So we have added another form of carne seca (lit. dry meat) to our repertoire of air dried meat portfolio: South African Biltong.
My first experience with Biltong was during a trip to London in 2007. On our last night in town and fed up with being phelbotimized by the doubling effect of the dollar to pound exchange rate each time we dined in restaurants, we decided to take dinner in our rooms and fuel it, in part, with stuff we would pick up from shops around our hotel in Piccadilly. It was at Fortnum and Mason, just a few thousand feet from the hotel, that I discovered a fabulous charcuterie counter, and to my surprise (because I'd never heard of the stuff before and I'm supposed to know everything), a big case of biltong.
I'll let wikipedia tell you the origin and history of this Dutch to Boer form of cured and air dried beef and cut to the quick and how it differs from the more familiar forms of dried meat from Europe and tell you how we make it.
With the exception of jerky, most of the forms of air dried meat that are available in North American markets are cured and dried over a relatively long period of time (e.g. country hams and prosciutto which cure for weeks and hang for months) while the curing and drying time for biltong is very short. I have read biltong recipes where the cure time anywhere from a few hours to a day depending on how thick the recipe specifies the meat be cut. Drying times range from one to four days, again depending on how thick the meat is cut and the ambient temperature, humidity and rate of air exchange in the drying space.
The preparation of biltong also involves a step that I have never seen in other preparations of air dried meat. Prior to dry rubbing the meat with the curing ingredients and after the meat emerges from the curing step, meat for biltong is rinsed in vinegar. This treatment with vinegar a appears to have the effect of causing the muscle fibers to tighten (I assume by lowering their pH and reducing their ability to hold water) and become shiny when the meat emerges from the air drying step. Some recipes specify the addition of baking soda to the curing step to "soften" the meat and make it easier to chew.
This last procedure is familiar to me and I think I understand the science. Baking soda, sodium bicarbonate is alkaline ( i.e. it has a pH greater than 7). When you raise the pH of the muscle proteins the effect is the opposite of lowering it: affinity for water is increased. So the addition of baking soda should in effect "soften" the meat by reducing water loss during drying -and it does, but not directly.
Because the baking soda is added to the recipe during the dry-rub step and after it has been rinsed in vinegar. The baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) reacts with the vinegar (acetic acid and water) to form carbon dioxide (you can see the bubbles on the surface of the meat) AND sodium acetate, a weak base that has a pH of 8.9
So it is not the baking soda that is softening the meat it's one of the products (sodium acetate) of the reaction between the baking soda and the vinegar that's doing the work. (A HA! It must be similarly alkaline chemicals that are responsible for the enhanced browning seen in some baked goods that are leavened with baking soda, as high pH enhances browning reactions. Cool).
Okay so how are we making biltong at Hendricks Farms and Dairy? First of all, we are writing our own recipes, but the process (which is incompletely illustrated in the slideshow) proceeds like this
- Very, very lean, grass fed beef is cut into 10-12 inch lon 2.5 inch squared off strips(see photo above)
- The meat is either soaked in vinegar for an hour or so or put into a flavored brine that contains vinegar and baking soda for a 3 to four hours
- The meat is dry rubbed or brined with salt, pepper and various flavoring agents and cured 12 or more hours
- The meat is rinsed in vinegar and hung in the drying room equipped with a fan that runs until the surface of the meat is dry and shiny (about 24 hours)
- Meat hangs for about 4 days total