Playing With My Food

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JUNE 22, 2010 10:57AM

Biltong - The Other Dried Meat

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  biltong sliceLast week, with a swarm of vuvuzelas still buzzing angrily in my ears, I decided to check out some other, less offensive, South African contributions to culture. There is, of course, music in the isicathamiya a cappella style, popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo with an assist by Paul Simon on his Graceland album. At some time, you must have heard the magical voice of  Miriam Makeba, so the sounds of mbaqanga should not be unfamiliar either.

“Mbaqanga” is the Zulu word for cornmeal porridge, which makes a nice transition to South African food. Biltong has always fascinated me because of its close association with pemmican and jerky. I first ran across references to it around 15 years ago and tried making some. I even ordered a “biltong box” from a fellow in South Africa who is best described as a “biltong nerd.” He built the boxes with hangers for about 6 strips of meat and a short piece of toaster wire that kept it moderately warm inside to dry them. I had to change the plug on it and I quickly learned that it was a pain to keep clean (the biltong would drip) so I quit using it. The main purpose of the box, the gentleman proclaimed on his web page, was “to keep the flies off it.” This seems to be a common meme amongst biltong aficionados because it is included in practically every recipe (if you Google “biltong” with “flies” you will get 38,100 hits!). The other common meme, since biltong is now mostly made indoors to help keep the flies off it, is the use of an “oscillating fan” for circulation. I have to confess that I’m old-fashioned, my fan does not oscillate, but I do use a cheapie fan from the dollar store to dry sausages, such as chorizo and andouille, that I hang from a shower curtain rod in a rarely-used second bathroom. But the really cool thing about biltong is that it really does not require any other special equipment.

cross section

 Some historical notes: “Bil” is the Dutch word for “rump” and “tong,” you might guess, is tongue. Some twisted people, such as myself, immediately think of a butt-kisser, but the butt here is actually from the animal – the round section – and the tongue refers to the way it is cut. Nowadays, London broil is the cut normally used, but historically any game animal might be used: zebra, eland, kudu, springbok, even ostrich. Since there was no refrigeration at the time, Dutch settlers used drying to preserve meats. I don’t want to get into the “problems” between the Dutch and British that culminated in the Boer Wars, though it is intriguing stuff - greed about gold, diamonds, and strangely enough dynamite patents, oh, and the Brit invention of concentration camps – but the Dutch never really liked the Brits and kept moving inland away from Cape Colony and finding greater riches everywhere they went, causing the Brits to go chasing after them and annexing wherever they settled. On these Dutch migrations, biltong played a major role in that it gave them the protein necessary for the long journeys.

glossy biltong

 Over the years, the recipes for biltong certainly changed as other cultures moved in the non-melting pot of South Africa. Indians were brought in to work as indentured workers on the sugar plantations and they brought their spices with them. So it is not uncommon to find garam masala or hot peppers in a biltong recipe. Other workers, oh what the heck, let’s just call them “slaves” from Malaysia and Java brought along nutmeg and allspice. The recipes, in other words, blended far more easily than the people who carried the ingredients to South Africa.

For my latest biltong creation, I went back to the basic ingredients: Vinegar, salt, pepper, coriander, baking soda, and brown sugar. I also used a teaspoon of curing salt for 5 pounds London broil as a hedge against botulism. However, this may not be necessary since a vinegar marinade lowers the pH sufficiently to kill off undesirable microorganisms. Once the meat is dry – that takes only 3-4 days if you have a good oscillating fan – it is preserved and safe.


  The meat is sliced along, or slightly catty-cornered, to the grain. How thick? I saw variations in recipes going from 1 centimeter (about 3/8”) to 1 whole inch. That probably sounds very thick, but very thin slices are cut across the grain when it comes time to eat it. In fact, a typical serving would be done over a pint at the pub, you take out your biltong and your pocket knife and shave off a piece for yourself and one for your mate on the next stool. Then he’ll return the favor with his own biltong. The thinner the better and there are all kinds of contraptions out there for performing this task. Anyway, I cut the meat into approximately 3/4” strips.

Here is the coating I used for 5 pounds:

  • 3 tablespoons kosher salt
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • ¼ cup coriander, roasted and coarsely ground
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon InstaCure #1
  • ½ cup red wine vinegar

  dredgingMix all the dry ingredients together and dredge into the strips of beef. Layer the strips into a casserole type dish and pour the vinegar over the meat. This is the really fun step! Because, when the vinegar hits the baking soda, it’s gonna foam up!  I guess this is done to reduce the acidity slightly, or maybe it’s voodoo “to keep the flies off,” but I’ve never seen this in any other recipe. After that, it goes into the fridge for 12 hours. Turn the strips after about 6 hours.


 Then you mix about a half cup of vinegar with a quart of warm water and dunk the strips in it. This step is supposed to make the biltong “shiny and dark.” Poke a hole in each piece and run a piece of string through it so it can be hung up to dry. Don’t forget to aim an oscillating fan at the strips! In about 4 days, you will have some incredible biltong.


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I was only mildly intrigued, until the picture of the gruesome stabbed meats hanging in the shower ... so awesome. I applaud your sense of adventure, flies or not.
I shoulda labeled that last picture "Psycho."
Very cool post! I've had biltong from South African import shops, but I've never tried to make it myself. I definitely like your Psycho-Biltong shot at the end!
Wow, this is just so. . .fascinating. How long does it last and where do you store it? Makes me think of a cured meat "pastirma" which you might like to investigate. ~R
I reckon this batch will be gone by Saturday, Fusun. I have never made pastirma but linguists will quickly notice the similarity of the word to "pastrami," which I have made. The pastirma recipe that has fascinated me most is a Lebanese one which called for the meat to be pressed (like prosciutto) in a woman's silk (later nylon) stocking.
Linguistically speaking, Paul, the word "pastirma" comes from "bastirmak" which means "to press". Now what it is pressed in, I have no idea. All I know is that the lean, raw slab of meat is heavily rubbed with a combination of spices and allowed to cure for a certain period of time. Food lore is interesting, isn't it?
Prosciutto (and Bavarian dried beef as well) are stacked in rows which are rotated bottom to top every week or so - so these are traditionally pressed by their own collective weight. Nowadays, for home cures, their are stainless steel presses such as this one:

I didn't mean to be flippant about how long will the biltong last. Boers, upon conscription, were required to provide for themselves a ration of biltong sealed in a jar by paraffin. This was to be their emergency ration if their outfit ran out of food. Sealed this way, it could be stored "indefinitely." I use a FoodSaver to seal jerky in bags and it is good for years as long as the bag holds up.
Paul, this is a really incredible post! The last shot scares me to death, but I am still in awe.
Just a "by the way," those hooks hanging from the shower curtain rod a bacon hangers, normally used during smoking or drying pork bellies for homemade bacon.
You have everything you need at that site. Thank you for pointing me there. I found this for you if you might be interested as a start:
I think you'll enjoy this site much better, Paul.
There are only two things I hate: people who are intolerant of other people's cultures, and the Dutch.