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Biltong quick drying using an electric oven

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Biltong is a kind of cured meat that originated in South Africa. Many different types of meat are used to produce it, ranging from beef through game meats to fillets of ostrich from commercial farms.

Left: Homemade beef biltong, based on the South African recipe.

It is typically made from raw fillets of meat cut into strips following the grain of the muscle, or flat pieces sliced across the grain. It is similar to beef jerky in that they are both spiced, dried meats, but differ in their typical ingredients, taste and production process. The word biltong is from the Dutch bil ("rump") and tong ("strip" or "tongue").

Biltong as we understand it today evolved from the dried meat carried by the wagon-travelling colonists, who needed stocks of durable food as they migrated from the Cape Colony (Cape Town) north-eastward (away from British rule) into the interior of Southern Africa. The raw meat was preserved from decay and insects within a day or two, and within a fortnight, would be black and rock-hard after it had fully cured.

Prior to the introduction of refrigeration, the curing process was used by pioneers to preserve all kinds of meat in South Africa. However today biltong is most commonly made from beef, primarily due to its widespread availability and lower cost relative to game. For finest cuts, sirloin is used or steaks cut from the hip such as topside or silverside. Other cuts can be used, but are not as high in quality.

The most common ingredients of biltong are:

  • Vinegar
  • Salt
  • Coriander
  • Black pepper
  • Sugar or Brown sugar

Other ingredients often added include: balsamic vinegar or malt vinegar, dry ground chili peppers, garlic, bicarbonate of soda, Worcestershire sauce, onion powder, and saltpetre.

Ideally the meat is marinated in a vinegar solution (cider vinegar is traditional but balsamic also works very well) for a few hours, and finally poured off before the meat is flavoured.

The spice mix traditionally consists of equal amounts of: rock salt, whole coriander, black pepper and brown sugar. This mix is then ground roughly together, sprinkled liberally over the meat and rubbed in. Saltpetre is optional and can be added as an extra preservative (necessary only for wet biltong that is not going to be frozen).

The meat should then be left for a further few hours (or refrigerated overnight) and any excess liquid poured off before the meat is hung in the dryer.

It is typically dried out in the cold air (rural settings), cardboard or wooden boxes (urban) or climate-controlled dry rooms (commercial). Depending on the spices used, a variety of flavours may be produced. Biltong can also be made in colder climates by using an electric lamp to dry the meat, but care must be taken to ventilate, as mold can begin to form on the meat.

A traditional slow dry will deliver a medium cure in about 4 days.

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An electric fan-assisted oven set to 40-70 Celsius (100-160 Fahrenheit), with the door open a fraction to let out moist air, can dry the meat in approximately 4 hours. Although slow dried meat is considered by some to taste better, oven dried is ready to eat a day or two after preparation.

Left: Biltong quick drying using an electric oven.

Biltong is renowned for being chewed as a snack, it can also be diced up into stews, added to muffins and pot bread, or used as a pizza topping.

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