I’m a jerky fanatic, but I like biltong even more. If I had any idea how easy it is to produce, I’d have been making it years ago. The box cost $50 to make and gives us a continuous supply!
I’ve lived all over the world and have spent almost as much of my adult life outside of the States as inside our borders. But my wife is South African, that’s where we married, it’s where I hunt every year, it’s been one of the constants in my life and there is a lot I love about the country. And on the food front, the thing I hold above all others is Biltong.
Biltong fills the niche inhabited by jerky in the Americas and served the same purpose. In the past it was a way of preserving meat without refrigeration, and in present times it’s a snack to accompany a cold drink while watching football (rugby, soccer, or the real thing).
Unlike jerky, which is smoked, biltong is treated with spices and air dried. The final product is similar, but even though I am a true jerky aficionado (a connoisseur even), must admit I like biltong even more. Every year when visiting family or out on safari we consume mass quantities of the stuff. The problem is that you can’t bring it back into the country and we haven’t found a place to buy it locally. The result is we have to go through a biltong drought eleven months of the year.
On my last trip over I asked one of my friends to teach me how to make it, and found that the process is very straight forward and needs only a simple and easy to use bit of equipment, called naturally enough a biltong box. Out on my friends farm on the Eastern Cape this box is actually a walk in drying room, but I found several plans for a smaller scale box that can make a couple pounds of the stuff at a time. The box I made started as a typical 38 gallon plastic storage box, which I stood lengthwise and mounted a set of metal wheels. I cut a 4″; diameter hole in the top of the box and mounted a fan to draw air out of the box. This fan was a computer fan that I picked up at an electronics store for $5-$6. I then drilled 1” holes around the middle part of the box and used duct tape to cover these with mesh to keep out insects. I mounted a light fixture with a 60-watt bulb at the bottom of the box.
Half inch doweling pins were fixed at the top to form a rack to hang the meat strips. I bought a coil of heavy gauge steel wire to cut in 6" lengths and formed into hooks used to hang the meat strips from the dowels. Many of the plans call for a shelf between the light and main body of the drying box to keep any fat from dripping on the bulb, but I used a metal lamp cover to shield the bulb. I put foil on the floor both to reflect heat upwards and to make clean up easier.
The ingredients and spices used are equally simple; you will need 1.5 cups vinegar (apple cider vinegar is preferable), 3 cups of course salt, 2 cups of brown sugar, 5 ml bicarbonate of soda, and 12.5 ml of coarsely ground black pepper, and coriander seeds. Just about any type of meat can be used, in South Africa I’ve had eland, kudu, springbuck, and beef, and our South African butcher in Australia used emu, kangaroo, and lamb as well. I decided to use venison from a couple of fat does I shot this season, using the backstraps and loins cut into 6 – 8 inch strips. These strips were thoroughly brushed with vinegar and left to sit in a serving dish placed in the refrigerator. As the meat was cooling my wife was busy preparing the spices. She cooked the coriander in a frying pan until roasted then crushed them with a mortar and pestle. This was then added to the salt, black pepper, sugar and bicarbonate of soda. After a half hour the meat is taken from the refrigerator and rolled in the spices, then placed back in the cooler for about three hours. After this period the meat is removed and rinsed in the vinegar, dried in paper towels, and suspended from the hanging rack.
The lid of the box is then replaced, and the box left sealed for 3-4 days. At the end of this time the box is opened and the biltong is ready to eat. I like to take out a strip and place it on a wooden cutting board, slicing off strips to munch on as needed. We’re going to have to add an extra box, so I can keep a batch curing at all times, as it doesn’t seem to last very long in my house.
Once cured, biltong can be kept for several weeks in a dry environment. If you intend to keep it for several months the best storage method is to seal it in a vacuum pack and freeze it. Once frozen it can be kept indefinitely. But as mentioned, in my house it doesn’t last long enough to warrant freezing
You can experiment with different spices and find one that best suits your taste. If you like jerky, I really recommend you give biltong a go, it’s fast and easy to make, cost effective, and a great way to treat those deer you bring home every season. The other thing that is great about biltong is that you can use meat from those tough old bucks as well as a tender yearling or doe, and the product will not suffer.