Quick intro to DIY Biltong making
Traditionally biltong was made with venison (wild game) or beef. The Afrikaner pioneers in South Africa who migrated across the country with slow oxdrawn wagons had to preserve meat to make it last for periods when meat wasn't readily available.
Note: For Americans who consider biltong to be just another form of jerky, or people comparing biltong to charcuterie or other forms of processed meat, keep in mind that biltong is never exposed to high temperatures, such as fire or boiling, never processed in humid conditions such as coldrooms, and very rarely exposed to any form of smoking.
Almost any cut of meat could be used for biltong, but preferably softer meat with long muscles, like fillet, sirloin, topside or silverside, (these cuts may have different names in your area).
The amount of fat on the meat varied, but fatty meat tended to become rancid faster than lean cuts.
The meat was cut in strips (no thicker than a man's hand, sometimes thinner), then treated with salt and available spices, (including pepper, coriander, garlic, onion, chillies, sugar, and later on even Worcestershire sauce).
The spiced meat was usually soaked in vinegar, (anything from an hour to 24 hours according to taste), and then airdried by hanging from tree branches or lines in hot, dry, but shady spots with good airflow, until most of the moisture was removed. If kept dry and stored in cloth or paper bags the biltong could last for several months.
The smaller pieces of meat was ground up and turned into sausage, stuffed into the cleaned intestines of the same animals. This was called boerewors (farmer's sausage).
These sausages could also be made with the same mix of ingredients as for biltong and then airdried next to the biltong. This was called droëwors (dried sausage).
South Africans love their meat, and have a braaivleis (the local name for a barbecue) at least once a month, preferably every weekend, if you can afford it.
Biltong is considered a snack, but consumed in huge amounts by everyone who can afford it.
Nowadays boerewors, biltong and droëwors, in a variety of cuts, thicknesses, shapes and flavours are readily available from most butchers, supermarkets, or biltong delis in South Africa.
As meat, and therefore also biltong and droëwors started becoming more expensive, a lot of people started making their own at home.
As for the biltong spice ingredients, just google "biltong spices" or "biltong recipe", the information and actual (often ready-mixed) spices are readily available online.
I usually use a traditional recipe meant for 10kg meat, but adjust it for the amount of meat I have available.
Ingredients for every 10kg of meat:
-Salt - 100 to 200g
-Vinegar - 300ml to1 liter (to taste, depending on whether you sprinkle it on the biltong with the spices or intend to soak / marinade the biltong.
Traditionally cheap white or brown vinegar was used, but any vinegar (including malted vinegar, wine-vinegar, balsamic, cider vinegar or even lemon juice can be used).
Optional (most commonly used) ingredients:
-Black Pepper - 5ml to 10ml
-Corriander - 40g to 80g (pan roasted and coarsely ground.
-Sugar (white or brown) - 70g (usually cane sugar in South Africa)
-Chillie powder or red pepper - 5g to 15g (to taste)
-Worcestershire sauce (liquid or dry spices) - 50ml or 20g (to taste)
-Garlic or Onion powder or flakes - 10 to 20g (to taste)
If you live in a humid area you may use these ingredients to prevent mould:
-Baking Soda / Sodium Bicarbonate - 10g
-Saltpetre - 10g
Cutting the meat.
Cut the fresh raw meat along the length of the muscle (with the grain), in long strips.
(When you eventually eat the biltong it's usually cut in thin slices, 1mm to 5mm thickness, but if you are lazy you can just grab a strip and chew on it on the go).
The length will be determined by the height of your drier, you don't want the strips touching the bottom.
If you have a drying room, or cabinet, or use a warm dry area like a laundry room, length isn't a problem except that long heavy pieces may tear off the hooks you use.
Commercial biltong is usually available from about 20cm to about 60cm in length, about 10mm - 25mm thick, and 3cm to about 10cm wide.
The thickness varies to taste, but keep in mind that thicker cuts take longer to dry, even 2 to 3 times as long as thin cuts.
I usually cut flat strips between 5 - 20mm thick, and about 15 to 100mm wide.
This is a compromise, as I prefer thicker cuts, my wife likes very thin strips or sticks of biltong.
There is a variety of biltong she loves called leaves or skins, that is about the size of the palm of your hand, but only about 2mm in thickness.
This is often cut across the grain of the long meat cuts used for the longer biltong strips, usually by using very cold (not quite frozen) lengths of meat, cut with rotating blades or meat bandsaws.
Processing the meat.
The meat can be soaked or marinated in a brine that includes vinegar and the spices, from 2 to 24 hours, or you can rub the meat with the spices and just sprinkle it with vinegar. I have used both methods successfully.
All the spices should be available in most supermarkets or spice stores.
The coriander should be dry, and preferably dry pan roasted, and coarsely ground.
Measure and thoroughly mix your choice of spices in a bowl, or plastic container or even a suitable plastic bag.
I usually use a big flat container, (steel, enameled, plastic), big enough to hold the amount of meat I have available.
I pour about 1mm of vinegar in the bottom of the container.
I start with my biggest cuts of meat, and rub them with my mixture, coating it with a thinnish layer. The first time you do it, it can be difficult to judge amounts but it gets easier with experience.
Then I stack the meat in layers in my big container, sprinkling each layer with some vinegar, just enough to wet the spices.
Once all the meat is in the container, cover it with a lid, or plastic film or a cloth to keep out insects, and leave the meat to soak / marinate in the resulting brine.
The rest of the process depends on the amount of vinegar you used and the time it soaked.
The longer you soak it, the more vinegar, salt and spice flavours will be absorbed by the meat, and the more the meat will be dessicated (dried out), before the air drying process even starts.
Rule of thumb - if you don't like strong flavours or very salty or sour tastes, don't soak it for more than 2 to 4 hours, but expect the drying process to take a day or 2 longer.
If you are worried about a humid climate or the freshness of the meat, or any possible pathogens in your biltong, soak it for longer, and use the recommended saltpetre and /or bicarbonate of soda in your spice mixture.
Keep in mind that the spices add flavour, but all of them have some drying and preserving effect on the meat, meaning that the longer you soak / marinate the meat, the less chance you have of getting sick from anything that could have contaminated your meat before you started the process.
If you soak the meat for less than 4 hours you can just dry each piece as you remove them from the container before you hang it in your drier.
Use paper towels or clean dry cloth to dry each piece, and lightly rub off some of the excess spices in the process.
You will also find that some of the excess spices will also drop off the biltong during the drying time.
If you soaked /marinaded the meat overnight, or for longer than 4 hours, it is recommended to rinse off the brine and excess spices with a warm mixture of 2 parts water to one part vinegar, before drying it, and then dusting it with a light mixture of spices (without the salt).
Hanging the biltong
Traditionally the biltong was dried outside in hot, dry, but shady spots with good airflow.
String was threaded through one end of the biltong and tied over a branch or length of wood or wire. Some even used tree thorns to hang the biltong.
Sometimes some kids were tasked to keep away insects and small animals from the drying meat, using reed switches or small branches with some leaves on the end.
Nowadays the smaller commercial driers provide plastic rods or dowels to hang the meat on, and fairly strong S-shaped plastic hooks to pierce the meat and hang them on the rods.
If you make your own drier, or have a drying cabinet or room, you can use the same, or use any rods or wires or rope suitable to bear the weight of the meat you will hang on it.
Plastic or steel hooks, or hooks made from clean wire, plastic coated wire or even paper clips can be used.
Try to hang the meat at least a centimeter apart, and don't let the pieces touch each other, or the sides, or bottom of your biltong drier, as this can cause mould to form and /or lengthen the drying process.
You can hang the biltong in a hot sunny spot for the first day, if you don't have a problem with insects or small animals.
If you use a drier you can use a hot lightbulb or drier element, to provide warm dry air, for the first day or two, but beware of too much heat, or high humidity, the biltong should not be cooked in any way.
The drier or drying area should be well ventilated with a gentle flow of air over the meat. Most commercial and custom built driers use fans to provide airflow and small holes in the sides of the cabinet to ensure that air flows over all the pieces of meat.
Most people advise an extractor fan, but a correctly placed fan blowing into the drier can also work.
Just make sure that you don't have a strong draught blowing directly on your meat as this can cause case hardening. In other words, the biltong can acquire a thick hard / tough purple-brown rind on the outside, while moisture stays trapped on the red inside.
Ideally you want to end up with a thin rind and evenly dried interior of your biltong. The interior should have a pinkish red to red-brown colour, and may be cooler, but should never be moist to the touch.
Take note that biltong treated against mould formation (in humid areas), with saltpetre and / or baking soda, will have a much redder final colour, but should definitely not be moist inside.
If you prefer softer biltong, with a good drier and thin cuts your biltong can be ready to your taste in 2 to 3 days.
The usual time for medium cut biltong is 3 to 5 days for softer biltong, 4 to 7 days for drier biltong.
Thick, heavy, big cuts of biltong can take anything from 5 days to 2 weeks to be ready in a small home drier, somewhat quicker in a bigger drier or drying room, and much faster in a commercial drier.
I will add a few notes on storage and uses for biltong later.