Biltong, the cured and dried meat product that originated in Southern Africa, is one of the most popular uses for our commercial dehydrators. Africa. Traditionally, biltong was air dried in the hot African sun, but for a more consistent product for commercial sale, the use of a dehydrator is the safest choice.
The word biltong is Afrikaans and is derived from the Dutch words ‘bil’ (meaning buttock) and ‘tong’ (literally meaning tongue, but also used to mean strip). Biltong today is usually taken to mean long strips of spiced and dried meat.
Because biltong is dried at a lower temperature than some other cured meats, food safety at every step is paramount. Manufacturers should familiarise themselves with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency's1 guidelines and all legal obligations.
Biltong is best made with lean cuts of meat. This is because fats can go rancid, ruining your biltong and reducing the shelf life.
It’s essential to ensure the meat you are using for biltong has been appropriately stored at the right temperatures before getting to you. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency outlines a number of preventative controls for meat products,2 including manufacturing fermented and dried meat products3 (like biltong).
Raw materials should not be accepted if they are known or reasonably expected to be contaminated with parasites, pathogenic micro-organisms or toxic, decomposed or foreign substances.
It’s important to arrange for:
Using a vinegar marinade is an important part of making biltong. Different vinegars can be used when making biltong and developing your perfect recipe, but brown vinegar and cider vinegar are two of the most common choices. This is combined with sea salt, pepper and spices as part of the marinade. The most common spice is coriander, reflecting Southern Africa’s history as a key stop on spice routes from Asia. Piri-piri and other chillies are also common and popularly used flavourings.
Vinegar helps to inhibit bacterial growth, by increasing the acidity. Marinades also contain salt and spices to flavour the meat. As well as providing seasoning, salt is also important for lowering the water activity level (see Drying Times). A low water activity level inhibits the growth of many pathogens.
The combination of the vinegar and salt is an important part of the curing process to inhibit bacteria. The wet marinade helps to promote a uniform flavour and distribution of salt and spices. Marinading times of 12 to 24 hours are common, and for food safety, this should be done in a refrigerator at between 0 to 4°C.
A critical aspect of making biltong is that the environment must be dry. You’re looking to replicate the dry heat of Southern Africa. While not specific to Canada, Food Standards Agency in the United Kingdom produced a literature review in 2010 which recommends drying biltong at around 35°C with high air movement. For biltong that is intended for commercial production, the best way to ensure a consistent temperature and safe final product is through a dehydrator where temperature and humidity can be controlled.
Some biltong makers will use solar drying or unheated air but this is not recommended for a commercial product due to the unpredictability and unnecessary health risks, particularly in the Canadian climate.
The literature review also recommended drying to a water activity of 0.7 to 0.75 aw to prevent microbial growth. Weight loss of the meat is a good indicator of water activity.
The rate and amount of drying will be influenced by:
Biltong should be dried hanging from hooks without the pieces of meat touching each other to ensure even air flow and prevent mould development.
Biltong is usually sold as either ‘wet’ or ‘dry.’ Wet biltong is softer and usually remains pink in the middle, while dry biltong is harder and, as the name suggests, more fully dried out. Wet biltong is often recommended to be kept refrigerated.
Water activity (aw) is a measure of available water in the food. That’s not as simple as how much water is in the food though, as some water is bound to other ingredients – like sugar or salt – and isn’t available. In the context of dehydration, this is important as it is the available water4 that microorganisms will use to facilitate growth.
When too much water is available, this allows microorganisms to grow. Pure water has aw=1.00 and raw meat has aw=0.99.
The safest and most accurate way to monitor water activity is by using a water activity meter. It is also possible to measure weight loss to determine moisture loss, but this is not recommended for commercial applications. The aim with biltong is to achieve a water activity level of around 0.75 and a moisture content of about 20%.
There’s a saying in beer brewing that cleanliness is next to Godliness. It’s the same for dehydrating, especially for meat products like biltong.
There are some basic principles that should be maintained in any environment where meat and food products are being prepared. This includes:
It’s vital to ensure that you practice the highest standards of hygiene at every step. You should familiarise yourself with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s preventative controls for meat products.2
Cleaning your dehydrator is also essential. Best practice is to clean your dehydrator between every batch. For our dehydrators, the trays are dishwasher safe and the insides of the dehydrator should be cleaned using a cloth and warm soapy water (being careful not to splash water onto the electrical parts). Using a food-safe sanitiser spray to eliminate microbial growth is also recommended. Any cleaning chemicals should be appropriately stored, and staff need to be trained on how to use cleaning chemicals safely so as not to cause accidents or contaminate foods.
It’s also important to ensure equipment is thoroughly dried after cleaning. This is to prevent Listeria contamination.
As well as cleaning on a daily basis, including throughout the day, regular cleaning and sanitising should be scheduled for things like cool rooms and drains. It’s also a good idea to regularly clean shelving in chillers, door handles, door seals, switches.
All equipment used for monitoring should be regularly checked and calibrated to ensure accuracy. This includes:
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency provides a food labelling tool5 to help producers navigate specific requirements. This includes:
There are also specific requirements for meat and poultry products,6 including ready-to-eat products like biltong.
The shelf life of biltong varies depending on whether it is ‘wet’ or ‘dry.’ A wet biltong has a higher moisture level so can be more susceptible to mould development. For businesses and customers living in a more humid environment, care should be taken with the storage of biltong to reduce the moisture that the biltong is exposed to.
Many manufacturers recommend that after purchase biltong should be kept in a refrigerator in something like a paper bag, rather than a sealed container, to allow the biltong to breath. Biltong can also be stored in the freezer for up to one year.
Whether biltong is sold fresh at a butcher or in plastic packaging with an oxygen scavenger, it should usually be consumed within 4 to 6 days of opening. Consumers should be alert to mould development and store any opened biltong in a dry environment where it can breathe.
Packaging materials should be selected that will not be a source of contamination (including storing packaging materials safely and cleanly before use), wrap and package food to avoid contamination, and packaging materials should be able to be kept clean. For packaging biltong, it’s important to ensure packaging will prevent mould growth. For this reason, we recommend that packaging should:
Packaging suppliers recommend packing biltong in bags with high barrier plastics such as EVOH, PVDC or Nylon. You can also get packaging that is suitable for use with vacuum or flush and seal machines to reduce oxygen in the pack which can impact shelf life.
If you have any questions about cleaning your commercial dehydrator, recommended settings, or other aspects to ensure a safe final product, let us know. We’re here to help guide you to producing biltong and other dehydrated foods that are delicious and healthy.