Biltong and jerky are two of the world’s most beloved beef snacks, but what is the actual difference? Aren’t they both just dried meat?
Well yes, but there is more to it than that.
Biltong vs. jerky: the basics
Biltong is meat soaked in vinegar, salted and spiced, and then hung whole in a cool environment to dry. It is softer and less sweet than jerky. Jerky is sliced, marinated, and then roasted or smoked at a low temperature.
If you like more vinegary, zesty foods and prefer a softer texture, biltong is perfect for you. If you like smoky flavors and don’t mind chewier meat, then beef jerky is the move. In either case, sourcing is what matters. The higher the quality of meat and spices, the better the result will be. There is nowhere to hide low-quality meat in biltong or jerky, but industrial jerky companies definitely try to.
Both biltong and jerky can be made from a variety of animals, but beef is the overwhelming majority produced. It is more common to find choices outside of beef with jerky, but biltong can also be made from any source.
What is biltong?
Biltong is a dried meat technique deeply rooted in South African culinary heritage. Peoples from the countries of Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Zambia, along with some additions from the Dutch later on, developed an ingenious method of meat preservation that involves soaking meat in an acidic solution, sometimes including antimicrobial spices such as coriander, and utilizing the temperatures in winter to reduce the risk of sickness from bacterial contaminants [*].
The result is a delicious meat snack with a bit of tang from the vinegar. It is soft, especially if you opt for fattier cuts, and also has the delicious concentration of flavor we all know and enjoy from jerky.
Modern preparations still follow this general recipe, although the sourcing, preparation, and execution is much more scientific. Biltong is entirely safe to eat and is a genuine culinary treasure.
What does biltong taste like?
Cold-curing, as opposed to traditional heat drying, allows the meat to retain more of its natural flavors and juices. As a result, cold-cured biltong boasts a satisfying beefy taste with a subtle tang from the vinegar.
The rest of the flavor will come from the animal and spices chosen. Coriander, black pepper, and salt is the classic combo, although you can essentially use whatever you would like.
How soft is biltong?
You’ll find it surprisingly easy to chew. The meat’s natural juices are locked in during the curing process, ensuring a soft and easy bite. This unique texture is a hallmark of biltong, setting it apart from other dried meat snacks.
Health benefits of biltong
The benefits of biltong mirror jerky, with the exception of being typically lower in sugar:
- High-quality protein: Biltong is an excellent source of lean protein, making it a nutritious choice for those seeking to boost their protein intake. Protein is essential for muscle maintenance, immune function, and overall health.
- Low fat content: Cold-cured biltong is typically low in fat, especially saturated fat. This makes it a healthier alternative to many traditional snacks, as excessive saturated fat intake has been linked to various health concerns.
- Low in sugar: Biltong is usually made without sugar, making it an easier zero or low-carb choice.
- Rich in essential nutrients: Biltong contains essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, and B vitamins. Iron is crucial for oxygen transport in the body, zinc supports immune function, and B vitamins play a role in energy metabolism.
What is beef jerky?
Beef jerky is a form of dehydrated meat. It is prepared by selecting lean cuts, trimming excess fat, cutting the meat into strips, marinating them with salt and other spices for up to a day, and then slowly dehydrating at around 160º to remove moisture. This process naturally preserves the beef and creates an intense beef flavor. Then the jerky is usually cured with sodium nitrite to extend its shelf life.
Beef jerky originated in the Andes Mountains of Peru. There are records of Quechuans making it as early as 1550, but it was almost certainly being produced before that, with some people thinking the technique is thousands of years old. Traditional methods relied on drying and salt to inhibit bacteria growth (and encourage some good kinds). An easy way to think about how jerky is preserved is that it’s so dry there isn’t enough water to support bacteria.
What does beef jerky taste like?
Jerky is rich in flavor and is often seasoned with garlic, onion, sugar, salt, and pepper. If the beef is smoked, you also get some of that flavor. Jerky ranges widely in terms of taste and texture depending on the choices made, and the specific spice blends companies used are often as close to their hearts as Coca-Cola’s secret formula.
How soft is beef jerky?
Beef jerky is tougher than biltong but can be fairly tender depending on the size of the jerky, the length of dehydration, the choice to tenderize with acid during the marinade, and the quality of the beef. Traditional jerky is smoked, which makes it chewier, but contemporary techniques often rely on dehydrators that make it slightly softer. The shorter the shelf life of the jerky, the more tender it tends to be.
Health benefits of beef jerky
As mentioned earlier, beef jerky and biltong’s nutritional offerings mostly overlap.
- High in protein: Just like biltong, beef jerky is a good source of protein and is easy to eat on the go.
- Low in fat: Since it is prepared from lean cuts of beef, jerky is notably lower in fat compared to other meat products. Fat is removed from jerky because it doesn’t dehydrate as quickly as lean meat and can spoil.
- Rich in nutrients: Beef jerky is packed with essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, and vitamin B12, vital for maintaining overall health and vitality.
Biltong and jerky differences
Biltong and jerky are similar in most respects, but the main differences between the two are:
- Biltong is usually lower in sugar
- Jerky is usually lower in fat
- Biltong is softer
- Jerky tends to have more variety
- Jerky is easier to find
- Biltong has more vinegar flavor
- Jerky has a more smoky flavor
- Biltong is air-dried
- Jerky is dehydrated/smoked
- Jerky is more susceptible to bad industry practices
No meat product is spared from companies who prioritize cost and shelf life over taste and health, but jerky is particularly known for its industrial practices that unnaturally extend jerky’s shelf life, pack it full of processed sugar, and use meat sourced from CAFOs who prop their animals up with antibiotics because the conditions are so poor.
There are definitely companies who make outstanding jerky, but biltong, due to its less mainstream nature, hasn’t fallen prey to the same practices (yet!).
The bottom line on biltong and jerky
Both biltong and jerky are convenient, delicious, and healthy beef snacks (assuming you get them from the right places). They offer similar nutritional value, and their most obvious differences are in taste and texture.
Our advice? Try them both. If you’re anything like us, you’ll go through seasons when you prefer one over the other. Since jerky is more accessible, and you’re here, why not give biltong a shot?
The best grass-fed beef biltong on the market
We were so impressed by Ayoba-yo’s biltong that we ultimately decided a partnership made more sense. Their recipes are sourced directly from their time spent growing up in South Africa, and they bring a rich sense of culinary heritage and expertise to their product.
They exclusively use pasture-raised, 100% grass-fed beef from farms that use regenerative farming methods whenever possible. They are also preservative-free, hormone-free, no gluten, no nitrates, and no sugar.
If you want to try biltong the way biltong should be, start here.
Nathan Phelps owns and writes for Crafted Copy, a boutique copywriting shop that finds the perfect words for interesting products. He is also an ethical foodie, outdoors-aficionado, and hails from Nashville, TN. He splits his time between helping sustainable businesses find new customers and managing his ever-increasing list of hobbies, which include playing guitar, baking bread, and creating board games.