Heat vs airflow– which matters most in your biltong box? it’s a question we’re often asked. Airflow will always be the most important thing to consider in your biltong dehydrator- but the answer can get a little complex. Let’s take a look at some of the factors you need to consider.
Making biltong the right way
Biltong is an air-dried cured meat. Ideally, you will not apply any heat what-so-ever during the drying process, as heat destroys vitamins and will adversely affect the flavor profile of your biltong. Even a lamp bulb in the box carries a risk of ‘cooking’ the outer layer of meat. Biltong and jerky are not the same, and biltong is not heat processed at all. Instead of a succulent, properly preserved, and safe piece of biltong, you’ll get an unhygienic mess that will taste bad and could carry bacteria.
However, we don’t live in a perfect world, and there are now eager home biltong makers across the globe.
Everyone lives in different climatic conditions, and these can have an effect on the biltong making process. To make a great piece of biltong, three factors count:
- Strong airflow
- Meat is hygienically protected
- Moisture does not ‘hang around’ the meat but instead is removed from the box
Let’s talk about biltong box airflow
So, the bulk of your biltong dehydrator can be as simple as a cheap pine cabinet you have adapted. All that matters is that the airflow is good. Yet you cannot simply drill big holes and leave it at that- those big holes will allow flies, other pests, and bacteria to land on your meat.
That’s why it’s a good idea to use a biltong box with proper vents, screens, and fans. When it comes to the direction of airflow, the fans should be drawing air out of the box, not pushing air into the box. This prevents the ambient moisture around the meat from becoming high enough that it encourages mold or bacterial growth, and allows air to naturally dry the meat. It’s important to hang the meat with enough space for airflow between pieces, for this reason.
In some dry climates- indeed, like the highveld area of South Africa the Voortrekkers credited with inventing biltong were crossing- there would be no risk of this moisture gathering at all because the ambient moisture in the air is that low.
In other parts of the world (especially the tropics) you can have high ambient moisture, however, and this could be problematic for your biltong making.
Light bulbs aren’t needed in most cases
As we mentioned earlier, you need the right heat, airflow, and moisture balance to make a success of biltong making. The ideal climate is warm (not hot), dry, with steady airflow.
This doesn’t need to be very strong, as that also runs the risk of drying the outer layers before the inside of the meat. You just need enough to keep drawing air through the box and pulling the released moisture away.
If you live somewhere very chilly, it will take a long time for airflow to draw the water from the meat and finish the curing process.
That’s why some varieties of biltong dehydrators have light bulbs so that the air is slightly warmed around the meat. However, this needs to be very carefully balanced. If the air is too hot, whether, by bulb heating or simply your climate, it will both ruin the biltong through cooking the outer layer and promote bacterial growth.
So you may need to tweak your biltong box setup carefully over time until you have a perfect balance. Biltong should dry to ‘semi-moist’ within 24-48 hours, and should not take longer than a week even if you like it crisp.
Just remember, when in doubt, leave the bulb out. Rather add an extra fan than heat.