What Is Biltong? All You Need to Know About the Latest Healthy Snack

What Is Biltong? All You Need to Know About the Latest Healthy Snack

Have you heard of biltong? If not, you're in luck — you have a lot of savory snacking in store.

Biltong is basically a dried meat. It can be beef, poultry, fish, or game meats, as long as it’s appropriately flavored, air-dried, and rendered absolutely delicious.

When asked to describe biltong, people tend to offer tasty parallels, like “think of your favorite cured meat but denser and richer. That's biltong.”

Mouthwatering, yes. But before you take your first bite of biltong, read on to get a better idea about this beloved snack.

The History of Biltong

Biltong has actually been around for centuries with its roots tracing back to South Africa. In a time before refrigerators and freezers, indigenous people needed a way to preserve extra meat for future meals. To do this, they used the basic resources at hand — knives to cut the meat, salt to flavor and preserve, and tree branches to hang the meat until it was dry.

The 17th century European settlers who arrived later saw the benefits of having a stock supply of food. They quickly adopted this method, adding their own ingredients of vinegar and saltpeter (potassium nitrate) to the meat-curing mix.

Then, in the 19th century, came the Dutch. In a mass migration known as the Great Trek, thousands of Dutch farmers (called Voortrekkers) hitched their wagons to avoid British rule in Cape Colony and moved into the inland of Southern Africa.

For this long journey, they needed food — something portable, something non-perishable, and something with sustenance. Biltong was their perfect solution.

They toted the preserved meat with them as they traveled, calling it “biltong”— a combination of the Dutch words “bille” (for buttock) and “tonghe” (for strip or tongue).

This marked the humble beginnings of biltong, now one of South Africa’s favorite meaty snacks.

Beef Jerky vs. Biltong

What is biltong: a cut of beef

Biltong is not unlike beef jerky, but also not like beef jerky.

Both are dense, dried meat products (typically beef, but various types of meat can be used). Both were originally made by hunters and nomads as a means of stockpiling food. Both taste amazing with a cold bottle of beer.

This is where the similarities end.

Beef Jerky

Popular opinion holds that the first jerky was made by an ancient Inca tribe called Quechua, and that the name jerky came from “ch’arki,” the tribal terms for “dried, salted meat.” Others say it was discovered by North Americans, and that the name comes from “charqui,” which is Spanish for “dried strips of meat.

Jerky’s origins are a bit fuzzy, which makes sense as drying is one of the oldest and most common forms of food preservation. It’s such a simple process that all cultures around the world were likely drying meat and other food at some point.

At its most basic, jerky is made by cutting thin slices of lean beef (eye of round or sirloin tip are most recommended) and drying them at low temperatures.

The beef must be lean because fat doesn't dry well and will turn rancid. The temperatures must be low (below 160 degrees Fahrenheit) to avoid cooking or turning the meat brittle.

As for the actual drying method, there are many to choose from, with smoking, salting, and dehydrating being the most common. Drying time can take up to 12 hours, although most modern methods have been tweaked to speed up this production process.

Salt is typically applied to help draw moisture out and prevent bacterial growth. Oftentimes, a sugary marinade or curing brine is added to give the meat more flavor.

While many companies stick with more traditional tastes, a handful of today’s jerkies are pushing the flavor profile boundaries. There's the usual barbecues and teriyakis, but there's also sriracha, pho, kung pao, and “caffeinated” (technically not a flavor but definitely a thing).

These flavors may tickle the taste buds (and make for some interesting marketing), but they also add to a long, questionable list of ingredients. It’s common to find things like maltodextrin, corn syrup solids, monosodium glutamate, and sodium erythorbate in even the most basic jerky flavors.


What is biltong: pieces of Brooklyn Biltong Peri Peri Biltong

Biltong is the comparatively new kid on the block — at least to the international market — and still untouched by such commercial ways. It’s usually made with grass-fed beef and without any artificial flavors or preservatives, much like how it was made several centuries ago.

Unlike jerky, you can make biltong with many different cuts — from lean to fatty — giving it a wide range of flavor and texture. A biltong butcher will offer “wet,” “medium,” or “dry” options, which very practically describes how much moisture is left in the meat. Want something dry and crumbly? In the mood for soft and tender? Have your biltong the way you like it.

Biltong comes much larger than jerky, at least 1-inch thick, and can be sliced either before or after the drying process. The way biltong is sliced is a matter of preference — with the grain for a longer, chewier biltong, or against the grain if you prefer smaller, easier to bite chunks.

The meat is then coated in a special spice mixture — traditionally rock salt, ground black pepper, ground coriander seeds, all-spice, and vinegar, although any other traditional South African spice can be used. It’s the splash of vinegar that gives biltong  a distinct layer of flavor and a soft, steak-like texture. The vinegar also cures the meat as it dries.

Newer variants also make use of today's ingredients in their own biltong recipe, adding sea salt, apple cider vinegar or red wine vinegar, a little brown sugar, or bicarbonate of soda (which helps neutralize the acid in the vinegar and tenderize the meat strips).

The last and easiest step is to let the meat air-dry. Choose a dry place with ample air circulation, and leave your biltong to hang freely. It should be ready in anywhere from 5 days to a few weeks, depending on the weather and how you prefer your biltong.

A fully-dry biltong will be about half its original size. It will feel much firmer, and can bend without cracking. Its color will have turned into a rich, deep maroon. When freshly-made, biltong can be enjoyed for up to four days, while properly packaged biltong can be kept for a few months.

The Benefits of Biltong

What is biltong: steak surrounded by rosemary

Biltong is pure meat, which makes it an excellent source of protein and all nine essential amino acids. A serving of beef in particular already provides half of your daily protein requirements.

Beef packs in more micronutrients — including iron, zinc, B12, B6, and selenium — pound for pound than most other meats. All of which could help build muscle, repair tissue, boost immunity, and promote brain and body functions.

Beef biltong in particular retains most of these proteins, vitamins, and minerals, as it’s air-dried without ever being heated or dehydrated. It's healthier than a protein bar and more satisfying than a bag of potato chips. Plus, biltong is naturally low carb, low sugar, and completely gluten-free (so all you paleo, keto, and Whole30 practitioners can enjoy).

How to Enjoy Biltong

It’s easy to think of biltong as just a snack. It ticks all the essential boxes — it’s pre-packed, no mess, and easily slips into your bag or pocket, without turning into crumbs even after the longest commute.

But why stop there? Consider biltong’s many culinary possibilities. It's a deliciously seasoned, ready-to-eat meat, which makes it perfect for shredding into sandwiches, topping canapés, flavoring stews and frittatas, or sprinkling on top of rice.

The New and Improved Meat Snack

Biltong is already a favorite of travellers, healthy eaters, and people who enjoy a diverse snacking regimen. It takes the best parts of your favorite meats — the flavor of jerky, the softness of prosciutto, the simplicity of aged steak — and brings it all into one convenient snack.

The main difference between biltong and other ready-to-eat meats is that it’s made with just a handful of all natural ingredients, minimal processing, and no artificial additives or heat.

This results in a high-protein snack that's tasty, nutrient dense, and all ready for you to sink your teeth into.

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