A few days ago I bought myself a food dehydration machine. As soon as it arrived I wanted to smack myself, why no one else had come up with the idea before is beyond me. All it is is a see through box made of rather cheap feeling plastic with a miniature fan and a socket for a 40W electric globe. That’s it. Nothing more to it.
What is biltong? Proper biltong is simply cured dehydrated meat. Humans have been drying meat for centuries, its not a new concept nor is it unique to South Africa. Having said that, biltong itself is South African in that it uses certain spices and certain techniques. Unlike the stuff they eat in America called beef jerky, biltong requires certain herbs and spices and a certain process to get it to taste the way it does.
You don’t need a dehydrator to make biltong, old school biltong was dried in cool, dry rooms which had a constant supply of cool air. Car garages actually work best as they’re mostly concrete square rooms and airy. A small enclosed room which has no damp and a constant air supply via a fan or air con will work as well. You need to avoid flies and fungus. By following the steps I’m going to detail below you’ll eliminate the chance of both of these but you need to avoid them completely! Flies can mess your biltong stash up and leave you in tears. What I’ve seen some people do is hang their drying biltong on those indoor portable washing lines and direct a standing room fan at the meat. Whatever drying method you choose is up to you and the amount of meat you’d like to make.
Ok, onto the actual technique of making biltong. Disclaimer: this is what works for me, I know there are other methods and recipes out there.
Your cut of meat. The better the quality of meat the better the final taste and product. The best cuts of meat to use when making biltong are silverside and topside but you can use any cut of meat really. Try avoid overly fatty cuts as they take longer to dry. I used about 2kgs of silverside steak. The slices of meat should be about 2cm thick and about 30cm long.
You need to cure the meat. This is to prevent decay and also acts as a repellent for the flies. It also adds a little bit of flavour. Pour about a cup of vinegar over the meat. I used white spirit vinegar. Apple cider vinegar and white wine vinegar also work fine. Try avoid using red or black vinegars though, they change the colour of the meat and mask how done the meat is during drying.
Lift the meat out the vinegar and give it a little shake and try drip as much of the vinegar off the meat.
Place the meat in a container large enough for it to lie flat lengthways. Wipe as much moisture off the meat as possible. Remember you want to avoid fungi attacking your meat, so use a clean and dry cloth. I used a brand new absorbant disposable cloth to do this.
The key to a really good biltong is in the choice of spices you use. My spice and herb blend recipe –
1. Toasted and crushed coriander seeds – 2 spoons
2. Black peppercorns – 1 teaspoon
3. Cumin – 1 teaspoon
4. Quality smoked paprika – 1 teaspoon
5. Dried rosemary – 1 teaspoon
6. Dried thyme – 1 teaspoon
7. Dried Marjoram – 1 teaspoon
8. Dried sage – 1 teaspoon
9. Dried garlic flakes – 2 teaspoons
10. Dried onion flakes – 2 teaspoons
Sprinkle the spice mix over the meat, making sure to cover as much of the meat as possible.
Next step is to add the salt. I used Kalahari desert salt, its less harsh than standard salt. Try avoid using table salt, rather go for sea salt or rock salts. I added about a handful of salt to the meat.
Once all your meat is covered, cover the dish and place the meat in the fridge for 3 hours. This is to help the spice and herbs infuse into the meat and it also allows the meat a chance to rest and absorb the flavours from the herbs and salt. Don’t rush this stage. You’ll have a bland and tasteless biltong if you do.
This is where you can choose how you dry your meat. I used the dehydrator but you can dry it with whichever technique you think will work best for you. Hook the meat from its thinnest side. Hang the meat up but not too closely together, the should be enough of a gap between the meat to allow for air flow and circulation and even drying.
So it took about 2 and half days to dry properly. The final and best part of the whole process, the tasting! I sliced the biltong into 1cm thick slices but if you have sharp enough knives or a biltong cutter you can cut the meat thinner. Especially if you’d like to use it in salads. I also prefer biltong moist and not too dry. Dry it for longer if you’d like it more dry and less moist.