Making Biltong

Discussion in 'Making Jerky' started by wors, Sep 3, 2015.

  1. wors

    wors Newbie

    Hey all,

    I'm making a really crude biltong box out of cardboard. If it works out and I like the results I'll make a much bigger biltong cabinet out of wood.

    I've basically finished my crappy cardboard box. It is about 2.5' tall and 1.5' wide & deep. It has two large vents at the bottom where the air will come in and a single vent on the top that exhausts the air with the use of a 12v computer fan. I decided NOT to use a lightbulb for this prototype because our apartment is quite warm and dry (~50-55% humidity, ~40-45% humidity when I put the dehumidifier on), and I just didn't really want to complicate things.

    NOTE: Next year I won't be in such a dry apartment and will likely be dealing with ~75-85% humidity. This is what I will be building the wooden cabinet for.

    So my questions are:

    1) What is the ideal temperature and humidity range for making biltong?

    2) Is it ok to do this without the lightbulb?

    3) When I make the bigger cabinet should I have: a: Just a fan, b: Just a lightbulb, c: both fan & lightbulb?

    4) Whats your biltong chamber look like? I'd love it if you could post a photo. Do you make biltong in some other kind of curing chamber? Please post details.

    Last edited: Sep 3, 2015
  2. daveomak

    daveomak Smoking Guru OTBS Member SMF Premier Member

    Humidity around 80% is perfect for dry meats... you avoid the case hardening problem... too much air flow can cause case hardening... Thickness of strips is probably a big deal on how it dries...
    Without temp and humidity control you probably will have to do a few tests to determine what adjustments you will have to make...

    You probably know all this... this link has a heat source (light bulb) but doesn't discuss temps or humidity.. Near as I can tell, the important ingredient is the vinegar... keeps food borne pathogens from multiplying... and/or kills them, along with the salt...
  3. mummel

    mummel Master of the Pit

    Subbing to this thread. I can't wait to make my own biltong. Waiting for my basement to cool down over the fall. Where do you live wors? Sounds like your a Saffer.
  4. dirtsailor2003

    dirtsailor2003 Smoking Guru OTBS Member

  5. wors

    wors Newbie

    While I don't doubt that 80% humidity is perfect for drying and curing meats I've always considered biltong to be a bit of an outlier in this regard. You only have to consider where it originates from to realize that this is a little different to it's European cousins (humidity levels in the Karoo this week are fluctuating between 34% and 57%).

    So I find it a little tough to accept that 80% humidity is ideal for biltong. I've even had the pleasure of visiting a professional biltong making butchery and it was no way that it was 80% humidity in there. I just wish I was paying more attention at the time, I should have asked them.

    Unfortunately all of the biltong making resources I've read make no mention of what the ideal conditions are for making biltong.

    Thanks for the link though, I've read dozens of recipes but had not come across that one and it looks very helpful!

    I've also read the other threads on this forum which are all helpful. In fact I've read dozens of experiences by different people and what I can gather is that no matter what you do it'll probably come out right! ... There seems to be a huge margin of error in the right conditions for making biltong.

    However, the scientist in me wants to persue those ideal conditions and how I might be able to achieve them in a semi-serious home made cabinet.
  6. dingo007

    dingo007 Smoking Fanatic

    Both DaveOmak and DirtSailors links are great references. There are as many recipes/techniques for biltong as there are South Africans...And the level of dryness is also a varied opinion..some like it like leather..I like it a lot softer. You just got to make it and see. Initially, weigh each piece ( a pain in the arse I know) and sample one at 30% weightloss and see i you like it. If not let the rest dry longer untill you find the % loss/feel you like. Eventually you'll be able to feel when it's ready.

    In answer to your humble opinions;

    (1) For dry curing meat I use 70% 60F as a base reference..but as Dave indicated some larger cuts/diameter sausages start out at 80% and get dropped as time goes on. For biltong, as it has a small diameter, I think anything in the 60-80% RH range would be fine. Using the upper end of this range would take longer to dry.

    (2) Some people go this route and deliver good Biltong. When I was using a biltong dedicated box I preferred the light bulb approach as it developed heat and convection. My concerns are that a fan might be to much airflow, however I've never tried it.

    (3) I'd go light bulb.

    (4) You already got it.

    Biltong is pretty forgiving due to t's short time to dry. However I strongly recommend the use of Cure #1. I used to do it the traditional way..Vinegar, Salt, BP and Coriander...but since learning more about curing the risk isn't worth it. So i use cure now.

    HTH and post pics.
  7. wors

    wors Newbie

    Thanks heaps for the replies Dingo, very helpful. I can't wait to taste the first batch :)
  8. wors

    wors Newbie

    Missed your question on the first read sorry. I grew up and currently live in New Zealand but was born in South Africa and have been on a number of visits back. I've found some interesting info that I hope to condense and post this weekend. Watch this space.
  9. 5pmbbq

    5pmbbq Newbie

    Hi there,

    We made a homemade biltong box for my SA-born significant other. I don't know the 'ideal' temp / humidity range but I would imagine you can start with the study mummel posted. We use a 40 watt light bulb and a computer fan hooked up to a double dimmer switch so that we can control both heat and circulation at different times and I find that what the biltong needs will depend on the time of year for us.

    Here is our box:

    Good luck!
  10. wors

    wors Newbie

    Come on over! :)

    And thanks for the links.
    Appreciate the photo, thanks looks really good! I like how thick the strips are. Most photos I see of DIY biltong are of super thin jerky like strips.
  11. wors

    wors Newbie

    Here are the results of my research. Most of what is here is from an 88 page "Literature Review of Microbiological Hazards Associated with Biltong". One hundred and seventeen research papers and reports were used in the review although biltong is not the direct topic of many of the studies as there is not that much material on biltong. It was a quite long and dense read so I've just bullet pointed the good bits. Most of it is copy and paste but I've edited a lot of it to make it more readable. It is important to note that the focus of this study is on the food safety aspect of making biltong and covers small scale commercial production but makes mention of home made biltong. I've even done the temperature conversions for the fine folk of America. I did this for myself but hopefully someone else finds it useful.

    THE PUNCH LINE (for those not interested in the wall of text)
    The ideal conditions for making biltong in a 6 day period:
    - Temperature: 35°C (95°F). Commonly used range: 22-35°C (72-95°F)
    - Humidity: 30%. Commonly used range: 30-50%
    - Air speed: 3 m/s. Commonly used range: 2.5 to 3 m/s
    - Target water activity for safety relative shelf stability 0.7 to 0.75 (Actual values of sold product vary greatly depending on consumer preference)
    - The composition of biltong after drying is typically: moisture content 20-30%; salt 3-8%; pH 5.6-5.9; water activity 0.7 to 0.75.
    - Nitrite is sometimes used as a color fixer only.

    - Biltong's origins anecdotally stem from the Dutch who, whilst escaping from British rule in South Africa some 200 years ago, preserved meat by adding vinegar and spices and hung it from the back of ox wagons where it dried over 3 to 4 days.
    - In its very simplest form, biltong has been spiced only with salt, black pepper and brown sugar (i.e. no vinegar).
    - Traditionally in South Africa, drying of biltong was achieved by hanging the strips of meat on hooks and leaving them to ambient dry.
    - Johannesburg Temps: Day Average(morning.min-afternoon.max) 9.9-22.4°C (50-72°F). Relative Humidity: Average(morning-afternoon) 69.9-40.5%
    - Bloemfontein Temps: Day Average(morning.min-afternoon.max) 8.6-23.6°C (47-75°F). Relative Humidity: Average(morning-afternoon) 64.4-32.8%

    - Most muscles in the carcass may be used but the large ones are most suitable.
    - Both fresh and thawed meats can be used
    - The meat strips cut from intact muscles are up to 400 mm long and 25 to 50 mm thick.
    - The water activity of raw meat is around 0.98.

    - Acidic marinades should used be at 0-4ºC (32-39°F)
    - The air for drying biltong should be heated to around 35ºC (95°F)
    - Drying to a water activity of 0.7 to 0.75 is advisable. Weight loss of the meat should be a good indicator of water activity.
    - The meat is generally held in a marinade for 18 to 24 hours, traditionally at ambient temperature, but nowadays, this storage is more likely to be at 4ºC (39°F).
    - One study found that pathogens were reduced by marination in vinegar for at least 7 hours.

    - The use of nitrate or nitrite, often in the form of saltpetre is mentioned frequently as a source of colour enhancement.
    - Important to note that spices are also a common form of pathogen introduction. Use good quality spices which have been stored properly.

    - Few pathogenic microorganisms grow below a water activity (aw) of 0.90 and few microorganisms grow below aw = 0.75.
    - Yeasts and moulds do not grow below a water activity of 0.60.
    - Effective drying, to reduce water activity, relies on drying time and three inter-related process factors: air temperature, relative humidity, and speed.
    - No microbial growth, or spore germination, was detected on biltong samples with a water activity of 0.7 or less. Allowing for an arbitrary safety margin, a water activity of 0.68 was regarded as the critical moisture content at, or below, which biltong could be kept for long periods.
    - 35ºC (39°F) will enable a microbiologically stable product to be produced in around 6 days (144 hours). A lower air temperature would require a longer drying time and increase the microbiological hazard due to the slower drying rate.
    - Data reported suggest an air speed around 2.5 to 3 m/s.
    - Drying with air at 35ºC (39°F), 30% relative humidity and 3 m/s is suitable for making biltong within 6 days.
    - Relative Humidity levels during drying process reported from other studies: 30-50%
    - Temperatures during drying process reported from other studies: 22-35°C (72-95°F).
    - The composition of biltong after drying is typically: moisture content (20 to 30%); salt (3 to 8%); pH (5.6 to 5.9); water activity (0.7 to 0.75).
    - The use of weight loss during the drying of biltong could provide a useful indicator of water activity. Raw meat has a water content of around 75%. Reducing the weight of the meat by a factor between 3.75 and 2.5 during drying will produce a product with the required moisture content of around 20 to 30% and corresponding water activity around 0.7 to 0.75. In addition, the drying process should designed to decrease the water activity quickly to prevent microbial growth but not so quickly that case hardening occurs.

    - No definitive shelf life for biltong was identified in the literature although “several months”, “very long” and “indefinite” were noted in the literature, all without the need for refrigeration.

    - Many microflora identified and studied. No mention of Clostridium.
    - Study catalogues all reported outbreaks of food borne illnesses relating to biltong, not a single case of botulism mentioned.
    - The presence of organic acids, salt, and a lowered water activity achieved by drying are all controlling factors in the potential destruction of pathogens and also important in preventing microbial growth.
    - The reduction in pathogen level increases as the water activity decreases and therefore it is important that water activity is reduced quickly. Growth studies have demonstrated that salt, presence of organic acids and spices are not in themselves inhibitory and therefore a hurdles approach to biltong manufacture is important.


    Burfoot, D., Everis, L., Mulvey, L., Wood, A., & Campden, R. B. (2010). Literature Review of Microbiological Hazards Associated with Biltong and Similar Dried Meat Products. Food Standard Agency, London, 87.

    Naidoo, K., & Lindsay, D. (2010). Survival of Listeria monocytogenes, and enterotoxin-producing Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus pasteuri, during two types of biltong-manufacturing processes. Food control, 21(7), 1042-1050.

    Taylor, M.B. (1976) Changes in microbial flora during biltong production. South African Food Review, 3(2) 120-121, 123.


    Changes in moisture content, water activity, and salt content during the manufacture of biltong. Air temperature = 35ºC; relative humidity = 30%; speed = 3 m/s.

    Changes in bacterial numbers during the manufacture of biltong. Air temperature = 35ºC; relative humidity = 30%; speed = 3 m/s

    Last edited: Sep 4, 2015
    dirtsailor2003 and crankybuzzard like this.
  12. 5pmbbq

    5pmbbq Newbie

    We find that cutting it into logs before drying and then slicing it afterwards when it is still a little wet is a lot closer to the biltong we get in SA.

    Thanks for sharing your research, we might have to do some measuring out of curiousity.

    Let us know how your first batch comes out!
  13. wors

    wors Newbie

    Test Batch 01 going down:

    Spices include:

    - Coriander

    - Salt

    - Black Pepper

    - Brown Sugar

    I used Topside and cut it into relatively thick slices approximately 3cm thick.

    Equal weight spices and marinade are combined then rubbed on the meat which is put in a ziplock bag in the fridge for 8 hours

    The Biltong box, cost me next to nothing. Comprised of:

    - Cardboard box

    - Wooden dowels to hang the meat from

    - Fly screen mesh to cover the vent holes

    - A light socket with 60W bulb

    - My thermometer just to check the temps (out of curiosity more than anything)


    Meat! Now comes the hard part.

  14. dingo007

    dingo007 Smoking Fanatic

    Looks good mate!
  15. dirtsailor2003

    dirtsailor2003 Smoking Guru OTBS Member

    Will be hanging around for the results!
  16. mummel

    mummel Master of the Pit

    This is fantastic!  Keep us posted.
  17. wors

    wors Newbie

    This is at 9 days. About 60% weight loss. Perfect for my tastes not too wet, not too dry. Could do with a touch more salt but otherwise perfect:

    Last edited: Sep 14, 2015
    dirtsailor2003 likes this.
  18. chef jimmyj

    chef jimmyj Smoking Guru Staff Member Moderator Group Lead OTBS Member

    DARN IT!!! My Wife just tossed out my MES 40 Box, similar size. Been sitting in the garage, minding it's own business for 3 years...[​IMG]

    That set up and finished product looks great...JJ 
  19. dirtsailor2003

    dirtsailor2003 Smoking Guru OTBS Member

    Looks great! Points!

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