Biltong is a variety of dried, cured meat that originated in South Africa. Various types of meat are used to produce it, ranging from beef and game meats to fillets of ostrich from commercial farms. It is typically made from raw fillets of meat cut into strips following the grain of the muscle, or flat pieces sliced across the grain. It is similar to beef jerky in that they are both spiced, dried meats. The typical ingredients, taste and production processes differ, the main difference being that biltong is dried and subsequently sliced whereas jerky is sliced prior to drying.
Indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, such as the Khoikhoi, preserved meat by slicing it into strips, curing it with salt, and hanging it up to dry. After European settlers (Dutch, German, French) arrived in southern Africa in the early 17th century, they changed the curing process by using vinegar, saltpetre and spices including pepper, coriander and cloves.
The need for preservation in the new colony was pressing. Building up herds of livestock took a long time but with indigenous game in abundance, traditional methods were available to preserve large masses of meat such as found in the eland in a hot climate. Iceboxes and refrigerators had not been invented yet. Biltong as it is today evolved from the dried meat carried by the wagon-travelling Voortrekkers, who needed stocks of durable food as they migrated from the Cape Colony north and north-eastward (away from British rule) into the interior of Southern Africa during the Great Trek. The meat was preserved and hung to be dried for a fortnight after which it would be ready for packing in cloth bags.
Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, the curing process was used to preserve all kinds of meat in South Africa. However today biltong is most commonly made from beef, primarily because of its widespread availability and lower cost relative to game. For the finest cuts, fillet, sirloin or steaks cut from the hip such as topside or silverside. Other cuts can be used, but are not as high in quality.
Biltong can also be made from:
- Chicken, simply referred to as 'chicken biltong'
- Fish in this case, known as bokkoms (shark biltong can also be found in South Africa).
- Game such as kudu, springbok and Wildebeest
- Ostrich meat (bright red, often resembling game)
Ideally the meat is marinated in a vinegar solution (grape vinegar is traditional but balsamic and cider also works very well) for a few hours, this being finally poured off before the meat is flavoured.
The spice mix traditionally consists of equal amounts of: rock salt, barbecue spice, whole coriander slightly roasted and roughly ground, black pepper and brown sugar. This mix is then ground roughly together, sprinkled liberally over the meat and rubbed in. Saltpetre is optional and can be added as an extra preservative (necessary only for wet biltong that is not going to be frozen).
The meat should then be left for a further few hours (or refrigerated overnight) and any excess liquid poured off before the meat is hung in the dryer.
It is typically dried out in the cold air (rural settings), cardboard or wooden boxes (urban) or climate-controlled dry rooms (commercial). Depending on the spices used, a variety of flavours may be produced. Biltong can also be made in colder climates by using an electric lamp to dry the meat, but care must be taken to ventilate, as mold can begin to form on the meat.
A traditional slow dry will deliver a medium cure in about 4 days.
An electric fan-assisted oven set to 40–70 °C (100–160 °F), with the door open a fraction to let out moist air, can dry the meat in approximately 4 hours. Although slow dried meat is considered by some to taste better, oven dried is ready to eat a day or two after preparation.
Comparison to jerky
Biltong differs from jerky in three distinct ways:
- The meat used in biltong can be much thicker; typically biltong meat is cut in strips approx 1" (25 mm) wide – but can be thicker. Jerky is normally very thin meat.
- The vinegar, salt and spices in biltong, together with the drying process, cure the meat as well as adding texture and flavour. Jerky is traditionally dried with salt but without vinegar.
- Jerky is often smoked; biltong is never smoked.
Biltong is a common product in Southern African butcheries and grocery stores, and can be bought in the form of wide strips (known as stokkies, meaning "little sticks"). It is also sold in plastic bags, sometimes shrink-wrapped, and may be either finely shredded or sliced as biltong chips.
There are also specialised retailers that sell biltong. These shops may sell biltong as "wet" (moist), "medium" or "dry". Additionally, some customers prefer it with a lot of fat within the muscle fibres, while others prefer it as lean as possible.
While biltong is usually eaten as a snack, it can also be diced up into stews, or added to muffins or pot bread. Biltong-flavoured potato crisps have also been produced, and there are cheese spreads with biltong flavour. Finely shredded biltong is eaten on slices of bread and in sandwiches.
Biltong can be used as a teething aid for babies. Some retail stores offer a mild form of biltong especially for this purpose which does not contain the spices used for flavouring.
Biltong is a high protein food. Often, 200g of beef is required to make 100g of biltong, and the process of making biltong preserves most of the protein content. Some biltong can have up to 67% protein content, which is about double what other dried meats like beef jerky have.
Biltong's popularity has spread to many other countries, notably Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and now India which have large South African populations, and also to the United States. Biltong is also produced within South African expatriate communities across the globe, for example in Germany and even South Korea.
Biltong produced in South Africa may not be imported into Britain, according to rules governing the importation of meat-based products from non-EU countries laid down by HM Customs and Excise and its successor HM Revenue and Customs, thus it is made in the UK.
Foods similar to biltong include:
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Sometimes the food donated as famine relief were memorably bizarre, and surprisingly popular, such as shark biltong (dried shark meat).
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Simba Launches Lay's Potato Chips in Biltong Flavor
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[Biltong is] particularly good for teething babies
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