Dried meat has been a staple of the outdoorsman’s diet for thousands of years. From one culture to the next, indigenous people have found ways to preserve meat for the long trail, as an emergency energy source, or the occasional snack. Recently, while on safari in South Africa, I had the opportunity to learn more about the national variety, biltong, from my friend and Professional Hunter, Russ Field. Since Russ is responsible for harvesting wild game on a regular basis and hunts well over 200 days a year, you can be certain there is a healthy supply of this dried meat at his lodge, in the safari truck, and at lunch. The process is extremely simple and the end result is only a week’s wait away.
Biltong is traditionally made with fresh wild game. In Africa, I tried eland, wildebeest, and kudu and found all of it to be anything but game flavored. Here in the states, you can follow this process with London Broil. If you have access to a large supply of game meat, look to the loins or back straps. Lean is the key and while marbling is great for steak, it doesn’t always work well for biltong.
Fat is a luxury in diets for its high energy/calorie content. However, biltong is all about meat, not fat. Remove any excess fat with your knife as well as most of the sinew. You can leave sinew on one side as it will keep the meat together. The sinew will easily pull from the meat when it is ready.
Beef jerky here in the states is usually cut about ⅛” or ¼” at most. Biltong is considerably thicker. Strips of ¾” or 1” are ideal and you can decide if you want to cut your meat with the grain or against the grain. Cutting against the grain makes the biltong break more easily when you eat it and that’s my preferred method.
Biltong spices are unique and there are pre-made spices you can purchase or you can mix your own with a blend of coriander, black pepper, sugar, salt, and paprika. Of course, you can add in whatever flavors you want to make the spices your own. When Russ demonstrated his biltong operation on a smaller scale, he used a shallow plastic container and placed a thin layer of spices at the bottom. He covered the layer of spices with a layer of meat and then drizzled vinegar on top of it. He added another layer of spices, then meat, vinegar, and spice again. Depending on how much you make and your refrigerator, you’ll need to vary the size of the container.
At this point, your biltong is near ready for hanging. Resist the temptation, cover your container with Saran wrap, and put it in the refrigerator to sit. Return to it 24 hours later.
After 24 hours, it’s time to hang the biltong. Russ had a dedicated hanging rack in a room on his farm with two fans to introduce airflow. That is the key to the whole operation. Biltong air dries and requires the meat to hang freely. The air flow prevents flies from landing on the meat and helps dry out the moisture inside. You can use wire to string through the meat or you can use large paper clips bent to shape. Make sure to hang the biltong in a way to let the air to circulate all around it.
At home, you can make a PVC rack and surround it with cheesecloth. This is the cheaper and more fiscally responsible way for the foodie to get into the biltong game rather than putting an addition on your house or garage. Simple box fans can be placed around your pvc “cage” in this smaller-sized operation.
Biltong should take about 5-7 days to dry. In South Africa, with the dry climate on the Eastern cape, 5 days was the right amount of time but depending on where you are, the humidity, and the temperature, the amount of time will vary. Biltong will develop a thin skin and become firmer. You’ll know it is right when it will bend and not crack. The inside will be firm and have almost no moisture. The reddish color of the meat will look dark maroon in color, almost brown. On your first go around, experiment removing one piece at a time over a given amount of time. An extra 12 hours or 24 hours can make or break the biltong and you’ll learn when it is time to take it off the rack.
When prepared properly, biltong will last for weeks. Larger quantities can be vacuum sealed and frozen. Biltong can be cut with a knife into bite-sized pieces or it can be carried in a large strip and bitten off.
During the first full day of our warthog hunt, my friends Justen, Liam and I ate a lunch of biltong and other bush bites and utilized our Fiddleback knives to slice pieces until we needed to lay down with food coma. Be warned, you can’t just have one piece.
Learning about biltong was just one of the great side lessons I picked up from Russ Field. The experience of the African safari was unlike any other I’ve encountered traveling parts of the world in my lifetime. If you are interested in booking with Russ, please reach out to Primo Adventures, LLC that handles all of the United States reservations. Tell them Kevin sent you and you’ll have a blast and perhaps a bite of biltong when you get there.
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