What Is Biltong?

Posted on 11 Jun 2014 15:50

Biltong is a South African dried, salted meat product similar to beef jerky.

The word biltong comes from the Dutch word bil, meaning "round" or "buttock," and tong, meaning "tongue."

This signifies the back or thigh portion and means literally buttock-tongue because it is a strip of meat from the back of the thigh. It can also be made from other cuts, including the loin or tenderloin.

Large cuts low in connective tissue are preferred, but any portion might be used. Biltong might also be made from game meats like antelope, or even elephant or ostrich. It is not made from lamb, pork, or poultry.

Although biltong has been a favorite South African and Zimbabwean food for around 400 years, it is not exactly a South African invention. It was brought by the Dutch to South Africa, who made a product called tassal, which was also made in parts of France during the Middle Ages.

Traditional seasonings for biltong, other than salt, are vinegar, coriander, pepper, and sometimes brown sugar. Aniseed, fennel seeds, allspice, and garlic might also be used. Saltpeter is also added to promote a red color, and sodium bicarbonate is used to help make the meat more tender and help prevent spoilage. However, personal recipes may vary greatly.


Biltong from shop in Johannesburg, South Africa
Image by Sebastian von Kracht via wikimedia


Biltong from shop in Johannesburg, South Africa
Image by Sebastian von Kracht via wikimedia

In making biltong, large pieces of meat, such as a rump roast, are sliced along the grain into strips, resembling tongues, 5-7 cm thick. The salt, seasoning, and other ingredients are mixed together and rubbed into the stips of meat, which is stored in a wooden, earthenware, enamel, or plastic container. The meat strips are placed in layers in the container and some vinegar is sprinkled over each layer. Then, the container is kept in a cool place for anywhere from two hours to one or two days, depending on personal preference. The longer the biltong is left to cure, the saltier it will be. Sometimes, a liquid brine is used to cure the biltong, but a dry-salt cure, as described here, is the usual. With the addition of the vinegar, it can be thought of more as a pickling process. After the meat is cured, it is traditional to dip the strips into a mixture of vinegar and warm water. This washes off the salt, helps further preserve the meat for the final drying time, and gives the meat a shiny, dark color. After the vinegar and water dipping, the meat is patted dry and hung on hooks in a cool place with good air circulation, and allowed to dry for 2 or 3 weeks.

Tassal, the precursor to biltong, got its name from the Portugese tassalho, which means dried or preserved meat, and tassajo is still made in the Carribean. This method was a quick and dirty "camp method" of drying and perserving meat and made a chewier product than biltong. Settlers would take strips of meat, sprinkle them with salt, pepper, coriander, and vingegar. Teh meat would be hung to dry for a day, and then later pan fried over coals. It should be noted that biltong is not always dried to the same degree. Some people prefer to only partially dry their biltong and keep it a little more moist. As well, the weather may dictate just how dry it needs to be, and also how long it is intended to be stored. More humid weather requires dryer biltong, to stave off mold.

Biltong was originally a food for pioneers into South Africa during the 1700's and for soldiers, as during the Second Anglo-Boer War in the late 1800's, when soldiers relied on it as a primary protein source. Game meat during those days was scarce and, as well, native peoples would not have slaughtered cattle for the purpose of consumption, although if cattle died, it would have been dried for preservation. And of course the San1, original to South Africa, and later Bantu speaking peoples would have had methods of drying game meat. Later, biltong became something the farmers who owned cattle made. It has now become a snack commodity and is being manufactured in other countries, including the UK, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand. You can purchase biltong from several makers online.

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