PhD in Biltong Making

You might be forgiven for thinking we’ve made a mistake in the title, after all, who’s ever heard of a PhD in biltong making? But it’s a thing, really it is, and the first person to have earned this accolade is Stellenbosch University (SU) student, Maxine Jones, who received her doctorate in food science from SU earlier this year.

Featured in FOODStuff South Africa, Jones’ research focused exclusively on how to make great quality biltong. Her industry-based research, which took her as far afield as the Netherlands and Thailand, looked at various aspects of the manufacturing process and tried to pin down elements like temperature, humidity, and air movement; all instrumental in producing high-quality biltong. Jones highlights the fact that there is currently no standardised drying and processing guidelines for biltong production in South Africa, which means that quality and consistency are an issue in the end product. Economically an important sector in the South African meat industry, biltong production has the potential to become even bigger business, both here and internationally. But Jones also feels that introducing standardised guidelines will ensure more consistent quality and will help avoid any potential food safety issues.

If you want to know what her research uncovered, here are her key findings:

  • Adding vinegar during the spicing step does not make meat dry faster, but it does help control the levels of microbes on biltong for at least a month after production, so it helps increase shelf life. Adding vinegar also ensures a consistent product that is safe for eating.
  • The type of meat muscle selected affects the drying rates. Using specific and consistent parameters throughout the study, gemsbok topside was the quickest to dry taking 76 hours, while beef topside and silverside both required approximately 96 hours, and dry, fatty beef topside took the longest at 118 hours.
  • Yeasts and moulds which often become an issue during storage, are only visible to the eye after six weeks, but may already be invisibly present in high levels at the end of drying.
  • The presence of vinegar lowers the pH of beef biltong from around 5.56 to 4.89, which prevents the growth of microbes.

According to Jones ‘with the increased popularity of biltong the research opportunities are vast, and this research is just the beginning of things to come.’ And we’re all for that, because while biltong might not officially be our national food, unofficially it’s right up there alongside other much-loved and iconic South African foods like vetkoek, boerewors and bunny chow. So, enjoy your biltong, safe in the knowledge that it now carries PhD status.