I love South African food, a real melting pot of European, Indian and indigenous cuisines and like us Kiwis they really know how to put together a good barbecue (braai). Let’s be honest if you need something to have before your barbecued meat, it’s more meat! A key appetiser to any braai and perfect partner for beer is the preserved meat known as biltong. Different to the American style jerky that is common, biltong is not as sweet, more salty and is only lightly spiced bringing out the flavour of the meat better. It usually comes in a range of moisture levels and fat contents and flavours usually only go as exotic as ‘traditional’, ‘chilli’ or ‘garlic’. Biltong can get pretty expensive as the main ingredient is steak and it’s then halved in weight by the drying process so I thought why not have a go at making it myself? The key steps are marinating, curing and drying (then eating of course!) and the whole point of the exercise is to preserve the meat so will last for a long time on the pantry or in the bush or if you are a nomad wandering the desert. I don’t anticipate it will last long once I get stuck into it.
It all starts with the meat selection. Theoretically you could use any old piece of meat even some road kill if you so desired but I like my raw materials to be as free from disease as possible. I’ve heard of jerky being made from chicken / pork but it can be a little difficult and would rather not tempt the food poisoning beast and stick to red meat for now. Beef was the choice on the day… now for the cut. Cheaper meats might be ok if you like eating a piece of old boot leather when you finish but I opted for sirloin, nice and tender and easy to trim to the fat content I want, a bit more pricey so waited till there was a good special on at the local butchery so I didn’t have to empty my bank account.
I got really excited about this project especially after buying the ingredients so decided to kick things off at 10:30 at night… who needs sleep when meat glory awaits.
I took the large piece of cow’s back muscle and trimmed most of the fat off, leaving only a very thin strip. In hindsight I should take this off as well as there was a sinewy piece under that which is very chewy once dried. The advantage of getting the whole sirloin is I could then cut to the thickness I like ~2cm which when cured gives you a reasonable surface area to volume ratio for your seasoning to contact. The disadvantage of getting the whole sirloin as opposed to pre-cut steaks is that there was a fair bit of waste when I trimmed off the fat and fatty meat on the edge (diced up and froze for future gravy / stews).
Once I had cut up the meat into thick steaks, I prepared the seasonings. Coriander seed was lightly toasted in the frypan and coarsely ground in the motar & pestle with black pepper and added to paprika, chilli and garlic powder. Marinade was made with vinegar and Worcestershire sauce and threw in a few spoons of the spice mix to get the flavour infusion started.
The steaks were stacked in a container and coated with the marinade mixture. Mix around for a bit and then chuck it in the fridge for an hour. We want to refrigerate at these early stages to inhibit the growth of any unwanted bacteria and the marinating will add flavour, tenderise the meat and kill off any surface bacteria due to the rise in acid.
Next day the trays of meat are removed from the fridge and as you can see the salt has really sucked heaps of moisture out.
If we dried these as is, they would be ridiculously-face-destroying-salty so the next step is to rinse off each steak under running water, shake dry and place into container for further flavouring. The meat will be all rigid and greyish looking which is fair enough considering we have sucked all of the life out of it with that curing mixture. Recoat the steaks with the marinade, I added in some Mrs. Balls Chutney (another south African masterpiece) to give my biltong that ‘je ne sais quoi’. Marinate the meat for another hour or so before squeezing the meat of as much marinade as possible, coat in the spice mixture and hook the steaks for drying.
Drying, the final hurdle in the preservation of biltong. To dry the steaks, I used a borrowed dryer – a homemade vented wooden box, a halogen lamp (to provide gentle warmth) and some computer fans. I’ve read you can dry it faster in the oven at higher temperature but biltong aficionados say that you will compromise flavour. So the meat was all hooked and hung in the dryer making me feel like a bit of a killer especially seeing as it was not at my house and had to travel to a secret location (to avoid the thieving of biltong). All set up, the dryer was turned on and left for 4 days, don’t be concerned about power cost, it is such a gentle drying process it only draws about $1 worth a day.
Four days of eager waiting, I had not been out to the drop site to check on my babies. Hopefully four days was enough drying for the amount of meat I had loaded. Upon opening the dryer door it was declared a success. The meat darkened, stiff and dry, losing its flexibility and going slightly brittle at the ends. I had calculated the start weight of the fresh meat and finished dried weight and had a yield of 56%, so you can see why it is so expensive.
When cut, the biltong is still a little flexible with a salty, spicy, sweetness. I can now start the consumption or slice and use as currency for barter.
I thought I would bring some to work for Friday drinks, surely 2 steaks would be enough… it lasted 5 minutes and the locusts wanted more. Maybe I’ll bring some next Friday if they’re lucky. Hmm do I need anything from anybody?
Recipe, adjust quantities to the amount of meat you have:
Meat 3 kg
Malt Vinegar 300 ml
Worcestershire Sauce 75 ml
Salt 750 g
Brown Sugar 225 g
Baking Soda 1.5 tsp
Coriander Seeds 5 T
Black Peppercorns 2 T
Garlic Powder ½ T
Smoked Paprika ½ T
Chilli Powder ½ T
Mrs Ball’s Hot Chutney A couple of gloops