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Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Lion Taming Biltong

This post is in response to the slight confusion that I created by presenting an image of our kitten, Mr Leggings, going bananas over the delicious aroma emanating from my second crop of Biltong (sort of similar to jerky) that was happily maturing next to my viewing of Django Unchained.


I have added a photo of the contents (which REALLY got Leggings interested!) to dispel any rumours that I am building miniature soccer tables for gambling purposes. I decided to design and build a heated air dryer from found or cheap objects and see if I could make a little spare cash from authentic South African Pioneer dried meat. The first batch was so successful that I gobbled it up in a day. I have subsequently made a deal with a German Artist to trade my biltong (to the delight of her Jewish South African strugglite husband) for her home made cottage cheese and cold smoked Pork. This does however come with a certain challenge as I have to transport the biltong on a small Indian motorcycle  along a very bad road through lion country in order to make the trade. I am comforted by the idea that should I find a big cat in my path, I will simply throw it a morsel of my fabulous biltong and divert the threat. As for the return journey with cottage cheese.......


Some readers may have an appetite for tasty cured red meat, but fear the dreaded "Red Meat Kills!"

I tend towards favouring the current evidence for a low carb/high protein paleolithic type diet as having wide health benefits.

On the contrary, a very recent study (see Ref.(1)) indicates that vegetarians are 32 per cent less likely to suffer from heart disease-related issues than non-vegetarians. This was an depth look at over 44000 people for 11 and a half years. However, as it is epidemiological in nature the normal questions can be asked about whether the links are causative or correlative. In other words, do vegetarians do other things that improve their heart risk, like simply eating more veggies and exercising more?
Also, two other recent studies by the same Oxford based researchers conclude that vegetarians do not have reduced overall mortality compared to non-vegetarians [2,3]. One of these studies [3] looked at death from heart disease specifically (as well as overall risk of death), and found it was not lower in vegetarians either.
Thus, you can more or less fit any health theory to eating Biltong that you desire. Just don't go overboard, exercise a lot and never eat it when it is green!

There is good reason to be careful about any food and meat that is chemically processed, so I prefer to use a simple curing or drying method applied to meat from grass fed animals (if possible) just to be on the safer side.
Either way, the amount of meat in your average biltong snack is probably sufficient to provide the benefits of protein at a volume that is unlikely to cause any harm and, if you like red meat, the concentrated taste sensation will rapidly overcome any lingering doubts.


People from the Americas will know Jerky, which has similar roots to biltong but is made differently.

Biltong is believed to have originated with early Dutch settlers in South Africa, but dried and cured meats may already have been prepared by native Africans. Similarly, jerky was common in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans, but was adapted and popularised amongst settlers in the early days of European settlement. Dried, preserved meat is probably one of the oldest forms of human cookery, and was an ideal method for early settlers and explorers. On their respective continents, both jerky and biltong have remained popular with modern day populations.

Both meat products are different in appearance. Jerky is cut with the grain of the meat and the meat used in biltong can be much thicker; typically biltong meat being cut in strips approx 1" (25 mm) wide - but can be thicker. Jerky is normally very thin meat.

Biltong is salted and then marinated or brushed in vinegar. Herbs and spices are added during this process and vary according to manufacturers recipe. The vinegar and salt in biltong, together with the drying process, cures the meat as well as adding texture and flavour. Jerky is traditionally dried with salt but without vinegar.

With biltong being thicker than jerky and often eaten when still slightly damp, it has a distinctive flavour that is richer and more savoury than jerky. The curing process also adds texture to the meat, creating a more satisfying snack in many peoples' eyes, although both dishes are highly nutritious and a healthy alternative to other processed snacks.


There are many recipes for biltong. This is the simplest and most traditional (4)

You can add a little saltpeter, which is the main component of gunpowder. Use it if you are intending to take a long wagon trip across the country and need to preserve your biltong.

Ingredients needed:

Beef (Preferably Silverside/London Broil)
Rock Salt
Coarse Ground Black Pepper
Coarse Ground Coriander
Vinegar (preferably Apple-Cider vinegar)
First, be sure to sterilize all your hooks, knives, and working surfaces by washing well in hot water and soap.

Get some half-inch thick strips of beef (silverside - called London Broil in the US). Make sure it's cut with the grain. The pieces should be about 6 inches long. Liberally sprinkle rock-salt on each side of the pieces of meat and let them stand for an hour. The longer you let it stand the saltier it will become.

After the hour, scrape off all the excess salt with a knife (don't soak it in water!). Then get some vinegar - preferably apple-cider vinegar, but any vinegar will do. Put some vinegar in a bowl and basting brush (do not dip) the strips of meat with the vinegar - just so that the meat is covered in the vinegar. Hold the biltong up so that the excess vinegar drips off.

Then sprinkle ground pepper and ground coriander over the meat on all sides.

Part of the secret of delicious biltong is to use a good quality genuine vinegar. The cheaper substitutes work but just don't give that tasty edge. I use an imported Apple Cider or light Garlic vinegar.
Start with the basic spices and then experiment with your own. You can add flavours like Worcestershire sauce, BBQ sauce, tabasco sauce, soy sauce, etc.. Just brush these sauces on after applying the vinegar using a basting brush.
I record my mixes both on paper and in a mix bottle so as to build up a personal recipe portfolio.


Your meat is now ready to dry. On my family farm there was always a biltong drying box in a cool outroom covered in wire mesh to keep the flies out. This works well in a dry climate. However, if you are in a wet or humid country you will need to dry and heat the air around the meat.   You can use a home-made 'Biltong Box, which, in my case is a cardboard box from the local grocery store. Add holes to it and a 60w incandescent lightbulb inside. The box is closed on all sides and the bulb is fitted at the bottom of the box below an additional cardboard layer with holes drilled to allow warm, dry air to rise up and dry the meat. This layer also catches any drippings. A few holes at the bottom and top of the box facilitate air flow. Cross bars and hooks at the top of the box allow the meat to be hung at the top of the box. The heat from the lightbulb helps dry the meat (even in humid weather) in about 3-4 days.
I set about finding cheap components for my box. The hanging bars I made from cheapy ($1.50) 12" chrome screwdrivers and the meat hooks from straightened out keyrings.
I had fun at the local Kenyan hardware store when asking for metal rods and hooks. We don't have those, the assistant said. yes, you do, said I, holding the screwdriver and keyring.

This process takes about 3 days, depending on how dry you want your meat. If you intend to keep it for a while then make it dry all the way through, but it can be especially tasty if there is a soft flavoury centre for more immediate snacking.

Once you have mastered the art of drying meat, try other things like bananas, mangos, kale, etc.


I bought the best Silverside Beef from Gilanis,  the best butcher in Nairobi. The entire staff wears pin strip suits and there is no scent of meat in their shop....amazing!
A kilo of prime meat cut into 1 inch thick strips along the grain costs about R65 or $8 US. Add the cost of good quality vinegar, rock salt (cheap) and whole black pepper and coriander and your cost per 6 inch slice of biltong is about $1.25. 


1. Crowe FL, et al. Risk of hospitalization or death from ischemic heart disease among British vegetarians and nonvegetarians: results from the EPIC-Oxford cohort study. Am J Clin Nutr epub 30 January 2013

2. Key TJA, et al. Dietary habits and mortality in 11000 vegetarians and health conscious people: results of a 17 year follow up. Br Med J 1996;313:775-9

3. Key TJ, et al. Mortality in British vegetarians: results from the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC-Oxford). Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1613S-1619S