Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Eternal beef

The South Africans have done for dried meat what the French have done for cheese. I scoffed when I read that biltong goes well with wine, but that's just how good it is. In some cases, it even improves the wine. This makes sense when you consider that dried meat was integral to the nation's history, at least for Europeans. South Africa is often described as the most beautiful landscape on the planet, in large part because of its stark contrasts. The Dutch emigres had to cross hundreds of miles of barren scrub to reach the fertile vineyards and lush beaches of today. Wild animals abounded, but vegetation was scarce. Killing big game like an eland was a blessing and curse in the days before refrigeration. But the ferocious sun could be turned to advantage in curing meat. With a little salt, spice, and care, the resulting cuts could be even more delectable than the fresh carcass--much as ham can be tastier than pork.

South Africans bristle at any comparison between biltong and beef jerky, yet the distinction can be pretty fuzzy. Here's what I can glean:
  1. biltong is always cut with the grain; jerky is usually cut against the grain
  2. biltong is usually cured in big pieces, even a whole cut (rump steak, e.g.) at once; jerky is usually cured in thin slices
  3. biltong is cured slowly, at only a little more than room temperature; jerky can be cured at much higher temps.
  4. biltong is dried in the open air; jerky may be smoked
  5. biltong is always marinated, typically with cider vinegar; jerky may or may not be marinated
  6. biltong may be spiced with almost anything so long as coriander seed is involved; jerky rarely if ever includes coriander seed
  7. biltong must be cured raw; jerky may be pre-cooked (to kill germs)
Every spring I go on a camping trip during which students bemoan the dearth of sweets and other "civilized" food even as they consume more sugar--M&Ms, flavored oatmeal, Jolly Ranchers, Tang, hot cocoa--than I do at home. Other leaders bring vast stores of power bars. None of these snacks ever satisfied me. Beef jerky, even in its commercial, chemical-laced form, was a revelation: here at last was something to nibble on that gave me sustained energy and replenished the salt I was sweating off. When someone gave me a taste of homemade jerky a couple years later, I vowed to make my own for the next trip. It wasn't just satisfying, it was delicious.

My jerky has evolved considerably since that first attempt. Every year it gets a little better, even if I still haven't matched the chili sticks of a particular butchery in a dusty little town in Namibia. Good homemade jerky, biltong, whatever you call it, is more than tasty enough to make a good snack for home, even if you never go camping. And as with canning, and fermenting, drying food is a very special process whereby the end result is almost unrecognizable next to the source material. In a world in which so many things seem spontaneously generated in cans and boxes and bags, it's very satisfying to have something edible on hand which causes people to exclaim, "You made that?!"

In the pictures above you see (left to right, top to bottom) a round steak cut into inch-thick strips for drying; somewhat thinner strips of flank steak after being marinated, ready for hanging; about two pounds of sliced, marinated flank steak hanging on an unfolded coat hanger from the laundry line above my dryer; and the finished flank steak, almost black and brittle. My basement runs from 88 to 96 degrees in winter, which inspired me to quit fighting the oven, which insists on getting up to 140 or more--cooking the meat before it can dry properly--and let the meat dry out in the open. Even my basement is a little too hot; traditional biltong is slowly cured in the open air with a natural breeze or fan and little or no artificial heat, a process that could take several days for even relatively small bits of meat. Mine was done in less than 24 hours. (In the oven, thinner slices had taken less than 8 hours.) Lower temperatures allow bigger pieces of meat to dry evenly--and produce a more tender, flavorful result. Below 80 or so, mold and putrefaction become potential problems. I used to pre-cook the meat in the marinade to destroy E-coli and such, but this was messy, tedious, and flavor-robbing. Now I get my meat from the farmers' market: grass-fed, free-range, and butchered in small slaughterhouses, it's cleaner than a lot of vegetables.

Even grass-fed beef has some fat on it, which has to be trimmed away before drying, lest it go rancid. If you take this, and the scraps of meat, and chop it all up (with a very sharp knife and a lot of "wrist-grease"), you'll get the most tender, delicious hamburgers ever. You'll also understand why meat grinders were invented.