Of all the great food I got to experience during my recent trip to South Africa, the one I was most excited for was biltong. Anyone who’s been to Africa raves about the stuff, which is made from strips of beef or game meat covered in spices and hung to dry for several days. Over there, you can find biltong made from everything from beef to kudu to ostrich, sold right alongside the chips and candy bars in convenience stores. Though similar to what we Americans call jerky, biltong is a bit of a different animal, as South Africans are quick to point out.
Chief among the differences is the relative absence of heat used to make biltong. While most jerky is “cooked” in a dehydrator or low-temperature for over 6 to 12 hours, biltong is traditionally air dried for up to a week, either by hanging it outside in a breezy location or in what’s called a biltong box.
I found several plans online for making biltong boxes out of everything from cardboard to particleboard, as well as shops selling premade plastic boxes. In place of a heating element, most feature a low-watt light bulb to create a convection effect that allows warmer air to rise up across the hanging meat. Others call for a small fan to blow air on the meat to dry it evenly. (There is a faction of biltong makers that use dehydrators to speed up the drying process, though traditionalists cry heresy at this.)
One thing that is not debated in making biltong is the use of vinegar, though the type seems to be a matter of personal preference. Most recipes I’ve come across call for white or brown vinegar, though stateside, some biltong makers use apple cider vinegar. The vinegar works both as a curing agent to prevent mold growth and, along with another biltong staple, coriander, helps keep flies off the meat as it dries.
In the coming weeks, I’m going to try to make a batch of biltong using some venison roasts I’ve been saving for just such a project. I probably won’t go so far as building a biltong box just yet, but will either try it in my dehydrator or Little Chief smoker, which typically runs at a pretty low temperature. If I’m feeling brave, I may even hang a few strips outside or in the attic with a fan blowing across them.
Before I undertake the endeavor, do any of you have any experience making biltong? And if so, any helpful tips you care to share with the rest of us?