Biltong is a cured meat from South Africa that makes for one of the best snacks you can add to your diet – if you can find it anywhere. Biltong sort of looks like beef jerky and it sort of tastes like beef jerky, but that's where the similarities end. Biltong and beef jerky are different in many ways. If you haven't tried it, grab a bag and give it a whirl. It's a unique experience and a tasty way to have a healthy and nutritious snack.
What Kind of Meat is Biltong?
Today, virtually all of the biltong you'll buy in the store is made from beef. Like beef jerky, you'll find free-range, grass-fed, and organic varieties. What you won't typically find is a wide range of flavors. That's because biltong uses spices for antimicrobial effect less than for flavor, whereas beef jerky spices are for flavor.
Traditionally, biltong was made from native South African game animals and you may still find varieties made from springbok, antelope, or kudu. Ostrich is another popular meat for biltong that has a bright red color.
History of Biltong
The exact origin of biltong is lost to time, but when Dutch and French settlers arrived in South Africa in the 1600's, biltong was a common food snack. Biltong typically used brown vinegar and local spices to cure the meat which was air dried during the cold, breezy winter months. European settlers carried biltong north and east with them as they colonized Africa. Today, biltong can be found in most parts of the world.
Cuts of Meat Used for Biltong
Biltong is made from fattier cuts than jerky. When you make jerky, you are trying to remove as much fat as possible to prevent the meat from spoiling. The process of making biltong is different from jerky and allows the fat to be preserved along with the meat. The result is a lighter, fluffier product that is more crumbly and easier to chew than traditional jerky.
Beef Jerky vs Biltong
When beef jerky is being made, the meat is first sliced into thin strips. It's usually flavored with salt and sugar along with other flavors to add savoriness, spiciness, or smokiness. The thinly sliced strips are then dried in an oven in a process that can take from four to 12 hours.
Biltong is made from one-inch thick sliced cuts of beef. Salt is also used, but is combined with vinegar, an ingredient you won't find on that package of jerky. Traditional biltong curing process uses grape vinegar, but modern biltong makers will also use cider vinegar. Other traditional spices used are coriander and black pepper. Saltpeter is often rubbed into the surface to add nitrates for preservation.
The thick slices of biltong are traditionally hung and air dried in cold weather. The drying process takes about two weeks. Coriander and black pepper used in the drying process have been shown to kill or inhibit the growth of certain, common molds and bacteria. Vinegar is an acid that prevents the bacteria that causes botulism from forming. The air dry process is what gives the meat it's unique texture that is unlike other dried meats.
Many modern producers of biltong have started to use a heat production process to quickly dry the meat, lowering costs, but also lowering the authenticity of the product.
What is the Difference Between Biltong and Beef Jerky
The main difference between biltong and jerky comes down to the texture and ingredients. Many commercial jerky products use lots of chemical preservatives and artificial flavors to make the unique flavors you'll find. Biltong will have fewer ingredients and a more narrow range of flavors.
Does Biltong Taste Like Jerky?
The texture of jerky tends to be tough, dry, and chewy whereas biltong is more tender, crumbly, and soft. The taste of jerky is smoky and steak like, while biltong has a slightly acidic taste from the vinegar and spices. Biltong has a meaty taste and a softer, more delicate texture than beef jerky. If that texture is what you're looking for, but you're not sold on the idea of biltong (or don't know where to find it) our beef jerky bites might fit the bill.
Is Biltong Healthier than Jerky?
One of the reasons biltong is growing in popularity is the high nutritional value it offers. Comparing the average 28-gram serving of jerky and biltong reveals some interesting facts. These numbers come from HealthLine.com and indicate that biltong is a healthier choice.
- Calories Biltong vs Jerky: Biltong has far fewer calories than beef jerky. Averages are 80 calories for biltong to 116 for jerky.
- Protein: Both jerky and biltong are high protein snacks. Biltong often has a higher percentage of protein than jerky. Biltong comes in at 16 grams to 9.4 grams for jerky.
- Fat: Some biltong may be higher in fat than jerky, but on average, you'll find two grams of fat in a 28-gram serving of biltong to around 7.3 grams in jerky.
- Sodium: Both jerky and biltong are often high in sodium. Biltong averages around 440 milligrams to around 560 milligrams for jerky.
- Iron: Iron is an important dietary nutrient that red meat is known to provide. Biltong contains 35% of your daily need while jerky offers only 8%.
Can You Make Biltong at Home?
Making biltong at home is a tradition in many South African families and something that is done as a family every winter. The key to making biltong at home is being able to replicate the correct conditions. Too high of temperatures, too much humidity, or numerous other errors can result in the meat spoiling and you'll have to throw it out. Make sure that the entire process from cutting and seasoning to hanging and drying is done in a clean environment.
Cut strips of beef about one inch thick. Cut with the grain. Mix vinegar, salt, pepper, and coriander and immerse the cuts of beef in the marinade for 24 hours at 40 to 50 degrees F. Allow to drip-dry after soaking.
Hang individual pieces of meat on a sturdy wire so that the pieces do not touch. The temperature must remain between 40 and 50 degrees and relative humidity should not exceed 50%. You can eat the biltong after about four days, but for the proper dryness, it should be left for 14 days. Partially-dried biltong can be frozen. Fully dried, it will last in a cool, dark, dry place for a shelf life of about one year.
Some recipes call for adding sugar, but that is not a traditional way of making biltong. Sugar wasn't introduced to South Africa until 1848, at which point biltong was already several hundred years old. Commercial methods of making biltong have begun adding ingredients like sugar to appeal to Western palates more accustom to sweet dried meat like jerky.
Biltong – Nutritious and Protein Packed
Traditional biltong is a real treat and an authentic way to experience the unique flavors of South Africa. Biltong may not be the easiest snack to find in the stores, but you'll find high-quality biltong available online. One of our favorites is Billo's. It's made in South Carolina and meets all USDA requirements that prevent biltong from being imported.
If you've got the ability to keep an area good and cool, making biltong at home is a fun experience that's a great way to get the kids involved in making their own snacks.
If you're just looking for a softer alternative to jerky, our Bearded Butcher beef sticks or summer sausage will do the trick.
The high protein content and low fat of biltong make it a natural healthy choice that packs flavor into a snack with less sugar and salt than regular jerky. The next time you are thinking of having a nutritious, protein packed snack, remember biltong!