Americans think they have the market cornered when it comes to dried meats. After all, just look at the rows and rows of jerky at the local truck stop, as new companies compete for shelf space with dozens of different types and flavors of dehydrated beef, turkey, and pork. Jerky is big business in the United States, but there is something better out there. It’s called biltong.
The name is Dutch, a combination of the two words bil (rump) and tong (strip), but the origin is purely South African. A product of necessity, biltong is an adaptation of dried meat that has been eaten in Africa for centuries. It was created by Dutch settlers immigrating into the interior during the mid-1800s. Needing a shelf-stable protein that traveled well without spoiling, they introduced European curing techniques, using vinegar and salt to preserve strips of the rangy beef cattle and the abundant wild game hunted in the region. Coriander and black pepper added a distinctive flavoring to the biltong. The pungent spices also aided in preservation by keeping flies and insects away from the meat as it hung in the open air.
Today, biltong is basically a South African national treasure, so ubiquitous that it’s not only found in gas stations and grocery stores, but also can be seen drying from clotheslines and on front porches throughout the country. Everyone, it seems, has their own recipe for biltong. Talk to anyone who’s hunted South Africa and they’ll tell you about trying biltong and, almost always, will speak of it with a reverence not usually associated with dried meat. A few may even have stories of trying to smuggle it past the biltong beagles stationed at U.S. customs to sniff out the stuff. (For antiquated reasons I’ve yet to understand, it’s illegal to bring biltong into this country.)
So what is it that makes biltong so special? Although jerky and biltong both fall in the dried-meat category, they are distinctively different. Couldn’t we just flavor our jerky with vinegar and coriander to get the same effect? The short answer is no. For a longer answer, we have to look at the differences in how jerky and biltong are made.
Here in the U.S., jerky is made from thin pieces of meat—often scraps or slices from lesser cuts. In more recent years, jerky made from ground meat extruded into flat strips has become popular. Nearly all store-bought jerky, and much of the homemade stuff using commercial jerky kits, is marinated with a nitrate cure. This isn’t a bad thing; the cure keeps the finished product from going bad and eliminates the need for refrigeration. The sliced meat is then dehydrated in a heated environment, usually around 150–160 degrees for six hours or more. It’s also often smoked or—shudder—flavored with liquid smoke.
Typically, biltong starts as thicker strips of meat taken from prime cuts; the bottom round, known as “silverside” in South Africa, is a popular choice, as is the eye of round. These are soaked in a vinegar brine, spiced, and hung in the open air to dry. Most biltong makers are adamant about not using heat, and historically, biltong-making season coincides with the cooler temperatures of fall and winter. Depending on the temperature and thickness of the cut, biltong may take anywhere from two days to 20 days to dry properly. Modern meat makers have sped up the process a bit by making biltong boxes: contraptions that combine the forced air of a fan with the gentle heat from a light bulb to make quick work of a batch of biltong.
After reading this column, you might take me for some type of anti-American, jerky-hating jerk. Nothing could be further from reality. I eat pounds of the stuff, all of it Made-in-the-USA, and most of it made right in my kitchen from deer, elk, antelope, and even goose. But I’m telling you, biltong is better, and you owe it to yourself to try a stokkie, or strip, of the delicious dried meat.
Venison Biltong Ingredients
- 2–3 lbs. bottom round or top sirloin venison roast
- 2 cups white vinegar
- ¼ cup Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- ¼ cup whole coriander seeds, roasted and crushed
- 2 tbs. black pepper
- 2 tbs. brown sugar
- Cut the meat with the grain into long strips approximately 1 inch thick and 2 inches wide. Lay the strips in a shallow pan.
- Mix the vinegar and Worcestershire together and pour over the meat. Let soak for 2 to 3 hours, then remove the meat and pat dry with paper towels. Reserve the vinegar brine and wipe the pan clean.
- Mix the salt and spices together in a medium bowl. Roll the meat in the spice mixture until well covered, then layer the meat in the shallow pan and refrigerate for three hours.
- Return the meat to the vinegar mixture and soak for 10 to 25 minutes. Wipe the meat clean and squeeze with paper towels until dry.
- Hang the meat in a cool, dry place, free of flies or insects. To speed up the process, you can place a small fan to blow across the meat. Test the meat after two days or continue drying until it reaches the preferred consistency.