Beef biltong is traditionally made from sirloin, rump or fillet steak, but other cuts such as beef buttock (consisting of the silverside), topside and thick flank may also be used.
Basic ingredients are coarse salt, black pepper, crushed coriander seeds, brown sugar and vinegar (brown or balsamic vinegar, or wine or apple cider). Saltpetre, which acts as a preservative and gives biltong a bright red colour, and bicarbonate of soda, which prevents mold from setting in, are optional ingredients.
You can also use ready-made biltong spices in powder or meat block form from Africa Spice, Crown National, Deli Spices, Exim International, Fortified Foods, Freddy Hirsch and Golden Spices, which also supply dry wors and cabanossi spices.
The rule of thumb for the thickness of the slices is up to 2.5 cm. When cutting the meat into slices, care must be taken so that the bottom of the strip of meat does not end up thicker than the top.
Prevent meat from lying in its own blood during the marinating process by placing a draining board in the bottom of a tray or container suitable for marinating. A plastic or ceramic container is ideal, as metal can cause a reaction with the marinade.
Arrange the meat in the tray placing the large pieces of meat at the bottom with smaller pieces on top, drizzle vinegar over, mix the dry ingredients, and sprinkle the mixture liberally over the meat. (For biltong smacking of vinegar, which some people prefer, the meat can be soaked in the vinegar overnight before the spices are added.)
Make sure the meat is sufficiently covered by the spice and rub in. Turn the slices over in the tray and repeat the vinegar and spicing procedure, and allow soaking for a few minutes.
Place the marinated tray of meat in the fridge for at least three to four hours, preferably overnight. If the meat is not allowed to marinate sufficiently, there will not be enough time for the salt to penetrate the meat and reach the core of the product. This can result in there being a flavour difference across the slice as well as salt crystals forming on the surface of the meat during drying and storage. This salt is often mistaken for mold spoilage.
Occasionally check the meat to make sure that all parts are covered in spice, and that excess liquid is draining away from the meat.
Remove the slices from the tray, make a small incision through the thinnest part of each piece with a knife, about 2 cm from the end, and hang the biltong to dry.
There are many different ways of suspending your biltong for drying purposes. You can pull a piece of string through the incision and tie it, or insert bent metal paperclips or homemade s-shaped hooks made out of sterilised steel wire the way South African farmers did in the old days, or buy commercially available s-shaped hooks.
The ideal conditions for drying your biltong are in a breezy, insect-free place, away from direct sunlight, but well-lighted in order to prevent mildew. Do not hang the meat in a dank or musty area. The fresher the air and the better the ventilation, the less danger there will be of mold contamination. Never hang biltong in an air-conditioned area, as artificial air can contribute towards mold growth.
The time it takes to dry biltong varies depending on how thick your meat slices are, what type of conditions you have in the place you are drying your biltong, and the method you choose to dry your biltong, but, typically, three days will suffice.
With practice, you will get to know when your biltong is dried to your customer’s taste. As a rule it should be hard on the outside, but a little moist and red on the inside, but some people prefer it either slightly wet or very dry.
If you would like faster drying results, you can use three methods, but whichever one you choose, raw meat must hang freely in the drying apparatus and not touch one another. Mold growth is more likely to occur if meat pieces come in contact during drying, and can rapidly spread through the batch.
One of the cheapest drying methods apart from air drying is using a home-made cabinet with a wooden or steel frame and screen mesh sides. Place metal rods across the width of the cabinet and hang the biltong from them.
The screen mesh allows a breeze to pass through the biltong (you can use an oscillating fan to create this breeze) while protecting the meat from bugs.
Another quick and cheap drying method is using a homemade ‘biltong box’. This is basically a sealed wooden or cardboard box. The bottom of the box houses a 60 w light bulb, which is covered by a piece of wood acting as a barrier to separate the meat drying portion of the box from the light housing.
The barrier has holes cut into it, which allow the heat from the light bulb to travel upwards and at the same time prevent the light bulb from having the juices from the drying meat drip on it. The meat drying portion of the biltong box must have holes in the top and on all sides to promote good air circulation.
NOTE: Under no circumstances should wood be brought into contact with the raw meat. Spoilage organisms get trapped in wood fibres and, even after cleaning, have the ability to contaminate a batch of biltong repeatedly.
The use of an ultra violet light can be extremely useful in killing of bacteria and mold. A UV light should be positioned within the cabinet/drying apparatus so as to give maximum exposure to the surface of the meat. UV light will only function where it strikes the surface of the meat directly.
Lastly and preferably, you can use a commercial biltong maker purchased from a major retailer, or a risk-free, hygienic and spacious industrial stainless steel biltong cabinet, the clean surfaces of which will reflect the UV light to all parts of the meat.
Stainless steel cabinets and other biltong making equipment are supplied by Arctica, BCE Foodservice Equipment, Claasens Designs, Crown National, Deli Spices, East Rand Catering, Freddy Hirsch and Wesfleur Catering. These companies also supply biltong slicers and sausage mincers and fillers.
On the subject of biltong slicers, Claasens has been the ‘original biltong slicer’ since 1955. The first hand slicer was manufactured from wood and pieces of scrap metal. Once the idea was established, Claasens manufactured slicers from cast aluminium with the blade designed to take on a spiral shape. This same shape is still in use today.
When purchasing a biltong cabinet, ensure that all ventilation points are insect proof and that all doors and access points are both water and airtight. There should be a one way flow of air from the bottom of the cabinet, past a heat source into the cabinet, past the meat and up through the top of the cabinet to the outside. This is the optimum airflow pattern for drying biltong.
The correct cabinet temperature when drying biltong is vital. Using too high a temperature will dry the biltong surface out very quickly and harden it. Water moving from the core of the product does not have a chance to reach the surface, which results in a product with a hard surface and wet core. During storage the moisture in the biltong will cause the surface to once again become moist – an ideal requirement for mold growth and spoilage.
If the cabinet temperature is set too low during the drying phase, not only do your run the risk of mold growth on the product (if no UV light is present), but you increase the time that it would take to dry a batch and can unnecessarily increase your production expenses. The longer drying times will ultimately leave the product very dry and brittle.
To clean your biltong maker, wash down all surfaces in the cabinet/drying apparatus with soap and water and then rinse down and disinfect with a high-quality antiseptic prior to hanging a batch of meat. For home use, wipe down all surfaces with a cloth soaked in vinegar. Vinegar is an acid and acts to kill bacteria and spoilage molds.
The ingredients for game biltong are salt, cracked black pepper (optional) and mixed spices. Variations include these spices with added flavours like Worcestershire sauce, BBQ sauce, Tabasco sauce or soy sauce, which are brushed onto the meat using a basting brush after applying the vinegar. The meat is cured for 24 hours, then removed and all the salt scrubbed off before being dried.
Dry wors is made using a traditional boerewors recipe, but the casing is much thinner. All the meat is cubed, mixed together thoroughly and minced coarsely before adding all dry spices and vinegar. The meat mixture is placed in the fridge for two hours.
Alternatively, all the spices can be mixed, but not the vinegar, and the mixture can be left in the fridge overnight to allow the flavours to develop before being sprinkled with vinegar and minced coarsely.
Once the meat is removed from the fridge, it is stuffed into washed casings and hung to dry in a cool, dry, dark place with a draught or an electric fan, or in a biltong cabinet. Dry wors is unusual among dried sausages in being dried quickly in warm, dry conditions, unlike traditional Italian cured salumi, which are dried slowly in relatively cold and humid conditions.
To improve the flavour, dry wors may be smoked after a day of hanging, then returned to the room/equipment to continue the drying process. Dry wors is perfectly dried once it snaps when bent.
Biltong and dry wors are as South African as the Bokke, and while the salami-like dry sausage cabanosssi may not be, it is a very popular local snack borrowed from Italy.
Cabanossi is made of beef, pork and bacon very moderately spiced with salt, pepper, paprika and garlic, and filled into a medium sheep casing before being smoked in two stages: smoking with hot smoke (40ºC to 50ºC) for an hour and baking for about 20 minutes at 60ºC to 90ºC until the meat reaches a temperature of 70ºC inside. The colour of the casings should be dark brown. Shower with cold water and separate into links.
If you don’t have a smoker, you can hang the meat to dry until the casing feels dry, dip the sausages for two minutes in liquid smoke, which is obtainable from Crown National, and hang in a room for five to seven days or in a biltong cabinet at maximum temperature for a minimum of 12 hours.