This article will help you decide on the best meat to make biltong including what cut and USDA grading.
If you are going to put in the time and effort to make your own biltong then you want to give yourself the best chance of making the most tasty high quality biltong possible. Selecting the best meat to make biltong (cut and grade) will greatly improve the quality of your biltong.
In general I like to use organic, grass fed (hormone free) beef. A local butcher shop is a good place to find this (good to ask about where they get their beef from), followed by high end grocery stores like Whole Foods and even most large chain stores have organic grass fed options (have a look at the Publix site for a good description of how they certify their Greenwise beef). If you cannot find organic grass-fed then there are 3 grades of beef in most stores to choose from – more about that below.
As far as the actual cut of meat is concerned, contrary to selecting meat to braai (grill) I recommend choosing lean pieces without too much marbling (white strips in the meat) and definitely as little sinew strips as possible. A little fat on the outside of a piece of meat (if you are making larger pieces of biltong) are often the first choice of biltong connoisseurs. In a beef cut fat can appear in two places (i) extra-muscular fat (on the outside of the meat) and (ii) intramuscular fat (AKA marbling). Marbling is great for grilling but not so great for biltong. So for example Sirloin and Top Round are good lean cuts for biltong but not as great for grilling whereas Ribeye is not great for biltong but great for grilling.
The 3 grades of beef in the USA:
The beef you buy in the grocery store these days is probably one of 3 grades: Prime, Choice or Select. Beef does not, however, need to be graded, it is up to the producer to obtain the grading service.
A quality grade is determined by various factors including the age of the animal (younger is generally better), color, texture and marbling. Marbling refers to the distribution of fat (that holds the flavor) within the lean meat.
Prime grade is usually found in good restaurants and, if found in grocery stores, will be usually far expensive than other grades since only 2% of beef in the US is graded Prime.
Choice grade is still good quality beef but generally has less marbling than Prime. It is more affordable and is also further divided into Yield Grades (with Yield Grade 1 being best).
Select grade is usually cheaper, leaner and lacks the juiciness and flavor of higher grades.
There are other grades which you will not usually see in a grocery store: Standard and Commercial. Such beef is usually sold as ‘ungraded’ or ‘store brand’.
Utility, Cutter and Canner grades are used for ground beef and processed products and are not the best meat to make biltong.
The Certified Angus Beef brand does not grade their beef as above, however, the same USDA graders make the Angus Beef Brand certification. Beef given this brand must be the best Choice or Prime beef. It must come from predominantly black cattle and meet 10 science-based specifications for marbling, size and uniformity.
USDA Beef Grading Guide