Cut and dried: make your own biltong maker

  • Reader project: cut and dried
  • Reader project: cut and dried
  • Reader project: cut and dried
  • Reader project: cut and dried
Date:31 May 2010 Tags:, , ,

As any self-respecting omnivore will attest, biltong is a national institution, a denture-destroyer of note, a culinary treat of rare delight. That acknowledged, you are invited to follow our instructions for making your own biltong dryer in under a day – for less than R300. Story and pictures by Sean Woods

If you think Soccer World Cup tickets are expensive, you obviously haven’t bought any biltong lately. Selling for around R180 per kilogram, sometimes more, it has to be one of the most expensive delicacies on the omnivore’s hit list. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Most of us tend to associate biltong with remote farm sheds and strips of meat dangling from roof beams for weeks on end. Although these places still exist (and we wouldn’t change them for the world), biltong no longer has to be made the slow, old-fashioned way. Modern techniques cut the drying process to just a few days, regardless of the season. And here’s even better news: almost all the components required to build a hygienic, foolproof biltong dryer of your own can be found at your local hardware store.

When a friend recently asked DIY guy Grant Immelman to make a doggy treats dryer for her business, it was a perfectly logical choice. After all, he’d been in the industrial air treatment and ventilation business for years, and had a solid reputation among friends and colleagues for his DIY prowess and problem-solving skills. Says Immelman: “I’ve always been interested in building things. It sounded like an interesting project, so I agreed to help her out.”

This man knows his stuff. Previous projects include designing and building his own Hi-Fi speakers and amplifiers (he’s a hardcore audiophile) and the construction of solar water heating systems for his Somerset West home. The doggy treat dryer proved an easy one (he came up with a nifty modular solution) – but it got him thinking. Personally, I find biltong much tastier than dried liver strips, so I decided to make myself a biltong dryer while I was at it.” Immelman had a few specific criteria for his dryer. The system had to be modular, to allow for easy expansion. It also had to be hygienic, constructed of readily available materials and affordable.

It was about at his point that PM got wind of the project, and in no time, Immelman had knocked up a prototype to make sure everything worked as envisaged. About four days later, a piece of perfectly dried and delectable biltong was delivered to my desk (then reluctantly shared among my appreciative colleagues).

Building the dryer for this article took no longer than three hours to complete and that included pauses to chat, drink coffee and take photographs. Says Immelman: It’s an easy weekend afternoon project hat can involve the kids. And if you don’t want to make biltong, I suppose it can always be used to dry fruit.”

What you need
Shopping for this project shouldn’t be a chore; most of the components are readily available and can probably be found under one roof – the exception being the computer-type fan, for which you might need to visit an electronics store. What you need (with approximate prices):
* 1 x 55-litre sealable plastic container (it must keep flies out and should be deep enough for the hanging meat not to touch anything). Cost: R75
* 7 x (8 mm x 450 mm) lengths of dowelling. Cost: R32
* 1 x 220V, 80 mm square (including housing) computer-type fan. Cost: R70
* 2 x clip-on vents fitted with open cell foam filter screens (to fit the fan). Cost: R13 each
* 1 x plastic bayonet light fitting (sold for hanging lampshades). Cost: R8
* 1 x 40 W golf-ball type incandescent light bulb (don’t use an energy saver – you want the heat). Cost: R15
* 1 x 2 m length of twin-core flex. Cost: R7
* 1 x three-prong plug. Cost R12
* 4 x (M4 x 40 mm) countersunk machine screws with nuts. Cost: R7
* 4 x (M4 x 12 mm) countersunk machine screws with nuts. Cost: R7
* Paper clips (to hang the meat)

Tools for the job
You probably have most of the tools required for the job stashed somewhere in your tool box. If you don’t own a hole saw set (and you really should; they don’t cost much and come in very handy), this represents a perfectly good excuse to go off and buy one. You’ll require the following tools:
* Hand drill
* 8 mm and 4 mm drill bits
* 76 mm and 29 mm hole saws
* Phillips and small flat screwdriver (depending on your choice of light fitting)
* Stanley knife
* Steel rule/tape measure
* Masking tape
* Marker pen
* Wire cutter (not essential)
* Insulation tape

Breaking out the tools
Your first job is to mark out all the holes on the plastic container that need drilling. Start off by sticking strips of masking tape along the top of the container’s longer sides (1). This makes it easy to accurately mark the plastic while helping to keep the holes clean. Now find the top-centre mark on both sides and work down 35 mm from inside the lip to get the position for the first section of dowelling (2). This distance will vary depending on the container’s size or design; the idea is not to have the biltong touch any part of the lid once it’s closed.

Now that you have established the correct height, mark off the six other pairs of dowelling holes at equal intervals (in this case, 60 mm apart), working outwards from the two opposite centre marks.

Once again, use the masking tape to mark the centre line of the container’s narrower sides from top to bottom. One side gets two holes near the bottom; one for the fan and the other for the light fitting. The opposite side gets just one hole near the top for the air outlet. On one side, mark a hole for the light fitting 75 mm from the bottom, and another 150 mm from the bottom for the fan. To get the centre point for the air outlet on the container’s opposite side, measure 320 mm from the bottom.

Says Immelman: “When marking off circles, always calculate distances from their centre points to avoid any confusion.” Regardless of what measurements you use, make sure the air inlet is always at the bottom, and the air outlet is positioned at the top (on the opposite side) to facilitate a healthy air flow.

Next, using the 8 mm drill bit, drill out the holes for all the dowelling rods (3). Use the 29 mm hole saw to cut out the hole for the light fitting, and the 76 mm hole saw for the fan and outlet vent holes (4). Once this is done, remove the masking tape and clean up all the holes (5). Says Immelman: “I find from working in the plastics industry that the best way to clean holes is to take a blade, hold it almost flat and scrape it along their edges, making sure it doesn’t dig in (6).” The job doesn’t have to be perfect, since it gets covered up, but bear in mind that the cleaner the cuts, the easier it will be to keep the dryer clean.

Mounting the hardware
When mounting the fan, position it so that its power cable points down. Centre the fan over the hole, making sure it’s more or less horizontal and facing the correct direction. Advises Immelman: “The best way to check the fan’s airflow is to read the markings on its casing – you want the air to go into the container.” Holding the fan in place, use the 4 mm bit and drill the first hole (7).

Tip: Never try marking and then drilling all four holes at once, because you’ll never get it right with plastic. Rather use the fan as a jig, drilling each hole separately. Slip a bolt into the first hole to locate the fan, make sure it’s nice and square, then drill the opposite hole and pop in another bolt. Only then should you drill the two remaining holes. Next, drill the holes for the air vent on the opposite side in exactly the same manner, but this time use the shorter bolts. Comments Immelman: “The biltong’s not going to notice if it’s a bit off-centre!”

When fixing components in position, don’t over-tighten the bolts; you don’t want to split the plastic. Attach one vent (comprising three parts: a frame, cover and filter) to the outside of the fan before bolting it to the container. Attach the light fitting, (8) then use the fitting’s cable attachment points to join the fan and light fitting cables. Says Immelman: “Don’t forget to put the cover for the light fitting over the cables before joining them (9). It’s also a good idea to tie a knot in the cables so that accidental tugs don’t strain the connection.”

Tape the cables together with the insulation tape (as far as the knot) to prevent loose ends from popping out (10), then force the knot inside the light fitting’s cover and screw it into position (11). Says Immelman: “This is the fiddliest part of the entire project. It takes some patience, but it fits eventually.” Now, all that’s left to do is slide the dowelling rods into position (12), install the bulb and attach the wall plug (13).

Finally, give the dryer a wipe with a damp cloth and bleach to make sure everything is clean and germ-free. As Immelman puts it: “This will kill anything you don’t want on your biltong.” After washing the dryer, switch it on for about 30 minutes to make sure it’s dry before hanging the meat (14).

Making biltong
When it came to preparing biltong, Immelman confessed to being clueless, explaining: “I’m simply a techie who wants to help other people make their own dryers.” To find out how it was done, he went online and found the extremely useful Web sites and

However, he does know that it pays to use decent meat, and he generally opts for silverside or topside. The meat is cut into 25 mm-thick slices to make up for the fact that about half its weight (and thickness) will be lost in the drying process (15). For flavour, he relies on the Freddy Hirsch range of biltong spices (available in four different flavours) (16).
Before hanging the meat in your dryer, rinse the paper clips (if that’s what you’re using) in bleach to sterilise them. Oh, and make sure that juices don’t drip directly on to the light bulb. Immelman elaborates: “You should hang the meat in such a way that there is plenty of air flow, and make sure it doesn’t touch the bottom of the dryer. (17)”

The 40 W light bulb in Immelman’s dryer produces a temperature of about 35 degrees Celsius and a relative humidity of 45 per cent. It will easily accommodate 2 kg of meat. Basically, says Immelman, it all comes down to experimentation. For example, you might want to try using a 60 W bulb instead, or fit an extra fan. He generally allows the meat to hang for about four days before removing it, but sometimes even that can seem like a lifetime. “I like my biltong wet, so I usually start tucking into the thinner pieces after just two days.”

Read Sean’s blog for more information on how to make the biltong dryer, including a tasty biltong recipe… click here

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