Even though air-drying beef results in tough, chewy meat, if it’s served in the correct way (which in most cases means thinly sliced against the grain) it becomes a delicacy in its own right. Jerky is one of the simplest ways to dry beef – very thin slices taken from lean cuts such as fillet steak and sirloin are salted and marinated before being either hot-smoked or placed in an oven at a very low heat until dry and leather-like in texture. There’s also South African biltong, which is similar to jerky but cut into thicker pieces, soaked in vinegar and then air-dried without heat over several days.
In Europe, there are some examples of charcuterie and salumi that use beef instead of pork. The most well-known is bresaola, from the Lombardy region of Italy. It’s made by dry-curing legs of beef in salt and spices (usually juniper and cinnamon) for a few days before being hung and left to dry for several months. Cecina, from northwest Spain, is similar, although the meat is flavoured with smoke instead of spices and is left to dry for up to a year instead of a few months. Both bresaola and cecina are served sliced as thinly as possible, otherwise the meat would be too tough and chewy to eat.
One very unique and traditional way of drying beef can be found in Indonesia. Beef rending might now be seen as a sort of thick curry with coconut milk and hot spices, but it was originally created to help preserve meat in the hot and humid weather. Farmers would slowly cook beef in a spice paste full of chillies, garlic and ginger (all of which help prevent bacterial growth) and coconut milk. As the liquid evaporated, the meat would begin to absorb the spices and flavours, and skilled Indonesian cooks were able to continue to cook the dish until the beef itself had lost enough moisture that it could be kept at room temperature for several weeks.
As you can see, people have been preserving beef all over the world for centuries, and while we tend to think of preserved foods in terms of bacon, chorizo, smoked salmon and pickled vegetables, all these methods can be used to create delicious beefy specialities. What’s more, many of them are easy to recreate at home, and if you’ve never tasted a homemade slice of salt beef or even a piece of jerky you’ve dried yourself, you’re missing out on a world of flavours and textures that have stood the test of time.