The Science Behind South African Biltong: Understanding the Curing Process


Meat curing is a tradition that has been practiced for thousands of years. Back in the day, protein deficiency was a serious problem. As such, preserving meat was a leading necessity. This is how meat curing was born. 

In this guide, we’ll cover biltong curing basics, including different curing methods, the scientific facts behind biltong curing, and even suggest a leading South African Biltong Shop that will cater to all your biltong cravings.

Understanding Curing: The Basics

Curing’s history dates back centuries ago. The curing process entails the use of salt and nitrates (and sometimes sugar) to get rid of any moisture content in the meat through osmosis. Some people go further ahead to smoke and spice the meat. Whatever approach is used, the main objective is removing the meat’s moisture content. This inhibits bacterial growth, giving your meat a longer shelf-life. 

Photo delicious biltong meat product horizontal background


Purpose of Curing in Food Processing

Curing, an ancient meat preservation technique, was invented to not only increase the shelf-life of fish and meat but also to keep these foods free from bacteria. Complete moisture removal in the meat means that it is uninhabitable to harmful bacteria and microbes. 

If you are wondering where you can get a hold of the safest, moisture-free and microbe-free cured South African Biltong, then be sure to try out products from the reputable Jerky Brand. 

Meat Curing also helps in:

  • Reducing the risk of botulism: Meat comes with a lot of moisture content. This moisture creates a perfect environment for harmful microbes and bacteria to thrive. If consumed this way, it could lead to one getting botulism.
  • Further meat preservation: The beauty of cured meat is that you can preserve it for more than a year in your freezer! If you refrigerate it, it can last for at least two weeks. Uncured meat, on the other hand, can only last for a couple of days. 
  • Enhancing flavor:  The curing process gets rid of most of the moisture content found in meat. This makes the flavors used a bit more distinct seeing as they are more concentrated. If you are as experimental as I am, be sure to hit a South African Biltong shop to put this theory to the test. 

The Role of Curing in Biltong Making

During the biltong-making process, curing is used to preserve the color, texture, and flavor of the meat. Curing also serves as a brilliant preservation method, significantly increasing your meat’s lifespan. 

The Science Behind Curing Biltong

Curing takes many names: salt-curing, salting, honey-curing, and sugar-curing all refer to basic curing with sugar and salt. If salt pellets (corns) are used, then the process is referred to as corning. Brining, pickling, and wet-curing all refer to curing using a brine or water solution.

Chemical Reactions that Occur During Curing

Salt (at 20%) concentration is used to inhibit microbe and bacterial growth through osmosis. During the process, harmful bacteria are suppressed, creating more ‘room’ for healthy bacteria (mostly from the Lactobacillus gene) to dominate. 

The sugar used acts as food for the lactobacilli. Dextrose is a better option compared to regular table sugar or even sucrose, seeing as it is more palatable to the bacteria. Sugar incorporation acts as a fermentation method that helps enhance the tanginess in the flavor of South African Biltong. 

The nitrite and nitrate compounds give the biltong a rather unique and characteristic taste and flavor while giving the meat its red or pink color. These compounds also help to prevent oxidation, further preserving the meat. 

The Curing Process: Step-by-Step

  1. Trim the fat from your meat to your personal preference. Be sure to leave in a bit of fat layer to experience the best flavor and texture. 
  2. Slice the meat into thick strips (not too thick, maybe 3.5 cm) along the meat’s grain. Thick meat tends to cure much better, as opposed to thin slices that could end up dry and leathery. 
sliced meat on brown wooden chopping board


  1. Salt the meat, then allow it to sit for 3 to 4 hours. Be sure to flit over occasionally for consistency and evenness. 
  2. Wipe off the salt; be sure not to use water to rinse it off. 
  3. Add your salted meat to the pre-set wet cure and leave it to sit for approximately two hours. Again, flip it over about twice for evenness. 
  4. Coat your meat with the spice mix, ensuring that it gets through all the crevices. 
  5. Weigh each strip individually, clearly labeling each piece, then hang the meat in a clean biltong box. 
  6. Start weighing your meat after about 3 days. You’ll know that the biltong is all set once 40% to 50% of the meat’s weight is lost. 

Factors Influencing the Curing Process

The drying rate is influenced by:

  • Meat thickness
  • Airflow
  • Humidity difference between the surrounding air and the meat’s moisture content
  • The meat’s moisture diffusion
  • Temperature
  • Time

Health Aspects of Cured Biltong

While consumption of nitrates/ nitrites in small quantities can be beneficial in our bodies, large intakes of these compounds could pose serious health risks. Long-term exposure to chemicals such as nitrosamines (derived from nitrites/ nitrates) can increase the chances of getting cancer. 

In conclusion

There are numerous biltong online south Africa stores that you can choose to satiate your biltong cravings, including Jerky Brand. The curing process used in biltong online south africa flaunts mouthwatering flavors and rich textures while increasing your meat’s shelf-life. 

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