When you think of South African cuisine, what comes to mind? Maybe you have used peri or bay leaves in your dishes? These spices elevate popular dishes in South Africa to new heights. The food culture of South Africa is rooted in a diverse range of culinary traditions—from indigenous people and from around the world.
Immigrants from Asia, including India and China, immigrated to South Africa during British colonial rule. The immigrants brought many new spices and dishes, which are still widely consumed across South Africa. The biggest game-changer in modern South African cuisine flavour profiling is the end of apartheid.
A renaissance of diverse culinary options exploded across the country—giving the food greater visibility on a global scale. One such South African delicacy is biltong, a dried, cured meat snack popular in South African countries.
One Biltong manufacturer in the UK described it as: “delicious cured steak, flavoured with vinegar and spices and slow dried for three days – more nutritious and much tastier than beef jerky.”
It is rich in protein and nutrition, made with little to no processing. You might be wondering how this dried meat snack differs from beef jerky? Read ahead to learn more about biltong, its rich benefits, and why you should opt for it instead of beef jerky when you have the chance.
Biltong—What Is It?
Before freezers, refrigerators and meat dehydrators, indigenous people across the globe learned how to preserve their meat for future dishes. Some indigenous engineers figured out how to make ancient refrigerators, while others used salt to preserve their perishables. The humble beginnings of biltong involved an incredible amount of salt to both seasons and preserve the meat while it hung out to dry through the natural elements.
After European settlers caught sight of this curing method—vinegar and potassium nitrate were added to the meat curing process for longer sustainability. Other emigrants to South Africa, like the Dutch, took a liking to this meat curing method. They found the dried meats would keep them sustained longer on their journey’s.
This is the foundation for both modern-day biltong and beef jerky.
The Dutch liked these dried meats immensely; they were thought to have come up with the term “Biltong.” Travellers used the Dutch words “bille” (“buttock”) and “tonghe” (“tongue”) to describe the salty meat snack. Biltong was toted for its non-perishable, portable sustenance long before becoming a trend with healthy eaters and foodies.
What is Biltong Made From?
Like bison meat, biltong is mostly untouched by commercial processing. Made with grass-fed beef, no sign of any artificial flavours or preservatives, it is made relatively similar to how it was curated centuries long ago.
There is a wide variety of meat cuts, flavours and textures you can make into biltong. You can use lean or fatty meat cuts— typically the cuts are at least 1-inch thick—and also you can choose from wet, medium or dry options when you order from biltong butchers. A little different from the dry, crumbly texture of beef jerky, right? However, you can get your biltong dry and crumbly if that’s your preference. Also, you can have tender biltong or a texture in between.
Traditional biltong is coated in rock salt, ground black pepper, vinegar, coriander and allspice. Any other spices unique to South Africa can be thrown into the mix as well—along with apple cider vinegar, red wine vinegar, sugar, or baking soda (for more tender meat).
How is Biltong Made?
Like the ancient biltong—you allow the meat time to air-dry! If you want biltong quicker, you might opt for a meat dehydrator, but there are special biltong boxes that can help your meat air-dry to perfection.
When air-drying biltong, it needs to be placed in a dry location with good air circulation. From there, the biltong is either hung up to air dry or strung from hooks. You can either slice your meat before curation, or afterword depending on the texture you want to achieve.
Biltong is ready anywhere in between five days to a few weeks—it depends entirely on the weather and your biltong texture preference. The finished biltong signs include a shrunken size (about half its original size), a firm but bendable texture, and a rich, deep maroon marbling.
What Are the Benefits of Biltong?
Protein, protein, protein! Biltong is rich in protein, providing half of your daily protein requirements, complete with all nine essential amino acids. Beef is rich in micronutrients, including iron, zinc, and B12 (animal products are only natural sources of B12), B6, and selenium.
Some of these proteins, vitamins and minerals are often lost in the dehydration process of cured meats like beef jerky. However, since biltong is often air-dried, the beef retains its health benefits. The health benefits help us build muscle, boost immunity, repair tissue, and increase our brain’s functions.
If you are looking for a good, satisfying protein source that is naturally low carb, gluten-free, (practically) sugar-free, keto, paleo, or Whole30, look no further than biltong!
How Does Biltong Compare to Beef Jerky?
The first “jerky”—salted, cured, preserved meat—was supposedly made by either an ancient Incan tribe called Quechua who called it “ch’arki,” (“dried, salted meat”) or a North American tribe who called it “charqui,” (Spanish for “dried strips of meat.”) Curating jerky is one of the oldest forms of food preservation. Hence, it is hard to pinpoint who might have done it first.
There are few similarities between biltong and beef jerky, though beef jerky is the closest comparison to biltong. They are both dried meat products traditionally made from beef (it can also be made from gamier meat like an ostrich). Beef jerky, like biltong, was also a product from nomads as a mean to preserve nutrient-dense meat on long journeys.
In the modern-day, biltong has a unique meat flavour enhanced by biltong makers’ vinegar and spices. Beef jerky, in contrast, is dry (emphasis on the dry) and smoky.
Beef jerky is made simply— it is either smoked (biltong is never smoked) or dehydrated in a dehydrator. Because beef jerky is made from thin slices of beef, there is little to no fat in jerky (this is different for jerky’s of different meat varieties).
Sliced from different meat cuts with varying degrees of fat, Biltong offers a more diverse flavour profile than beef jerky. Beef jerky is beef jerky—dry, crumbly, nearly breaks your teeth while trying to chew it, while biltong is more customisable to your preferences.
The Differences Between Biltong & Beef Jerky.
Modern jerky is made from thin slices of lean beef (like sirloin tip) and dried at low temperatures. If the jerky is made from a cut of higher fat meat, the fat won’t dry well during the dehydrating process and spoil it. This process is tempestuous considering the beef can also be sucked so dry it turns brittle and inedible.
This process has been modernised with meat dehydrators and smokers’ invention—standard beef jerky drying methods.
Beef jerky is often consumed for its marinades and smoky flavours—with the commodification of beef jerky, companies continuously push the bar with new jerky flavours. Siracha, honey lime, teriyaki, kung pao, barbecue sauce, and a simple black pepper rub are only a few of the flavours you will see amongst the vast array of packaged beef jerky.
Pre-packaged beef jerky is loaded with a mile-long list of concerning ingredients, like corn syrup solids, hydrolyzed corn protein, wheat, maltodextrin, citric acid, sodium benzoate and monosodium glutamate. There has been a modern revolution of beef jerky manufacturing with niche companies trying to bring it back to the basics—vinegar and salt.
However, the meat’s unique textures, simple yet complex flavours, and the weeklong ageing process (beef jerky can be ready in hours) give biltong a distinct taste separate from beef jerky.
If you are interested in trying biltong, you can find it here in the UK from M-EAT. You will find a deliciously seasoned, ready-to-eat meat that you can consume as a snack, throw into a sandwich, flavour your soup or stew, or pair with some rice or corn.