We Tried It: Biltong
Before this summer, I had never heard of the biltong, the cured meat from South Africa. Then New York Biltong, the only storefront in the Northeast selling the specialty, opened in Manhattan, and I've started seeing biltong pop up everywhere on the internet and at my local grocery store. As a die-hard carnivore, I had to know what this meaty treat was all about.
Originating in South Africa, where indigenous people started drying beef more than 400 years ago, biltong got its name from the Dutch immigrants ("bil" means "meat" and "tong" means strip), who also added vinegar and spices.
New York Biltong uses grass-fed beef and a spice blend with prominent notes of clove and coriander to create its version of the cured meat. (Preservatives, artificial coloring, nitrates, and MSG are never used.) The soon-to-be-snack is then hung to dry for up to 21 days—the amount of time it dries determines whether it's a "wet" or "dry" product.
Brittany Brothers, one of the owners of New York Biltong, likens the aged product to a "fine grade of steak, but cured." Brothers and her partner opened the shop to bring awareness of authentic biltong to the U.S.—that is, biltong served fresh rather than packaged. "The texture and taste of biltong is not the same if not cut fresh because the exposure to air dries the product out," Brothers says.
Since pandemic life made it difficult to get to the shop, New York Biltong graciously sent samples of their biltong selection to me. The package included traditional biltong (with the fat intact) and lean (with little to no fat), each in wet and dry versions. There were also two kinds of Droëwors (a kind of dried sausage)—original and spicy.
I started with the traditional wet biltong. The fat marbling was apparent throughout (just look at that beautiful pearly marbled tip). I was expecting it to taste like an exotic version of rough, dry beef jerky, but it was incredibly smooth—far different from other cured meats I've had. Although it looks like it belongs in the jerky camp, it tasted meatier, moister, and cleaner than traditional jerky. I felt like I was eating a thinly cut piece of steak.
Next, I sampled the traditional dry biltong, which is aged longer than the wet. It was more leathery, but in a good way. It reminded me of a meat version of those tasty fruit leathers I loved as a child. Like the traditional wet, this one had a smooth feel, and I found myself surprised at not getting that smack of saltiness that often comes with a traditional jerky. Instead, I got a condensed meat flavor that was completely enjoyable.
Next up were the lean versions of wet and dry biltong. New York Biltong introduced these for customers looking to reduce or eliminate fats from their diet. Had I not done a side-by-side tasting, I probably wouldn't have noticed the difference between the traditional and lean, but since I was comparing, I noticed these were less chewy. I did miss the blast of fat flavor and gaminess that I got in the traditional versions, but these were still delicious, clean-tasting strips of aged meat.
Lastly, I tasted the Droëwors original and spicy sausages. They looked similar to the slim sticks of jerky I'm used to, but they were a world apart when it came to taste. The coriander-clove spice blend was harmonious, and the lamb casing gave a divine snap when I bit into it. The casing's papery, seaweed-like texture served as a joyful packaging for the contents inside. I liked both flavors: The original was mellow and meaty while the spicy had a kick perfect for heat lovers.
Not long after tasting what New York Biltong had to offer, I noticed a packaged version of biltong from another producer in my grocery store and had to check it out to compare. I instantly understood what Brothers told me about the differences between fresh and packaged. The packaged was much more reminiscent of traditional jerky, only wetter. It was still better than jerky, to be sure, but it didn't give off the same elevated taste as the freshly cut pieces I sampled from New York Biltong.
After trying all this fabulousness, it's clear to me that biltong is a world away from beef jerky. It's a perfect snack for the dedicated steak-lover with its blast of condensed meat flavor and lack of distractions. (It's also gaining popularity among the paleo, keto, and Whole 30 crowds thanks to its low carb and high protein combo.) With its refined taste, it's the sophisticate's dried meat.