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You may have sampled biltong, the air-dried meat snack, at your whole foods deli and are dying to find out what is biltong, and what is this tender gourmet jerky-like stuff. The market for biltong is booming and this high protein, low additive, ready-to-eat meat snack is here for the long haul.
In 2019, meat snacks grew by more than 9%, while biltong sales in the United States grew more than 500%. Global snack companies are increasingly looking at healthier snack options that are more aligned to modern diets, and biltong is grabbing the attention of both investors and consumers.
This guide is for meat lovers; gym-goers; dieters experimenting with keto and paleo or low-carb options; and anyone looking for a satiating on-the-go snack.
Biltong is a snack with a proud South African heritage that for a long-time was only consumed by “Saffas”; expats who would make it at home in biltong boxes in their adopted countries; or tourists who would enjoy this popular snack while on safari.
At Biltong Chief we are proud to continue the legacy of making authentic small-batch South African biltong. So we thought we would share all the knowledge we have acquired in our lifelong relationship with biltong.
In this post, we’ll provide an all-encompassing rundown of biltong, including an explanation of what biltong is and why it’s important, how to make and store your own biltong, and give you 3 foodie recipes that include biltong.
What is Biltong?
Biltong is the name given to strips of meat that have been cured, spiced and air-dried at ambient temperatures. The traditional flavour profile is a salt-based cure with coriander seed and pepper, however, all sorts of flavours are usually available.
Bil – the Dutch word for rump or buttock
Tong – the word for tongue or strip
How is biltong different from jerky?
Beef jerky originates from North America, whereas biltong is from South Africa (who had Dutch settlers way back in 1652). Biltong is made using a simple seasoning profile and cure to bring out the best in the meat, while jerky is often marinated with sugary artificial flavours.
Biltong is packed with protein and low in carbs (usually less than 2-3g of sugar per 100g) and can be incorporated in a low-calorie, low-carb diet. Biltong should have a higher protein content (usually 40-60g of protein per 100g) than the equivalent amount of jerky, making it very satiating.
A key difference between biltong and beef jerky is that the beef for jerky is pre-cooked from meat off-cuts before being preserved. Whereas biltong is slowly air-dried, usually from silverside or topside steaks without any heat-treatment.
Common Protein Sources for Biltong
Beef is the most common source of protein used to make biltong. We typically use the silverside of grass-fed beef, which has a deeper and more complex taste profile than grain-fed beef.
Well-marbled, Wagyu Biltong is starting to become more popular as Wagyu cattle become more accessible outside of Japan.
Different Types of Biltong
Biltong is dried as whole steaks, called Biltong Sticks, which are air-dried before slicing. As a result, you will get a seasoned and firm casing, or bark, with a tender and concentrated slice of steak. Pre-cut biltong is known as Sliced Biltong, or thick-cut pieces are known as Biltong Chunks.
Biltong Bites are pre-sliced into “stroganoff” strips before drying and are usually firmer with more surface area exposed in the drying process. These are often called Snap Sticks.
You will also hear aficionados talk about wet biltong, which will taste more like a bresaola or carpaccio. Essentially this is biltong that has not been dried as much, and eats more like a rare steak. Obviously, this has a shorter shelf life and is more difficult to find at retail supermarkets.
The History of Biltong
Biltong is a commodity that has been around for centuries. In the days before refrigeration, early Dutch settlers in South Africa would hunt antelope such as springbok and kudu, curing and drying the meat for preservation.
In South Africa, there is no butchery, supermarket, convenience store, gas station, public house or event where biltong is not available. Biltong has become a staple snack in every household and is enjoyed by all ages, sexes and races.
International markets have welcomed the taste and health benefits of biltong. The emigration of South African citizens worldwide has led to the production of “traditional” South African biltong outside its borders, and the proliferation of biltong in countries such as Australia, United Kingdom, New Zealand, United States of America and Hong Kong.
Biltong was originally produced in natural, ambient weather conditions in favorable climates suited to curing meat, not too dissimilar from prosciutto and bresaola. Most parts of South Africa are low in humidity, with a low year-round temperature variance. The resulting climate helps to prevent mold and pathogen formation. The slow curing process allows the flavor to naturally intensify over a period of 5-7 days.
Naturally these conditions are hard to replicate around the world, as a result most commercial biltong is made in industrial dryers and chambers with controlled air-flow, humidity and temperature that allow biltong to be manufactured at scale, in a shorter period of time (3-5 days)
Health Benefits of Eating Biltong
If you are looking to include biltong in a more regimented diet, it makes sense to eat biltong made from quality, trusted sources that keep the use of additives and flavorings to an absolute minimum.
Biltong Chief’s butcher in South Africa, selects locally-sourced grass-fed cattle and free-ranging game that have lived good lives, and uses a specially blended cure of MSG-free spices.
Besides the quality protein sources, biltong has these very unique health benefits (read more on the Health Benefits of Bilong);
- Biltong is High in Protein
Packed with 40-60g grams of protein per 100g, it is hard to find a more condensed source of protein. It is ready-to-eat which makes it a super convenient post-workout snack.
Biltong has more protein than these popular high-protein products (protein content is used as a guideline):
– Cottage Cheese (10g per 100g)
– Hard-Boiled Eggs (12g per 100g)
– Smoked Salmon (18g per 100g)
– Peanuts (26g per 100g)
– Protein Bars (20-30g per 100g)
– Beef Jerky (30-35g per 100g)
- Biltong is Low in Calories
– Biltong Chief’s 30g Snack Pack contains 109 calories (14g of protein)
– USN Protein Bar 40g contains 136 calories (12g of protein)
- Biltong is High in Zinc, Iron and Vitamin B12
Zinc is an important nutrient supporting the immune system, growth and development, protein synthesis.
Iron helps red blood cells deliver oxygen from the lungs to cells all over the body, reducing fatigue, boosting immunity and improving concentration
Vitamin B12 is an important B vitamin. It is crucial for nerve tissue health, brain function, and the production of red blood cells.
- Biltong is Friendly for Low-Carb Diets such as Keto and Paleo
Biltong typically contains low sugar and carbohydrates (2-3g per 100g), if any at all, and is a carb-friendly option to include in Keto and Paleo diets.
3 Foodie Recipes Made with Biltong
Biltong seldom survives the journey home, let alone a day in the pantry and is most commonly eaten straight out of the pack. If you are looking to include biltong in a recipe, it is very versatile to use and include in your daily cooking and snacking.
Biltong can directly substitute cured meats as a topping in sandwiches, pizza, salads and is a welcome flavour boost to trail mixes.
These are 3 recipes we recommend you try or use for inspiration.
Award-winning Recipe for Making Biltong at Home
It is natural to see the price per kg of biltong, and question whether it is cheaper to make it yourself. An important consideration is that it takes 2.2 – 2.4kg of raw meat to make just 1kg of biltong, so paying 2x the beef price per kg for biltong is justified.
Add to this that the cuts (silverside and topside) of meat best used to make biltong are not commonly available at most supermarkets and delis.
If you are the DIY-type, it is a richly rewarding process trialing new flavors and recipes and seeing the meat change shape and complexity in front of your eye. Bear in mind that hanging meat at home for a week may also put strain on your domestic relationship.
Although drying meats in a controlled room are common practices used by large-scale commercial biltong producers, there are several devices and methods that are commonly used by small-scale or home biltong producers for drying, including; home-made enclosed cabinets, home-made biltong boxes and biltong dehydrator units.
Essentially what you’re trying to achieve when drying biltong is to concentrate the flavor of the beef by removing a lot of the moisture, similar to ‘dry aging’. A combination of good airflow, moderate temperature and low humidity are the key to successful biltong making.
Many DIY biltong makers will construct a ‘biltong box’ with a fan and a lightbulb to create good air circulation and warm temperatures. You can buy ready made biltong boxes, or make your own. Pictured below is a 3kg solid oak biltong maker from Billies & Tong priced at £209.95.
Biltong Chief’s hand-crafted biltong is made in South Africa, the home of biltong, where natural weather conditions allow us to slowly air-dry our steaks with minimal artificial heat and preservatives.
Cutting steaks and strips, curing and tumbling by hand is a time-consuming process by today’s modern standards, which you will experience when you make your own.
We use sea salt, apple cider vinegar, spices, seasonings such as black pepper and coriander seed, together with a little brown sugar to marinate our steaks overnight before hanging and drying in a temperature and humidity-controlled room for 5-7 days. Over this drying period, more than half of the weight is lost as moisture is removed and the flavor of beef ages and intensifies.
From a butchery with over 50 years of biltong making experience, our head butcher and growing team of local staff know exactly when the biltong is ready for eating. With a range of flavors and styles all with a delicate taste of biltong that guarantees satisfaction for any meat lover.
Use this step-by-step guide to make 500g biltong yourself at home:
INGREDIENTS – MEAT & WET CURE
- 1.2kg Silverside or Topside Grass-fed Beef
- 30g Salt
- 40ml Apple Cider Vinegar
- 10g Sugar
- 10g Toasted Unground Coriander Seed
- 5g Toasted Ground Fennel
- 3g Ground White Pepper
DIRECTION – MAKING THE BILTONG
- Remove connective tissue and cut the meat into long strips ranging in width from 18-25mm
- Mix the dry rub ingredients into the apple cider vinegar making a wet cure
- Tumble the meat in the wet cure in stainless steel tray, cover and refrigerate for 24 hours
- Turn meat once or twice while marinating in the fridge
- Remove from fridge, insert meat hooks and hang in biltong dry-chamber
- Weigh each piece and label
- Ensure the meat does not hang too close and touch each other
- The key to successful biltong is good hygiene and airflow
- The target weight of each piece is 40-50% of the start weight, depending on how wet you like it
- Your biltong is now ready-to-eat. Slice into thin pieces and eat within 3-5 days
- Biltong dry-chamber
- Stainless steel meat tray
- Sterilized Meat hooks
- Mortar & Pestle
How Best to Package and Store Biltong
Commercially packaged biltong can be made with a 6-12 month shelf life. Oxygen and humidity will create an environment where mold and other pathogens can grow. Food grade resealable bags are often nitrogen flushed and usually contain an oxygen scavenger to further remove any oxygen. Store your biltong out of direct sunlight.
Hong Kong is regularly 80-90% relative humidity. We recommend storing your home-made biltong in the fridge or freezer. Biltong is an ambient snack and if made correctly it can certainly be stored at room temperature, and consumed before the best before date.
If you store your biltong in the freezer, take your biltong out the freezer about 30 mins before consuming. If stored at room temperature, consume within 4 days of opening (this is a conservative guideline).
Top Resources for Everything Biltong
Informative Biltong-related Podcasts
Biltong Brands You Should Follow on Instagram
How To Make Biltong Commercially – Processing of South African Biltong
As South Africans living abroad, and as owners of Biltong Chief we are naturally biased when the subject of quality biltong is raised. We have tried biltong all across South Africa and outside of the borders. In partnership with our butcher, Biltong Chief makes authentic, hand-crafted biltong with over 50 years of biltong-making experience.
We have a deep-rooted love of South Africa and creating jobs and opportunities for a country that really needs our support.
Biltong Chief’s award-winning biltong is produced in small batches in South Africa and is flown in jet-fresh in limited supply to Hong Kong. A labor of skill and love allow you to get this authentic South African biltong, delivered to your door by shopping here
If you like the sound of biltong make sure to try it in your next cured meat and cheese board. To help you prepare, here are some tips on how to prepare a cured meat & cheese board.