First things first, WE LOVE BILTONG. In fact we love it SO much we thought it would be handy to create this ultimate guide highlighting everything you need to know about this much loved South African meaty snack. Lekker Bru was set up by Damo, originally from Cape Town he moved to the UK in ‘99.
‘Growing up in Cape Town was magical, but it took my move to the UK to realise just how special South African food and culture really is. From buying fresh fish on the side of the road to slicing up massive slabs of biltong and washing it down with Castle Lager. I feel really passionate about promoting traditional South African food using quality Devon ingredients’ – Damo
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What is Biltong?
Traditional Snack From South Africa
Biltong is traditional dried and cured meat that originated in Southern African countries (South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia). Cured meat is common all over the world, but the thing that makes Biltong especially unique is the special blend of African spices that give its unique taste.
There is a long list of traditional snacks from South Africa from choc bars, biscuites, sweets, Ouma Rusks to Koeksisters. Check out this article on South African Snacks you HAVE to try, if you are planning your first trip to South Africa. However there is only one real winner.
Biltong is the most popular South African snack, it’s an institute a bit like the English Sunday roast. The South African version of the Sunday roast is the ‘Braai’, essentially a BBQ. What’s the most common snack to chow around the Braai? You guessed it, Biltong…washed down with an ice cold Castle Lager (or other drink of your choice). It’s versatile. It’s super tasty and it lasts for ages, but not in our household. But more on that later!
What does Biltong mean?
Bil – tong is an Afrikaans word originating from the Dutch language. It translates as bil meaning “rump/buttock” and tong referring to a “strip/tongue”. Essentially Biltong means dried cured meat strips.
It’s pretty easy to pronounce, but if you’re not sure and want to double check. Have a look at this Google pronunciation tool.
There can be a much deeper meaning, if you ever happen to dream about eating Biltong, then you may want to check out this article on What does dreaming of eating biltong mean? Dreaming about eating biltong reveals that you are hoping to fill up a void. You are missing something or someone.
South African street food
I’m often asked: How would you describe South African cuisine or street food?
Every country has a cuisine that it’s known for, England has Fish and Chips. Simple but unmistakably tasty.
There is Bunny Chow, an amazing Durban curry served in a hollowed out half loaf of bread, or Babootie an incredible Cape Malay fusion between a fruit and savoury curry and meatloaf. Also one of my favourites has to be Potjiekos, meaning “small-pot food”, a classic Cape Dutch stew slow cooked over an open fire. So simple, SO good!
South Africa has a rich and diverse cultural background that has shaped a massively diverse array of food types and styles all influencing each other.
That said, when I’m pushed on this there are always two things that come up. Biltong and Boerewors are not only my most favourite South African foods but ask ANY Soufa and 9 times out of 10 they will say the same. I’d actually take it a step further, there is one common ingredient found in both that forms the backbone of this classic taste of Africa. The humble coriander seed. This little chap packs a big earthy flavour that’s ever so slightly tart, and sweet with a subtle floral aroma that’s incredible when toasted, more on this later as well!
Biltong taste and flavours
There are two key steps to making biltong – curing and flavouring. I will get into this more later, but the important thing to note here is that curing the meat makes it safe to eat uncooked but it’s the flavouring that makes it delicious and has you reaching for more.
When it comes to flavour, biltong packs a BIG punch! The two key ingredients that create the classic African taste of biltong are meat and coriander seeds. YES, there are other important ingredients. But even with these two key ingredients, there are thousands of subtle flavour combinations.
Poor tasting biltong is usually too salty, acidic or even sweet. A good tasting Biltong should be well balanced with it’s spices and acidity, never too sweet and have that clear punch of roasted coriander seeds cutting though.
Who eats biltong in the UK and is it safe to eat?
In short, YES. Biltong is 100% safe to eat as long as it’s prepared in a safe and hygienic environment. Biltong has gained huge popularity here in the UK, I remember my English wife sticking her nose up to it when we were stranded at an airport on Honeymoon, now I have to hide it from her!
All raw meat may contain harmful bacteria that can has potential to cause food poisoning. The good news is that curing meat is an age-old process that kills all the harmful bacteria and preserves the meat in certain conditions. The potassium nitrate kills Clostridium botulinum, the deadly bacterium that causes botulism, while the acidity of the vinegar inhibits its growth. According to the World Health Organization
Meat preservation has a long history and forms the backbone of how biltong came about as South Africa’s much-loved meat snack.
For more info check out:
The History of Biltong
I’m not going to hit you with a big history lesson here, but when you look at the 17th century as a snapshot you see that this was the start of early modernisation. The travel bug was hitting most of Europe causing fierce competition to explore and find new lands(a bit like the space race).
This was mostly centered around the spice trade. In fact it was the Dutch leading the way, a chap by the name of Jan van Riebeeck discovered Cape Town in 1762. As part of the VOC they successfully managed to bypass many of the problems by pioneering a direct ocean route from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sunda Strait in Indonesia.
From storm clouds to a rainbow nation
The Dutch East India Company decided to establish a colony in the Cape of Good Hope. The wagon-travelling Voortrekkers spread out from the Cape Colony reaping havoc and tribal wars with the local African Khoikhoi tribes. Soon afterwards, Dutch farmers known as Boers (Dutch for farmer) began to settle and became the forefathers of the South African Afrikaner. There is a very close tie between Afrikaans and Dutch culture.
Fast forward to 1931, South Africa became an independent nation. A few years later (1948), the South African government caused a major divide. At the time representing only a small proportion of the population (white people), erected a strict racial segregation and called it apartheid (separateness). This caused years of international unrest and oppression against non white people. History can’t be undone, but the late-great Nelson Mandela dedicated his lift to uniting the country and healing relationships. Find out more detail about Netherlands–South Africa relations.
What do South Africans think of the Dutch, and why?
Today, more than 70 years on, there is a new South Africa. Rainbow Nation is a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu to describe post-apartheid South Africa, after South Africa’s first fully democratic election in 1994.
Although I’m sad about our past, I’m proud of my birth Country and how South Africa has evolved. Like any country it’s by no means perfect, but there is a rich cross pollination of cultures. African, English, Dutch and mixed cultures all influencing what South Africa is today.
So, in answering the question ‘What do South Africans think of the Dutch, and why?’ I can only answer for myself by saying ‘I love the dutch!’ Not for what they did in the past, but for the positive cultural influences they have had on South Africa…especially Biltong!
Who discovered Biltong?
The Dutch disrupted the age old spice industry, successfully opening up the spice market to be more widely available at a cheaper price. In doing so they would need to undergo long and dangerous sea voyages with many challenges, one of them was food preservation.
Meat preservation is a 17th century survival technique used by our European seafaring friends who found a way of preserving meat in salt or brine, no fancy spice mixes at this stage. There is no single person credited with the ‘invention of biltong’, it certainly wasn’t Jan van Riebeeck.
Although the Dutch European settlers are credited with discovering Biltong, they can’t take all the credit.
Ancient cultures preserving meat, the facts
The ancient Egyptians with their love of all types of exotic meats were the first to preserve meat as early as 12,000 B.C. This was done in a variety of ways including: drying, salting (dry and wet), smoking, using fat. Even beer and honey were used for curing. Preserving meat provided a supply of protein for leaner times. The astonishing fact about food preservation is that it permeated every culture and it has evolved and become more refined over time. Find out more about Historical Origins of Food Preservation.
When it comes to Biltong, the European settlers are credited with its invention. But not as we know it today. The natural assumption is that with their newly discovered spice routes they would’ve been the first to use pepper, coriander seeds and other exotic spices to fully flavour the Biltong we know and love today. But this is not the proven case. It is widely thought that adding coriander and other more ‘exotic’ spice mixes came later.
The African Hottentots and Bushmen would have also dried meat, but it was probably not salted as they didn’t have access to this. Their diet mostly consisted of mostly berries, nuts and roots. Only around 20-30% was wild game (mostly antelopes), hunted by the men using poisoned arrows and spears on hunts lasting several days.
Game hunting has always been commonplace in Southern Africa, these days it’s more sensitive due to poaching. But there was a time 20-30 years ago where African game biltong was commonplace and beef biltong was not.
Find out more about the different types of game biltong in the UK:
How has biltong evolved
The early settlers may have used some spices with salt, but it certainly was not like the biltong we know and love today. It was more of a basic ‘survival’ food back in the day. I grew up in South Africa in the 70’s, and when speaking to my South African grandparents they reflected an interesting fact. In their younger years biltong was mostly preserved just with salt, maybe some pepper, but not the same spices used today.
Even as late as the 50’s and 60’s, spices for biltong, droewors and boerewors were no way nearly as sophisticated as today. In the rural areas far and wide salt and pepper were the only preservatives in biltong and boerewors. Gradually during the 1960s spices such as coriander were beginning to be used in biltong, and others like cloves and nutmeg were added to boerewors together with coriander, pepper and salt.
For more info check out:
The Key facts
So, we have covered the origins and history of biltong but there are a few important key facts that I want to delve into before we get into how you can make your own biltong.
No, although beef is the most common meat used. There is a wide variety of meats that you can use. Growing up in South Africa it was more common for us to use wild game like wildebeest, kudu, springbok and fish/shark (also known as bokkoms).
Some other popular meats used to make biltong include venison, ostrich, chicken, pheasant and partridge. Check out our birdtong range.
Check out this blog to
Find out what is the best beef for biltong.
Most cured meats (including salami) are not cooked; they are cured. This does not make them raw or unsafe to eat. The age old process of making biltong preserves the meat from rotting and the drying process is almost like a form of slow cooking.
Check out this blog
Is biltong healthy? 8 Interesting health benefits of biltong.
Most fresh Biltong is best enjoyed within 7-14 days. In the right conditions it can last a number of weeks after this but you’ll lose a lot of flavour and mold could also set in. Some larger manufacturers use preservatives to increase the shelf life, independent producers like us tend to keep it natural. We vacpac our Biltong with a shelf life of 6 months.
Biltong has and still is gaining huge popularity here in the UK, when I moved here in ‘99 virtually no one had heard of it. A simple google search will show you how widely it’s available. You can get it at most supermarkets and even quite a few pubs and deli’s.
TOP TIP: I’d encourage you to buy from independent producers over supermarkets, in a similar way to going to an independent wine merchant. You’re going to get a higher quality product, more bang for your buck!
Yes. Salt is an essential part of the preservation process and prevents the meat from rotting, it also helps flavour your biltong. Vinegar is another important part of the curing process, more on this in the next section.
Make sure you use coarse salt, DO NOT use fine table salt it will suck your meat dry like a blood thirsty vampire 🧛
Biltong and Jerky are similar in only ONE keyway. They are both dried meats. The production process is totally different giving them very different tastes. Biltong originates from South Africa and Jerky originates from North and South America.
Beef Jerky is sliced before it’s dried, making it very dry and is usually quite sweet. Biltong is cured and dried in larger slabs of meat, meaning it usually has more moisture (although it came also as dry as Jerky). A good Biltong also has more of a savoury taste.
Check out our blog
Biltong Vs Jerky. How do they compare?
People often wonder why Biltong is expensive, the main reason is that you need 2Kg of meat to produce 1Kg of Biltong. This is because during the drying process the meat loses at least half of its moisture content. Naturally, other factors such as quality and cut of meat also have some influence on this. We use organic Devon Red Ruby Beef, which isn’t cheap but it’s bloody tasty!
Speaking as a ‘stereotypical’ South African man, I’m going to have to say with a tinnie of Castle Lager standing ‘round the braai’. Yes, there are more sophisticated ways to enjoy biltong. As with most charcuterie boards, Biltong works amazingly well with olives, crisps, fruit, nuts and especially with a meat and cheese board!
Yes, they are especially good if you want to try making your own biltong for the first time. Some kits are more expensive than others but they all mostly include a spice mix, you need three key elements to make biltong:
- A good spice mix
- A box dryer or dehydrator
- A biltong cutter, meat slicer…or a BIG sharp knife
How to make Biltong from scratch
I’ve spent most of my life enjoying Biltong and spent the last 6 years experimenting with different recipes and ingredients. In a similar way to wine making, with just a few good quality ingredients you can achieve 1000s of variable flavours.
Essentially there are three key groups of ingredients you will need to make biltong:
This is what you're going to need:
1: Beef Silverside or Topside, cut into 1.5cm - 2cm steak slices
2: Game meat, try venison, goat of pheasant
This is what you're going to need:
1: black pepper, coarsely ground
2: course Cornish sea salt
(DO NOT USE cheap fine salt)
3: coriander seeds, roasted and coarsely ground
This is what you're going to need:
1: Worcestershire sauce
2: Red wine vinegar
3: bicarbonate of soda (optional to help tenderise cheaper cuts of meat)
The instructions you need to follow for bitong is pretty universal and straightforward, but like anything there are a bunch of variations on ease and flavour.
Honestly, the best thing is for you to try a bunch of recipes and even experiment with adding your own twist. We’ve added a bunch of related articles that you may find useful.
Here are three of our favourite recipes to try:
Nutrition, health and storage tips
Is biltong good for you?
Yes, but like most things it’s best in moderation. Biltong is high in protein and low in carbohydrates making it a popular choice for muscle building and gym going fitness fanatics. It’s got loads of Vitamin B12, naturally low in fat and is usually gluten free. Although most commercial spice mixes tend to have traces of gluten.
Is biltong best with or without fat?
Some people like it very lean, others prefer biltong with loads of fat. A key thing to remember here is that beef fat is full of flavour and is especially good at soaking up those amazing spice flavours.
Kosher and Halal biltong
“Kosher” is a term used to describe foods that comply with dietary guidelines set by traditional Jewish law. These laws determine which foods may be consumed and how they must be produced, processed, and prepared. “Halal meat” is a term that refers to meat that is allowed for consumption in the religion of Islam.
We are delighted to see a growing number of butchers and biltong suppliers now offering these .
Top tips for storing biltong
Fresh biltong is usually at its very best within 5 days of opening or making. How long will your biltong keep really depends on how you store it. A large unsliced slab of biltong will keep the moisture locked in and will typically last longer than sliced which will have more area exposed to lose moisture.
Never store Biltong in plastic, the moisture will be trapped and make it moldy. For short term storage (5-10 days) a paper bag in the fridge is best and for longer terms you can also vacpac for 6-12 months if stored in cool dark conditions. Biltong can be frozen, but it changes the texture and we wouldn’t recommend it.
We often get asked what happens if you get mold on your beef biltong, is it harmful? As long as you catch it early enough you can use a clean cloth dipped in vinegar to wipe off the first instances of moulds. However if the mould has excessively covered the meat you’ll be safer to bin it, ag shame.
Check out our 5 top tips:
Pregnancy, breastfeeding and babies
Biltong is a rich source of protein that is great for developing strong and healthy muscles during pregnancy and breastfeeding. If you are pregnant or breastfeeding you can consume biltong in moderation, BUT you need to consider these important points:
- Avoid biltong that is very moist
- Raw meat is at risk of carrying bacteria or Listeria
- If in doubt consult your local GP for advice
Is Biltong safe for teething babies?
Yes, it can work really well because it is chewy and tasty. But again a note of caution:
- It can be a choking hazard for young babies, so best for babies over 6 months
- Make sure the biltong is not too moist
- Make sure the biltong is not too spicy
You may also find these blogs interesting.
Hopefully we’ve already covered some key facts and questions in this article, but here are a few other frequently asked questions.
Is it worthwhile getting a home biltong maker?
Can you make beef biltong without salt and vinegar?
Can biltong give you gout?
Why is my Biltong too salty and too dry?
Does biltong have sugar?
Is biltong better than jerky?
Is biltong always made from Beef?
Can you use it in cooking?
Recipes that use biltong
There are loads of different ways you can eat and enjoy biltong. By default it makes a great snack and a healthier alternative to crisps and chocolates, but it can also be a really great protein ingredient and if stored correctly can last 6-12 months in your larder.
Here is a list are a few of our favorite recipes that use biltong:
- Biltong sandwich BLT: Switch out your bacon for biltong, add your lettuce and tomato. Perhaps a cheeky chunk of extra mature cheddar cheese. YUM!
- Biltong baked potato: This makes a delicious alternative to the ham, cheese and coleslaw filling. Just swap out the ham for biltong to set your taste buds free!
- Biltong salad: If you like your salad (i know i do) then you NEED to try this mega tasty
- Biltong pizza: We often make our own pizza, biltong works REALLY well with sundried tomatoes and also makes an excellent alternative to the hawaiian pizza, just swap out the ham for biltong. We call it the safari pizza.
- Biltong stew: I do love a good hearty stew, but I don’t always have fresh meat in the fridge. I always have Biltong in my larder, so I decided to try swapping out the fresh diced beef for beef biltong. The results were just stunning, you need to try this!
- Biltong quiche: Summer pikniks are never quite complete without a bit of quiche, right? I’ve only just recently discovered this and it’s rocked my world ever since, check out this kiff recipe for biltong quiche.
- Biltong cheesecake: If you’re thinking these recipes are getting weirder, your right! I LOVE cheesecake, but with Biltong??🤯 This is a savory recipe and is closer to a quiche.
Ground biltong powder is growing in popularity as a really versatile protein ingredient. It’s a fantastic ingredient, perfect for sandwiches, salads and various cooking and baking recipes. Being so finely grated, it also added heaps of flavour to stews, soups and you NEED to try with a cheese toasties. It’s off the chart tasty!
So hopefully, this has sparked a few ideas for you to go explore in the kitchen. Please also let us know if you discover some kind of new biltong culinary wonder to try and share with our Lekker Bru friends.
Check out our favourite ways to use biltong powder:
Closing & Resources
That’s it. If you read this from start to finish, thanks. You are now officially a BILTONG NERD like us.
Welcome to the club!
This ultimate guide is an ongoing work in progress, I would like it to evolve and grow it over time. With this in mind if you have any questions, comments or specific feedback please leave a comment or drop us a line. We can only improve this resource with your help : )
Lekker Bru has a growing range of products from beef biltong and wild birdtong to gift packs and hampers.
As a thank-you for reading this article I’d like to offer you 10% off any of our products today.
Use promo code: UBG10
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