While we millennials get a bad rap for some things (high student debt, a sense of entitlement, bubble tea) we should at least be credited for trying new things and exploring the world around us especially when it comes to food and beverages. We want flavor, we want nutrients, we want minimal processing, we want world peace. Well, perhaps we can settle with attaining three out of four with our food choices. Foods that can be taken anywhere and eaten at anytime to nourish us through our busy, on-the-go lives are also appealing. So: flavorful (the more unique, the better), nutritious (high in protein, low in added sugars and saturated fats), minimally processed (we can picture our Nana and Poppa making this in their own kitchen back in the day), and snackable. What checks all those boxes? Biltong!
If you aren’t already familiar with this delectable dried meat product, here’s a brief description. Biltong originated in South Africa where it was a food of choice on long journeys for indigenous people as well as later settlers: it was shelf (or saddlebag) stable, lightweight, and didn’t need any preparation to be enjoyed (Brooklyn Biltong, 2019). Dutch settlers can be thanked for the fun-to-say word: “biltong” was born when bille (“buttock”) was matched with tonghe (“strip” or “tongue”) (Brooklyn Biltong, 2019). Use of the word for “strip” might be easy to understand when you behold these flat, elongated morsels, but, “Why ‘buttock’?” I hear you wonder with a suppressed giggle. According to the Meat Snacks Group, biltong is made from the “silverside” cut of beef (2017), which is found in the hindquarter of cattle just above the leg (Beef2Live, 2020). So, there you go: biltong is a strip of meat from the region we’d consider to be the buttock of an animal.
At first glance, biltong can be mistaken for its second cousin, once removed: beef jerky. However, though these items look similar, there are key differences between the two (Biltong St. Marcus, 2017):
- As mentioned, biltong’s origins are in South Africa whereas jerky originated in North and South America.
- Biltong has a wider range of textures than jerky.
- Jerky can be made from whole muscle or made from ground meat shaped into a form like a strip or nugget, but biltong is always made from whole muscle.
- Since jerky can be made from ground meat, the type of meat used can be more variable and can come from smaller animals such as pigs and turkeys or even plant sources like soy and mushrooms. Biltong, on the other hand, is still made from animals with large hindquarter muscles such as cows, deer, and ostriches.
- Jerky is cooked on racks, while biltong is hung and air dried.
You might have seen biltong more and more frequently at your local grocery store, which is fitting since it was predicted to be among the trending foods for 2020 (Weinberg, 2020). Perhaps you’ve even picked up a package and thought, “$3.50 per OUNCE? For shreds of dried beef??” Yes, the price might seem steep. But consider this: those shreds of dried beef deliver a wallop of protein, can be eaten without any preparation, and can be added to a multitude of recipes as a meaty garnish. For example, a biltong variety I tried recently (Chef’s Cut Original Air Dried Beef) delivered 26 g of protein, 0 g of sugar, and only 1 g saturated fat in a 1.7 oz serving. It traveled well as my husband and I headed to a family vacation where it received rave reviews from the taste-testing family. I added it to my cheese and crackers, and the tender, savory flavor was delightful.
One reason biltong can be shelf (or saddlebag, or book bag, or Thirty-One bag) stable is its inherent low water activity. “Water activity” is defined as the ratio between vapor pressure of a food to vapor pressure of distilled water when under the same conditions (Food and Drug Administration, 1984). Water activity – to a degree – can be correlated to the freedom of water in a food to be used by external entities (such as bacteria looking for a moist place to hang out) and internal entities (dry bread only too happy to get soggy with the moisture from your sandwich’s lettuce) (METER Group, Inc., 2020). The maximum water activity value is 1.0, fresh meat’s value is 0.99, and dried beef’s value is 0.90 (Fennema and Carpenter, 1984). To qualify as jerky, a dried meat product must have a water activity lower than 0.85, and achieving a water activity of 0.7 – 0.75 to prevent microbial growth is recommended for biltong (Burfoot, Everis, Mulvey, Wood & Betts, 2010). When a meat product has a water activity of less than or equal to 0.85, the likelihood of bacteria or mold growing on said product is virtually nil (United States Department of Agriculture, 2016). With this safeguard against food spoilage, it’s no wonder biltong was a favored food for ancient travelers, and conditions in South Africa (hot, dry, and windy) allowed for optimal biltong production (Burfoot et al., 2010).
So, the next time you see biltong at the supermarket or a specialty store, don’t scoff at it as yet another annoying trend we millennials dreamed up. Instead, imagine strips of beef hanging in the South African sun, swinging in the dry, hot air as they transformed into the protein-rich, on-the-go travel snack. Give it a try; I recommend mixing it with trail mix or sprinkling over mashed avocado on toast.
Alchetron (2018 May 13). Silverside (beef). https://alchetron.com/Silverside-(beef)
Beef 2 Live (2020 February 9). Silverside. https://beef2live.com/story-silverside-0-112811
Biltong St. Marcus (2017 May 25). Jerky vs. Biltong. What is the real difference? https://www.biltongstmarcus.co.uk/blog/jerky-vs-biltong/.
Brooklyn Biltong (2019 May 23). What is Biltong? All You Need to Know About the Latest Healthy Snack. https://www.brooklynbiltong.com/blogs/news/what-is-biltong.
Fennema, O.R., Carpenter, J.A. (1984). Water Activity in Muscle and Related Tissues. Reciprocal Meat Conference Proceedings, Volume 37. https://meatscience.org/docs/default-source/publications-resources/rmc/1984/water-activity-in-muscle-and-related-tissues.pdf?sfvrsn=2.
Food and Drug Administration (1904 April 16). Water activity (aw) in foods. https://www.fda.gov/inspections-compliance-enforcement-and-criminal-investigations/inspection-technical-guides/water-activity-aw-foods
Meat Snacks Group (2017). What is Biltong and why is it considered a delicacy? https://www.meatsnacksgroup.com/blog/what-is-biltong-and-why-is-it-considered-a-delicacy/.
METER Group, Inc. (2020). Water activity definition. https://www.metergroup.com/food/articles/water-activity-definition/.
United States Department of Agricultures (2016, November 29). Ready to Eat and Shelf Stable Products Process Familiarization. [PDF]. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/wcm/connect/ca7ffa3c-f9ee-4eae-94ee-bddfae623fda/33_IM_RTE_SS_Process.pdf?MOD=AJPERES.
Weinberg, S. (2020 January 8). The 12 Food Trends You’re Going to See Everywhere in 2020. Delish. https://www.delish.com/food/a30431915/food-trends-2020/.