Perfectly dried, tasty biltong slices

Perfect Biltong Recipe—South African Beef Jerky

Perfectly dried, tasty biltong slices
Perfectly dried, tasty biltong slices

I must apologise for calling biltong “South African beef jerky”, because this is a far superior product. If you’ve ever tried biltong, you’ll know exactly what I mean—none of that sugary, rubbery stuff-it-in-a-dehydrator rubbish here, please!

Like a lot of biltong lovers, I was introduced to this culinary treasure as a child, and the addiction has stuck. I’ve been making my own for a few years, gradually tweaking the recipe and feeding it to people with a “how is it, honestly?”, and plenty of willing feedback. I’m confident that this fool-hardy recipe sticks with the traditional roots of the dried meat, whilst adding a little refined finesse—it does not disappoint.

Biltong was originally created by Dutch pioneers in South Africa, “Voortrekkers”, who needed reliable food sources on their long treks across the continent. The method and spice mix hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years, but a few variations have appeared recently, like ‘piri piri’ biltong and the use of additional ingredients like worcestershire sauce and dried chillies.

Curing process

Opinions vary on curing methods, spice mixes and drying conditions, and there is a lot of misinformation around, so trial and error has been my friend. Some recipes call for several stages of curing and washing off spices, reapplying them, etc—this is not necessary. I don’t like to throw away good spices, so I coat once, leave to cure in the fridge, pat dry, then hang with no additional stages. Why wash off and waste all that good flavour? It’s easy to over-salt biltong, making it almost unbearable to eat in bigger quantities (let’s face it, who’s going to only eat a little biltong?), and too much salt can leave a burning sensation, so many recipes call for the salt to be washed off with a water/vinegar solution. My answer? Use less salt! Vinegar does a perfectly good job of sterilising the meat without mountains of salt. The salt is an excellent flavour enhancer and should definitely be included—just a little less to avoid the need for washing.

Temperature and airflow

What we’re trying to achieve when drying biltong is to concentrate the flavour of the beef by removing a lot of the moisture, similar to ‘dry aging’. A combination of good airflow and relatively cool temperatures are the key to successful biltong making. Contrary to popular belief, heat is not required to make biltong—neither does it make for a better product. As a perfect example of this, the Italians make a beautiful beef product called ‘Bresaola’, which is very slowly air dried at cold temperatures, so as to achieve an even dryness and texture. Although heat doesn’t add to the quality of the product, it can be used to increase air circulation around the meat, by means of a temperature gradient (heat rises!). Having said that, don’t be tempted to try and make it in the oven—biltong takes several days to dry, and most ovens won’t go low enough to dry the meat slowly enough to avoid cooking it. What you’re looking for is a slow drying process with gentle airflow. Many DIY biltong makers will use a ‘biltong box’ with a fan and a lightbulb in to create good air circulation. The key is to draw air around the meat without the airflow being too strong, to avoid ‘case hardening’, whereby the outside becomes overly tough, and the texture gradient falls off too quickly.

How to dry biltong

I made my first biltong by hanging it from a piece of wood jammed into a window frame beside a cool window, with a fan on low to circulate air. That’s really all you need to make it. If you want a little more control, you can upgrade to a biltong box or other drying box. I’ve since upgraded to an old fridge with the mechanics removed, holes in the bottom, and a fan drawing air past the meat. The airflow is just enough to draw away moisture, but not too fast so as to avoid over drying the outside of the meat. What you’re looking for is cool conditions with good airflow. Room temperature in most houses is fine, but air flow can be a problem. What you want is a good steady stream of air running past the meat, but not too strong. Try to create these conditions in whatever way you see fit. Just make sure you have a little air flow, or the meat can gather mould—I’m sorry to say this has happened to me in the past! If you want to have complete control over drying conditions, either making or buying a ‘biltong box’ might be the best option for you. You can pick them up pretty cheap online.

Doneness—How long does it take to dry?

I like my biltong a little tough, but still wet in the middle. Some like theirs tough like old leather. Getting it right is down to trial and error. The easiest way to measure dryness is with your fingers. Thoroughly wash and dry your hands, and squeeze the flattest sides of the meat in with your fingers. If there is any give in the meat, there’s still moisture in the middle. Most likely, what you’re looking for is a really tough consistency with just a little bit of give. Leave it too long and you’ll have some tooth-bustingly tough biltong on your hands. That said, it’s fairly forgiving and a day or two over won’t do too much harm.

wet biltong slices on a chopping board
Wet biltong – a little tough but still wet in the middle

If you’re impatient and can’t wait for your biltong to dry, plan ahead and cut some thinner pieces to hang with the rest—these will keep you going while you wait for the thicker stuff to be ready. If you’re really savvy, you might vary the thickness of slices from thin to thick allow for consistent grazing over the drying process (highly recommended).

biltong before and after drying comparison photo
Biltong just after hanging (left), and after 2 days of drying (right)

If you find that you’ve cut your biltong early and it’s wetter than you’d like, use clean fingers to rub a little salt and vinegar on the exposed end and hang it back up.

Fat on or fat off?

This comes down to personal preference. It’s important to note that, while your biltong will shrink by around half the size when dried, the fat doesn’t shrink at the same rate as the muscle. I like a little fat because it helps carry flavour, but I tend to remove most of it before hanging. Large chunks of fat can be a little unpleasant to deal with when eating biltong.

Biltong ingredients

Every biltong maker has their own preference on spice mix. If you don’t know what you like, I suggest making a few thinner, quick drying pieces to experiment with. Many home biltong makers add a lot of ingredients to their biltong, thinking that adding more will lead to a better result, but in reality they’re muddying the clarity of the flavour and masking the star of the show—good quality meat!

Vinegar

Traditionally, brown vinegar has been used to make biltong. It really has a recognisable flavour. Some recipes call for balsamic or cider vinegar. I recommend brown vinegar for the best flavour, with cider vinegar coming in a close second. I’ve used cider vinegar a lot, purely because I have a large batch I made at home.

Salt

Salt is a brilliant flavour enhancer and preservative. It kills bacteria on the outside of the meat, and helps to draw moisture out. It’s tricky to get the salt quantity right. My local butcher goes way overboard with salt on their biltong. I sometimes use them in case of emergency biltong shortage, so I’m not sure how to break it to them…

Coriander

Coriander seed is the signature spice that makes biltong instantly recognisable. It’s best to toast the seeds to release the oils for flavour, but also because the oil suppresses bacterial growth.

Black pepper

Black pepper and beef are a pair made in heaven. Just don’t overdo it—biting into a lump of peppercorn is not a pleasant experience! You want roughly 1/4 pepper to 3/4 coriander seed for a good balance. In most cases, flies aren’t a problem, but pepper has the added benefit of detering them.

Brown sugar

Brown sugar has a caramel and molasses flavour that adds complexity to the meat, without masking it. The sugar helps with drying through osmosis, latching onto the water molecules and ‘wicking’ them away. It’s not a traditional ingredient if we’re going full purist, but it balances the saltiness well. Too much sugar is really unpleasant though—you’re walking dangerously close to beef jerky territory and I’d really recommend against it. Biltong is a savoury snack, not a desert!

Bicarbonate of soda

Some recipes call for the addition of bicarbonate of soda. This might seem a little odd, but it has scientific reasoning. The bicarb neutralises the acid in the vinegar, but also acts as a meat tenderiser. It slows the contraction of the proteins, leaving the final product still dry, but less tough. Bicarb has a pretty unpleasant taste, so it’s important to keep the quantity low. If you’re using a good cut like silverside or toprump, you won’t need it at all.

Cutting methods

perfect biltong slices on a chopping board
Biltong slices cut with a sharp knife

If you’ve ever tried cutting over-dried biltong, you’ll know how tough it can be—tough as old boots! In desperation, I’ve taken to resting a knife on top of some over-dried biltong and hitting it with a camping mallet (not recommended, and not only because I upset the neighbours and smashed the chopping board!). There are a lot of creative, almost ceremonial devices on sale for cutting biltong, but I think nothing beats a good, sharp knife. If you want something a little more fancy, there are biltong cutters (a board with a hinged knife attached), biltong knives (traditional knives made for purpose), hand crank mechanical cutters, and at the high end, expensive elecric cutters, mostly used by butchers and biltong suppliers.

Dealing with mould

Check your biltong every day for mould. If conditions are particulary humid or hot, there’s a chance you might experience this problem. If you see the first signs of mould appearing—white dots or furry mould—use a clean cloth with some vinegar and dab/wipe it off. Be sure to get it all or it’s likely to spread again. If you’ve not checked for a while and found your biltong totally covered, sadly the best place for it is the bin. Good airflow will help to avoid such catastrophes in future.

Storing your Biltong

After your biltong has dried to your preferred consistency, you can continue to store it hanging in a well aerated space indefinitely. Shops that sell biltong will often hang it and leave it out, and these are ample storage conditions—just try to make sure none of the pieces are touching. It will continue to dry slowly, but it will also keep for a long time this way. If you’ve cut your biltong and want to store it, wrap it in a few paper bags and store it in the fridge. The paper will allow excess moisture to continue leaving the meat, discouraging mould growth. I can’t give accurate advice on how long to store it this way, but I think it’s safe to say that no sane person is going to leave biltong uneaten for more than a few days. It’s just too delicious!

Case hardening

If there is too much air flow around your biltong, the outside can firm up really quickly, leaving the middle soft. If the case hardening is severe, the tough outer layer can prevent moisture from leaving the middle. If you find that you’ve been testing your biltong for readiness for 2-3 weeks and it just doesn’t seem to be drying in the middle, this may be your problem. If you suspect that case hardening is your problem, I recommend cutting through the end of the meat and checking it. If you’ve got a really raw centre and thick, tough outer surface, give it a try and see if you like the texture. If you don’t, the first option is to vacuum pack the biltong and store it in the fridge for one week to one month, depending on severity. This will balance out the gradient. If you don’t have access to a vacuum sealer, stick your biltong in a paper bag and place it in the fridge for a few days. Rub a little salt on the cut ends to protect them. This should go some way towards fixing the problem. It’s worth noting that the thicker you cut your initial beef cuts, the slower the drying process must be to avoid case hardening, so try cutting thinner next time. However, the best solution to prevent case hardening from occuring is to change your drying setup to reduce air flow. You still need a little air movement, but the slower it dries, the more even the moisture gradient will be from inside to out.

So without further ado, here’s my tried and tested biltong recipe. Once you’ve given it a try, please let me know how you like it, and if there are any variations to the traditional ingredients you swear by, no matter how strange!

4.74 from 26 votes
Print

Perfect Biltong Recipe

A Biltong recipe that produces consistent results with an authentic, traditional spice mix

Course Snack
Cuisine South African, Zimbabwean
Keyword biltong, curing, dried meats
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 4 days
Total Time 4 days 30 minutes
Author greedyferret

Ingredients

  • 2 kg beef—silverside or toprump
  • 5 tbsp brown (malt) or cider vinegar (approx)
  • 2.5 tbsp coarse salt
  • 2 tsp coarse ground black pepper
  • 2 tbsp coriander seed
  • 1.5 tbsp brown sugar (optional)

Instructions

  1. Toast the coriander seeds in a dry pan, then grind down in a pestle and mortar or spice grinder. It should be mostly powder, with a few pieces of seed shells left in.

  2. Using a sharp knife, following the grain of the meat, cut into 1 inch (2.5cm) thick lengths and place in a non-metallic container.

  3. Combine all the spices and sprinkle into the meat with a tablespoon. Sprinkle the vinegar on and rub everything in thoroughly.

  4. Cover the container and let your biltong cure for 12 hours in the fridge, turning the meat occasionally.

  5. Remove the meat from the container and pat dry with kitchen towels, taking care not to remove too much of the spice.

  6. Add a hook to the thickest end of each length. Plastic-covered paper clips make for a cheap solution. Hang in your biltong box, or in a well aired, ventilated space with a fan blowing gently to increase air flow. Do not point directly at the meat (to avoid case hardening). Make sure none of the pieces are touching. Place some newspaper below the meat to catch any liquid.

  7. Drying times will vary with humidity, airflow and temperature. Test the readiness of your biltong every couple of days by squeezing the sides together with clean fingers. If you feel any give in the meat, it’s still ‘wet’ inside.

  8. Once ready, cut into thin slices with a sharp knife and enjoy some of the best meat you’ll ever eat.

Recipe Notes

Note:- if using venison or game, or cheaper cuts of beef, add 2 tsp of bicarbonate of soda to tenderise the meat.

86
Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
Notify of
Mandy van Zyl
Guest
Mandy van Zyl

5 stars

5 stars
Thank you! I have found that familiar taste at last! And thank you so much for taking the time to post ‘The Perfect Biltong Recipe.’
It’s tricky when you are not sure what you are doing, and I have not had much luck trying to guess what ingredients will make that all too familiar tasting biltong from Rhodesia.
All I do remember is ‘that taste’ the way my mom made it. All I can say is, this is exactly the taste my moms’ biltong had so yummy you keep coming back for more!

Joe
Guest
Joe

For your biltong box, does it need venting from the outside to get fresh air in, or should it be sealed as much as possible (as long as you keep air circulating inside)?

Kelly D
Guest
Kelly D

Hello,

Can you tell me how far away your damn is from your meats in the fridge? And what type of fan you used? Also, I like my biltong very wet, so I’m wondering what is the earliest the biltong could be ready, but is still safe to eat? Thank you for all the info!

COLIN E KERDACHI
Guest

HI KELLEY, I TOO LIKE DRY CRUST ON THE OUTSIDE AND SOFTISH IN THE MIDDLE! IT’S EASY TO CUT, LIKE FERRET SAID ITS UP TO U TO SQUEEZE IT, EVERYONE IS DIFFERENT! I’VE GRADUATED TO A MEAT SLICING MACHINE, BOY!!! MAKES LIFE SO EASY, ESPECIALLY WHEN U SEE THE SLICES PEEL OFF, AND CAN’T WAIT TO DEVOUR THEM!

Colin E Kerdachi
Guest
Colin E Kerdachi

drying time! Hi there, my name is Colin and ek is van Durban af! see, I even remember a few words of Afrikaans! been here 48yrs! I’ve made biltong before, I even made a drying box of plywood! as I was selling it to all my friends, but I’m too busy right now! I put a toilet fan at one end of the box and fine netting wire at the opposite side! meat is 2feet from the fan! works great! the biltong is ready in 3 days! but u talk about checking it in a couple of days! by then… Read more »

Jordan
Guest
Jordan

Nice to find a subject that gets traction and has recent responses on a WP site. I’m on my third batch of biltong. I live in SF, so the climate tends to be a little humid, but I’m still able to get a decent product after four days. I found a fellow on Amazon reviewing the Safari biltong spice and he made a 5 gallon PVC container into a biltong box with a light at the base, dowels above, a computer fan at the top and holes in the bottom to draw in and ventilate air. It’s been a really… Read more »

Deborah
Guest
Deborah

4 stars
I have a sealed room that is used for storage. I hung it up thats silverside and rump. I used a fan putting the flow on high. It dried in three days right thru. With very little wet in the middle. Very tasty. I used 3kg and got out about 1..4kg. I would like more red in the middle. Must I put the fan on low?

Lizzie
Guest
Lizzie

5 stars
Delicious!

Georg
Guest
Georg

Hi – Great info, many thanks for sharing. Why does one need plastic-covered paper clips? Standard metal ones no good? Cheers, G

FTC
Guest
FTC

Reading your excellent article took me down memory lane. We grew up eating biltong made by my uncle on his hunting trips and apart from some notable exceptions was excellent. A batch of buffalo biltong that suffered from a heavy hand during the process of adding salt acquired the tensile strength of tungsten and could be used to inflict blunt force trauma on your enemies. It could only be eaten after powdering it with a hammer and following each mouthful with gallons of beer. You darent eat it in the Zambezi Valley as you would probably die of dehydration. On… Read more »

RJ
Guest
RJ

This is the second time I’ve made this, superb recipe! I live in the United States, and I use a home food dehydrator on the lowest heat setting. My dehydrator has a 19-hour timer on it, so I just have to watch it and make sure I keep adjusting it. I add hot red pepper and I also don’t pat off any of the vinegar, and I also don’t use sugar in my recipe. I slice it into extra-thin strips using a mandoline slicer – be VERY careful if you do this, use a Kevlar glove or the safety holder.… Read more »

Tom
Guest
Tom

This is excellent. I followed the ratios exactly except I with held the sugar since I avoid all added sugar. I cut the meat into snapstick sizes using eye of round. 1/2 inch*1/2 inch* length of the cut and put it in my dehydrator at 35 C for 24 hours. Most of the meat still had some give to it, the thinner slicer were solidly dried for those who like a firmer texture. For the non metal container for the cure period, I used 1 gallon Ziploc bags with 1 kg of meat in the bag. This made it easy… Read more »