The only real justification I could think of for including this particular experiment on this blog, is that my first attempt delivered such a sweetly satisfying result – which is a real stretch for including spicy Biltong on a sweet-making blog, but there you go.
(Biltong, for those outside of South Africa, is a South African traditional favourite – it is meat marinated or rubbed with vinegar and spices, which is then hung to dry. Originally a practical means of preserving meat for longer periods (before electricity), it is now just a culinary pleasure for the carnivorous among us.)
I have been wanting to try to make my own biltong since buying a food dryer last year. Until last Sunday, I had only used it for drying fruit but I always intended to use it for its primary purpose (it is sold as a Biltong Maker). The rather extreme price of biltong in stores currently, and the polite nagging of an aunt since I bought the dryer, finally pushed me to doing it as a rainy-day activity.(Biltong at a leading retailer this week was priced at R385 per kilogram! I bought sirloin steaks for R76 which made about 500g of biltong – so I will definitely be doing this again.)
There are many different recipes for flavouring biltong, and quite a few that use different preparation techniques to aid preservation (bicarb, saltpetre). I decided to go with a simple basic spice combination, and the most natural preservation option – just vinegar. The recipe and technique I followed is on yuppiechef.com, a recipe by Tim Price, in a post called How to Make Biltong. As I pretty much followed it exactly, I’ll only add my own experience and “findings” here:
Sirloin worked really well, and tasted really yummy. While you can ask your butcher to cut you a steak/steaks for longer biltong sticks, I bought regular steaks – I just looked for those that were more-or-less the same thickness.
- You don’t want the meat you dry to be too thick and chunky. Slice the steaks to the thickness you want, but not much more than 1cm thick.
- For simplicity, and ease of reference, the ratios of vinegar and spices per 1 kilogram of meat are as follows:
- ½ cup vinegar (I used brown spirit vinegar)
- 1 tablespoon sea salt (The shop did not have grinding salt, so I used fine sea salt)
- 1 Tablespoon ground black pepper
- 1 teaspoon paprika
- ¼ cup ground dried coriander
- The coriander must not be the finely ground type that comes in a bottle; it’s the actual dried spice (little balls). Grind them with a mortar and pestle to release the flavour (or smash them gently with a heavy meat cleaver like I did, if you don’t have a mortar and pestle handy).
- For the marinating process, use a dish that can hold all the cut meat in a single layer, and that won’t spill the vinegar. I used a small baking tray for the pieces I had once the original steaks were cut.
- I mixed all the dry spices together.
- Don’t be too heavy on the salt.
- Pour half of the vinegar onto the tray, then sprinkle some of the spice mix over it evenly.
- Lay the meat strips in the tray, swirling the vinegar around if necessary.
- Pour the rest of the vinegar on the top of each steak, and sprinkle the rest of the spice over the meat.
- Use your hands to rub the spices in, and to spread the mix more evenly.
- After marinating in the fridge, just hold the pieces up to let any real excess vinegar run off. Then use your fingers to press the coriander into the meat, and to gather up and “recoat” the meat with coriander and spice that has fallen off, before hanging the meat in the dryer.
- I found it easier to pierce the meat with a sharp knife before inserting the supplied plastic hooks, rather than trying to push the hook through – especially with the thicker pieces.
- As this first attempt was really an experiment, the steaks were cut to different thicknesses. (The broken-looking piece was cut extra thin, which caused the early tear with handling.)
- In the shop-bought dryer, with its fan and 40W bulb running constantly, the times until ready-to-eat were as follows (approximately):
- 2mm thick (“Shaved” biltong”) : 15 hours (very dry – could be torn to eat, as we like it)
- 8mm thick x 30mm wide : 23 hours (dry, but not hard; tender with the slightest moistness in the centre)
- 15mm x 15mm square cut : 36 hours (same as above)
- 12 mm thick x 30mm wide : 36 hours (same as above)
- Approximately 800g of raw meat gave approximately 500g of dried meat.