the most widely used meat for making biltong.
Top rump and Silverside are the two preferred cuts of beef, although I've had great results with other cuts including the following.
- Eye of round
- Chuck roll
- Rump cap
The most important thing to remember when choosing meat is the quality and fat marbling.
Look for meat that is ultra-fresh and has a bit of fat running through the meat. This will ensure a succulent top-notch result.
For me the best biltong has got to have a nice layer of fat on it, but if you want you can trim the fat as much as you like or choose a lean cut like eye of round.
The choice is yours but I fully recommend leaving the fat on. For texture and flavour.
We looked at how to pick the best meat so let's check out the rest of the ingredients.
- Biltong spices - Traditionally only coriander was used. Everyone adds their own little touches and with me being a professional chef having more knowledge on flavour pairings, things will hardly just stay at coriander. I love to add fennel seeds, chilli flakes and black pepper. It's what I've settled on and it's what I'm sticking with for the best spices.
- Wet cure - This also varies from recipe to recipe but I like using a mixture of red wine vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and honey. Some recipes use brown sugar, brown vinegar and even soy sauce. Traditionally only vinegar was used.
- Bicarbonate of soda - This is not an absolute must but I like to add it right before I remove the meat from the wet cure. It neutralises the acidity a bit so the meat is not sour and it also helps prevent mould and acts as a tenderiser for tougher cuts. Again, it's optional and I've made many batches without it and had no problems.
How to make it
- If you want trim the fat a bit or leave it on. I recommend leaving it on.
- Cut the meat into thick pieces ALONG THE GRAIN of the meat. I rarely cut less than 3 cm or 1,1 inch thick slabs. The meat cures and eats a lot better when it's cut thick. Thinly cut meat can become a bit leathery and dry so, stick to thick. We cut along the grain of the meat because when you slice the ready biltong you need to cut ACROSS THE GRAIN.
- Salt the meat all over and let it sit for 3 hours flipping a few times to make sure it salts evenly.
- While that is happening mix together the wet cure.
- After 3 hours simply wipe off the salt but DO NOT wash it.
- Add the meat to the wet cure and let it sit for another 2 hours flipping twice to make sure it's evenly covered in the liquid. Do this in a clean plastic or non-reactive metal container where the meat fits snugly.
- While the meat is marinating make the spice mix.
- Toast the spices, apart from the peppercorns, in a dry pan until fragrant and giving off a bit of smoke. We will add the peppercorns unroasted. Remove the spices from the pan and let them cool down before blitzing in a spice grinder. Don't blitz it too fine. You want to see the different spices. You can blitz your peppercorns with the spices or grind them in with a pepper mill.
- Optionally add the bicarbonate of soda and give it a good mix through. As soon as the froth disappears remove the meat from the wet cure and pat it dry with a paper towel.
- Coat the meat in the spice mix making sure to get it into every nook and cranny.
- Weigh the meat individually and place a label onto a stainless steel or paper clip or meat hook and then the paper clip or meat hook through the meat. This is so we can hang it up and track the moisture loss by weighing it.
- Hang your meat in a biltong box or other dry-air well-ventilated area away from pests, insects or animals. For most people, a balcony with a fan blowing over the meat would be the easiest. You can loosely cover the meat with a muslin cloth to prevent any flies from getting to it. You can also do this in a fridge, but make sure the fridge is spotlessly clean and the meat does not touch anything. This is to minimise the chances of spoilage and mould.
- Your biltong will be ready once it's lost 50% of its weight. Start weighing after about 4 days to monitor the weight loss.
- When it's ready, slice with a sharp knife or biltong slicer. You can store it in the fridge for weeks or freeze for many months closed airtight or vacuum-sealed.
Best options for drying
Over the years, many ways have become available for people to make cured meats at home or in tight spaces.
Some dry biltong in a dehydrator and some people use a DIY biltong dehydrator or "biltong box" as it's often called.
The main aim of all of these is to create dry warm circulating air so that the biltong dries correctly and efficiently.
The simplest, if you have space and live in a dry, breezy climate, is to build a simple wooden frame and close the walls with fine mesh wire. This is what my grandfather did, and I suspect the early pioneers too.
When you live in a city or a humid climate, you can use one of the following proven and tested methods
- A fridge - Make sure it's spotless and not overcrowded with stuff. Fridges are pretty efficient at drying out food that's left uncovered, and likewise with curing meat. Don't let the meat touch any other meat or the sides of the fridge. Every part of the meat should be able to breathe and dry.
- Fan and heater - Hang your meat on a clothing rail and place a fan close by so that it creates good airflow. Place a heater close by if you live in a very cold or slightly humid climate. This will help dry the air and make the biltong cure a bit faster.
- Custom-built box - Basically a fan and a heating source in a wooden box. Simply do it yourself or buy it online. Many tutorials exist, but it's just a computer fan and a light bulb attached to the inside of a wooden box. Simple and very effective
- Closed balcony - Biltong smells of biltong when it dries. So you might want to do this on a balcony, not in your living room or kitchen. Just make sure the balcony is closed so not creatures get to it and follow the same heater and fan advice.
- Dehydrator - You can use a regular dehydrator for this but make sure to flip the meat often, so it dries evenly. Also, not all dehydrators will be suitable for big pieces. Set your dehydrator to 30 degrees Celsius or 86 degrees Fahrenheit. Monitor every day to check on the progress.
How long does it take to dry
This depends on the size of the meat and your method of drying.
It's best to look at weight or moisture loss rather than time to judge when it's done.
You should aim for 40% - 50% moisture loss for a wet or medium cure biltong and up to 70% for a hard cure dryer biltong.
I don't know anyone that likes dry or hard cured biltong but some do prefer it.
The golden standard for perfectly cured biltong is medium wet with lots of fat. Rhymes too. Everyone's happy.
Things that affect drying time.
- Heat - It's better to dry in low heat than too high. The perfect temperature is 30 degrees Celsius or 86 degrees Fahrenheit. This mimics the average temperature it would have been outside in South Africa way back and also to this day. Biltong dried at this temperature takes about 5 days to be ready.
- Humidity - It's best to keep the humidity low if possible, but not cork dry. Otherwise, the outside will suffer from case-hardening which results in biltong that's soft in the middle but bone dry on the outside. I've successfully cured biltong in as high as 80% humidity, but with a fan blowing full steam to keep airflow very good. The higher the humidity, the longer it takes to be ready, and there is also a higher chance of mould growing on the meat.
- Airflow - The more airflow, the quicker it dries, but it comes at a cost. If the air blows too heavily, it can cause case-hardening. It's best to keep the airflow at a gentle breeze.
Pro tips for success
- Pick good quality meat with a nice layer of fat and if possible fat marbling. This will be grain-fed beef.
- Make sure to work clean to minimise the risk of contamination or bad bacteria.
- Cut with the grain of the meat and aim for thick slaps. 3 cm or 1.1 inch thick.
- Always use salt and vinegar. It is vital to make safe to eat biltong.
- Use scales when weighing out ingredients. It's the most accurate way of measuring.
- Use a non-reactive storage container when soaking the meat in vinegar. Vinegar is acidic and reacts with certain metals.
- Weigh each piece of meat individually before drying, so you can keep track of the weight loss. It should lose at least 40% - 50% moisture before it's ready.
- Place a tray underneath the meat while drying. This is to catch the spices that fall off as the meat shrink and dries.
- Use a sharp knife or biltong slicer to slice it. Always slice across the grain of the meat when eating it.
- Don't store in craft bags as the meat will keep drying out. Store vacuum sealed or wrapped airtight in the fridge or freezer.
Like most other cured meats it's easy to adjust the flavourings and ingredients used. One can get extremely creative with this so here are a few ideas.
- Meat - In South Africa, biltong is made from pretty much all types of meat. Venison, game, chicken, pork, lamb, you name it. I highly advise you to try venison and lamb. The rest is a bit unnecessary in most cases unless you really push the boat out with flavouring it. The method stays exactly the same.
- Spices - Just like I've added fennel seeds, chilli and black pepper, you can use other spices to give it an interesting flavour or to go with the type of meat used. For bland meats like chicken and pork, smoked paprika works great. For venison and game, juniper and cloves. Lamb likes the traditional coriander but, with the addition of some chopped rosemary and rubbed with fresh garlic just before spicing.
- Wet cure - I've tried many ways, but the wet cure is the part that actually gives the least flavour. However, if you start adding fermented fish sauce, naturally brewed soy sauce, curry paste or adjika and up the sugar content to balance the saltiness, you are on in for a treat.
Frequently asked questions
30 degrees Celcius or 86 degrees Fahrenheit is the perfect temperature to dry biltong at. The air should preferably dry with good airflow.
When cutting the meat to prepare, cut along the grain of the meat. When slicing to serve or eat, cut across the grain. Always use a sharp knife.
Vacuum seal tight and store in the fridge or freezer. If you don't have a vacuum sealer, then wrap airtight.
It will happily stay high quality in the fridge for two weeks loosely wrapped or a few months vacuum sealed. Can be stored in the freezer for many months.
The best way is to vacuum seal it tight and let it sit in the fridge for 2 to 3 days to make sure the moisture evens out.
Mould sometimes happen if the airflow is not good enough and the humidity is high.
As soon as you spot mould wipe it off with vinegar making sure to get all of it. Any mould left on will grow back. Increase the airflow and decrease the humidity to prevent another bout of mould.
If it smells or looks rotten then throw it out as some other bad bacteria took hold and you can't save spoiled meat.
Other recipes you might like
Below are some other South African classics and dishes I love to prepare as well as a few other forms of curing and fermentation.
- Pork belly braai
- Perfect rib eye steak
- Properly cooked chicken breast
- Grilled angelfish
- Roasted leg of lamb
- Cured salmon gravlax
- How to make koji
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Ultimate Biltong Recipe - South African Beef Jerky
For the meat
- 2,5 kilograms (5 ½ lb) top rump - or topside
- 120 grams (⅖ cups) course sea salt - non iodised
- 6 grams (1 teaspoon) baking soda - optional
Prepping and salting the meat
- Cut the meat into 3cm or 1,1-inch strips along the grain of the meat. Trim off silver skin, connective tissue or any unwanted fat but I suggest you leave the fat on for moisture and flavour.
- Sprinkle the salt all over the meat including the sides.
- Let it sit for 2 hours in the salt flipping a few times to ensure even salting.
- While the meat is salting mix together all the wet cure ingredients.
- Once the meat has salted for 3 hours, rub off the salt but don't wash it.
- Place the meat and the cure in a fitting non-reactive food-safe plastic or ceramic container.
- Let it marinate for 2 hours turning the meat a few times to ensure even marination.
- While the meat is marinating, toast the coriander seeds, fennel seeds and chilli flakes in a dry pan on medium heat. Do this in a well-ventilated kitchen.
- As soon as the spices are nicely toasted, slightly smoky and fragrant, remove them from the pan and let them cool down completely.
- Once cooled, blitz the spices in a spice grinder or pestle and mortar until nicely broken up but not too fine. You want to be able to identify the different spices.
Optional addition of soda
- Optionally add baking soda to the meat along with the marinade and give it a good mix.
- It will froth as the acid reacts with the soda.
- As soon as the froth has settled, remove the meat from the marinade and pat it dry with a paper towel. Throw the marinade out or use it to marinade other meats. Just remember the acid has been slightly neutralised in the mix so you need to add more vinegar if you want to make another batch of biltong.
Hanging and drying
- Cover the meat completely in spices making sure to get it into every nook and cranny.
- Put a small meat hook or paperclip through the meat with a label attached to it.
- Weigh the meat and write it on the label. This is so that you can track the moisture loss and know when the meat is ready. Aim for 50% weight loss. This should take around a week but start monitoring it after 4 days.
- Hang the meat in a well-ventilated, dry-air, warm environment(close to 30°C or 86°F) protected from insects and animals.
Removing and storing
- Once the meat is ready remove the hooks. It's now ready to slice thinly with a sharp knife.
- Store wrapped airtight or in vacuum bags in the fridge or freeze for longer storage.
- Buy good quality beef. a Bad initial product won't turn out nice.
- Use Kosher or natural untreated coarse salt. Iodized salt has a chemical aftertaste.
- Make sure to work very clean to avoid any bad bacteria creeping it.
- Dry in a well ventilated low humidity environment to ensure proper curing.
- If you spot mould, wipe it off with vinegar and move the biltong to a dryer better-ventilated area.
- See the post for an in-depth explanation of the processes involved.