How To Make Biltong At Home
South Africa’s favourite snack can be easily made at home with the right tools, the right recipe and a bit of drying time.
Cuts of meat
Seasoned biltong makers will have their own favourite cut of meat to use, and it’s a good idea to try a few to find your own favourite. As a general rule, almost any cut of meat can be dried, but most agree that the back end of the animal, the hindquarter or what is called the ‘round’, is the best part for biltong. The round includes cuts that you can find in a butchery as topside or silverside, and these are commonly used for biltong at a reasonable cost. Other cuts include rump and even fillet or sirloin. The choice will depend on your budget. It’s recommended to buy the best you can afford which will give you a better end product.
When buying meat from a butcher, choose roasts. Pre-packed steaks are usually cut against the grain of the meat. For biltong, the cuts need to be with the grain, and it is easy enough to cut roasts into long strips for drying.
Choose a piece with a nice fat layer.
Cutting the meat
Cut the roast into strips 3cm thick with the grain and with a fat layer on one side. When the biltong is finished it will be cut against the grain for a finer product. Clean up the pieces by removing any connective tissue, but keep the fat on. Even if you don’t like the fat, it helps with the flavour and can be removed when the biltong is ready to eat.
Salting the meat
The first step is to salt the meat and let it stand for three hours. Use either coarse natural sea salt or natural salt flakes and spread a layer in a tray. Add the meat and coat well on all sides.
To work out how much salt to use, weigh the meat and multiply the weight by 0.06, which will give you a figure of 6% of the weight of the meat – this is how much salt you need. As an example, 2000g (2kg) of meat needs 120g (or 20 teaspoons) of salt. Once you get the hang of biltong making, you should be able to gauge this easily without the maths.
Let the meat stand for 1½ hours and then turn it over and let stand for another 1½ hours.
Prepare the spice mix
Traditionally, biltong spice mix is simply salt, pepper and coriander, but there are many other things you could add, like white or brown sugar, chilli flakes, paprika, smoked paprika, fennel seeds, garlic flakes, onion flakes, cloves, etc. There are also pre-made spice mixes on the market that make things easier.
For this recipe we are using:
- ½ cup coriander seeds
- ¼ cup fennel seeds
- 2 teaspoons chilli flakes
- 3 teaspoons black peppercorns
Place the coriander seeds, fennel seeds and chilli flakes in a dry pan and heat gently, stirring continuously, until the mixture starts to smoke. Be careful not to burn it or it will be bitter. Set aside to cool and then add to a spice grinder along with the peppercorns. Alternatively, they can all be crushed together in a mortar and pestle. Don’t make the mix too fine – it should be a bit coarse.
Prepare the marinade
Also called a wet cure, this mix is a blend of various things that all have a role to play in making biltong. Vinegar, for example, is used to sterilise the meat and help to prevent the meat from being contaminated by any problematic bacteria. Other ingredients, like brown sugar and Worcestershire sauce, balance out the sharpness of the vinegar and add a more balanced flavour to the meat.
For this recipe we are using:
- ½ cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar
- ½ cup Worcestershire sauce
- ¼ cup brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda – using this ingredient is not always necessary if you are using top-quality meat. Bicarb is used to neutralise the vinegar and also acts as a tenderiser by slowing the contraction of the proteins in the meat.
Mix the vinegar, Worcestershire sauce and brown sugar together and place in a bowl. By this time the meat should have been salted for 3 hours. Brush all the salt off the meat – don’t wash it off with water. Pat with paper towels and add the meat to the marinade, making sure it’s all covered. Let it sit for an hour and then turn it over and leave for another hour. Sprinkle over the bicarbonate of soda and mix it into the meat and the liquid. It will become foamy as it reacts with the acidic vinegar. Let it sit for another 30 minutes, turning the meat after 15 minutes.
Getting ready for drying
Remove the meat from the marinade and pat it dry with paper towels. Add the spice mix to a tray and dip each piece of meat into the spices, including the edges. Place metal hooks into the top of each chunk (paper clips work well for this) and place in a dryer, making sure there is enough air flow between the pieces. If you want to track your meat in a more scientific way, weigh each piece of meat and add a label with the weight to each hook. You can expect each piece to lose at least 40 – 50% of its weight before it’s ready to eat.
The ideal temperature to cure meat this way is between 22°C and 28°C. The warmer the temperature the faster the meat will cure. You can hang meat in a fridge to cure it, but it will take longer to be ready. Depending on the temperature and humidity of the drying area, it could take between 4 – 6 days before you can test for readiness. To test, give it a squeeze. It should be hard on the outside with a little give in the middle for wet biltong. Leave it for a few more days for dry biltong.
As with anything that requires a precise temperature and a precise recipe, there is a chance of something going wrong. Here are some of the things to look out for when making biltong:
Although you have soaked your meat in vinegar, there is still a chance of mould forming, especially if there is high humidity and high temperatures. Check your biltong daily for mould – it starts with furry white dots. If this occurs, use a cloth soaked in vinegar to wipe off any mould. Be thorough so that it doesn’t appear again. If there is too much mould you will have to throw away your precious biltong.
Store biltong correctly, either in paper bags in a cool, dry place or in a biltong box, if you have one. You can also vacuum seal it and store it in the fridge or the freezer.
If there is too much of a breeze, your biltong may form a tough external layer and a too-soft middle. If after a while it doesn’t seem to be drying in the middle, place in a vacuum-sealed bag or paper bag and put it in the fridge to cure more slowly – hopefully this will solve the problem.
When ready to eat, cut the biltong across the grain as thinly as possible with a sharp knife for the best results.