When we first started making biltong, everything was done by hand, however, as we've grown we've been able to utilise more specialist machinery and contrary to popular belief, this has actually allowed us to make a more consistent and better biltong because we can accurately control variables like steak size, air flow, yield, etc.
What hasn't changed is our commitment to no bulls#&t ingredients! The video above shows how we make biltong in our new factory and how it differs from jerky. Much of this process used to be done by hand when we were the 'biltong machines'. If you'd like to make your own biltong, you can follow the 6 steps below to learn how to make biltong at home. Or if you can't be f**cked, try a sample pack here.
This first step in our process is very labour intensive. Fortunately, we all wanted to work in an abattoir when we grew up, so it’s a dream come true. Tom and Luke's double degree in economics and finance are true assets, they never lose count of how many cuts we’ve gone through. I’ve even once heard Tom count to well over 100! Luke is very adamant in weighing everyone's off-cuts. If your meat to offcuts ratio is out, you’re forced to eat a spoon of The Burn spice.
Before we start processing, Laing applies his degree in nutrition to test the chemical composition of the meat. He assures us that his state of the art testing is absolutely vital and that he’s the only one trained in the methods. So once he’s cooked up a steak, eaten it, taken a nap and given us the green light, we get to work. I use my experience as a personal trainer to program everyone's tennis elbow rehab from cutting meat for 14 hours straight.
We need to remove the ‘eye’ from the outsides (Laing is doing so in the photo). At first we found this technical and challenging but nowadays it’s so easy; we can cut with our left hand and rub circles on our head with our right. Next, all the sinew is taken off: anything that could be too chewy must go. The cuts to the right of Laing have been cleaned up and are ready for slicing. This entire process really challenges and develops your fine motor skills. We find that the repetitive focus on such a simple task is also quite relaxing. The four of us cut at our tables facing inwards to one another and good chats always ensue.
Once the ol’lumpa meat’s been cleaned up and the eye’s been removed, we now cut our steaks. For a few pseudo-reasons it’s essential the steaks be cut with the grain, the main reason being that once the steaks are dry, they're put through the slicer and cut across the grain, meaning the final slices of Biltong are easy to tear and chew. Also this is what our family have been doing for generations and I don’t want to make gramps angry, especially in his final days.
We cut our steaks extra thick, as we’ve found hanging them for 10 days makes the most surreal Biltong, so soft, tender and a consistent dryness all the way to the centre (size matters).
Once we’ve got stacks on stacks of steaks, in goes the vinegar until the steaks are swimming around. We then add our ‘marinade mix’, this is a unique mix of spices, different to that of our final ‘press spice’, using the two different spices makes a world of difference and is unique to the Barbell Biltong process.
It's a long process but luckily all of us boys have strong wrists and a good eye for an inch.
This is the most physically demanding day by a long shot. In the first few hours of the day we lug over 1000 kilos of tubs filled with steaks, vinegar, spices and love. We pour out all but the steaks. The 50 kg tubs are delicately farmers-walked down a slippery set of stairs. If head were to go over heels, you’d be in big trouble - that’s like 30 kilos of premo biltong down the drain! Gramps would roll over in his grave.
We do our best to embrace the labour and treat it like a workout, because really what’s the difference? Yes we’re wearing aprons, hairnets and walking down slippery stairs, and there's no mirrors and ferns around, but it’s an opportunity to move and get stronger.
Now that the steaks have had their acid bath it's time for those suckers to get spiced. We slap them down on our giant boards and piece them together tetris style until it’s nothing but a vast span of steaks - as far as Gramp’s eye can see.
Next up our armed guards man the door whilst Luke unlocks the vault and retrieves the treasured blend. The steaks must be spiced evenly in a short up and down sweeping motion that takes years of habitual practice to master.
Now the hard yards. We firmly press the spice into the steaks using the knuckles of our fists. A few hours of this and your pecs and triceps will be smoked. At this rate we’ll be planching on steaks in no time.
Finally, once the poor steaks have taken their beating, they get their hook piercing and are ready to be hung.
Now that our meaty steaks have been spiced, pressed, and pierced with hooks, they are ready to be hung.
Small pieces go up the top of our cabinets and the monsters reside down the bottom. If you’ve got a mixed tub you’ll find yourself squatting up and down repeatedly. This is actually a blessing. Most of our time in the kitchen is spent with straight, motionless legs and we complain about our sorry sore knees all the way home. It’s great to get some much needed movement throughout the ankle, knee and hip joints.
As soon as our juvenile steak is hung it will begin its transformation from meat to marvel. Only the best quality meat holds the strength to passive hang for 10 days straight. In the first couple of hours they’ll be drip drying veraciously - vinegar and water pours out of them like Niagara falls. The steaks slightly elongate in the first few hours before they begin slowly shriveling like a shrinky dink.
Once all the meat is hanging it’s time to leave the rest to mother nature and father time. These suckers will rest suspended, all alone, for 10 days. They ought to keep each other company but we still come to visit them from time to time. Sometimes one of us even returns to the kitchen at night to read them a few nursery rhymes. Every now and then we ponder, what do biltong steaks dream about at night?
Ten days have passed and our steaks are now hard and beautiful like diamonds. These steaks are a one of a kind; they’ve undergone a profound transformation from red meat flesh, to rock hard biltong bars.
The sad reality here is an underlying issue of steak inequality. From an early age, every steak dreams of becoming a piece of biltong. Sadly, only a gifted few ever have the opportunity to reach this fortune. Our steaks are the 1% who have been born into aristocracy. Barbell Biltong is on a mission to break the class struggle between steaks. We’ll do this, simply, by marinating and hanging more steaks. It feels good having a philanthropic motive.
Our biltong was originally created to fuel our own extended camping trips. Back then, we ate our biltong in this steak form. It was rather fun to hold a steak and to chew through it with all your jaw’s might. In reality however, this was a messy animalistic practice and it was only acceptable doing so whilst hidden in the Australian wilderness. These days we grind our steaks into bite sized pieces for general convenience.
It’s finally time to grind our steaks into recognizable bite sized biltong pieces. Once we send them through the grinder they’ll be ready for packaging.
The grinder is a big circular blade that is extremely sharp and that spins at deadly speeds. It splices the hell out of anything in its path and we’re proud to say that we still have all of our fingers attached. That piece of blurry biltong is shooting out of the grinder at such high speeds it could barely be captured.
Unfortunately, our grinder sounds even louder than 10,000 jet engines. To avoid going deaf and insane we must wear heavy duty earmuffs all day. We ingeniously tuck a pair of earphones underneath so that we may listen to a podcast or an audiobook as we work.
Thanks to our noisy grinder we’ve learned a great deal about business, health, history and philosophy. We’ll each listen to something different and our lunchtime chats are fuelled by an assortment of new ideas.
So, rather than letting the meat bog us down, we are able to walk out of the kitchen at the end of the day with an enriched mind. If we’re lucky, we’ll fall asleep and dream about something besides bulk meat processing. Here are our audio recommendations:
Podcast recommendation: Waking Up by Sam Harris
Audiobook recommendation: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain