Aging edibles in order to draw out more complex flavors is not a foreign concept to most people; wine, cheese, and many spirits are well-known to improve with time, especially when they are aged under certain conditions. However, meat is not generally one of the things we think of aging. After all, when you buy meat from the grocery store, the sell-by date usually only gives you a few days of leeway; if you wait too long after that, the meat goes bad, easily identifiable by smelling “off.” So when you see “dry-aged beef” on fine dining menus, what does that mean?
What is Dry Aging?
In the simplest of terms, aging beef is achieved by controlling its decomposition. All beef is aged to some degree, but in most cases it’s what is called “wet aging” – simply meat that’s vacuum-packed with its own liquids. This makes the meat more tender, which is why meat is almost never eaten directly after slaughter. The meat you buy at the store has usually already been aged for a few days, meaning that when you get it home, it is palatable and much more tender than it would have been right off the cow.
As the name suggests, dry aging is when the meat is aged in a dry environment instead of being enclosed with its own juices. In addition to becoming more tender with time, dry aged meat also goes through a change in flavor. The longer a piece of beef is aged, the more intense the flavor. The industry standard is to age beef for 28 days, but some stretch out to 45, 90, or even an incredible 420 days, though by that point the flavor is often too intense for customers to enjoy it.
To encourage aging while keeping the meat safe to eat, beef is aged in very specific environments with carefully controlled humidity and temperature. This environment helps ensure bacterial growth is limited (but not halted, as some bacteria is needed to help release enzymes and encourage oxidation to break down the meat) and that beneficial mold is encouraged to grow.
The Expense of Age
Aging beef is not a cheap venture. First, the meat itself must be purchased in bulk, as beef should always be aged in sub-primal cuts. The reason for this is that the exterior has to be trimmed to get rid of the crust of too-dry meat and white mold before it can be cooked and served, and if the meat is dried in a single steak, you’d be left with just a sliver of edible meat at the end.
As the beef ages, the meat loses moisture, which allows the flavors to concentrate more into the meat. Because all of the moisture evaporates from the meat instead of the fat, the final dried steak has more marbling than the original piece; this results in a texture that many find preferable to fresh steak. However, because of the lost moisture and the dried crust that has to be cut off, dry aged steaks cost more than fresher cuts for the same amount of meat, sometimes costing as much as $54 per pound of dry-aged meat – and that’s just the meat, without any restaurant markup.
How to Start Aging Beef
If you’d like to start offering dry-aged beef in your restaurant, it may take a little trial and error to find the right setup. Texas A&M University research about dry aging beef compared different mixtures of temperature, humidity, air flow, cut of meat, and length of time, which can help you narrow down what your restaurant may want to offer. However, because of variations in meat and equipment, you will still need to narrow down exactly how to age your meat.
Aging meat is an expensive prospect, due to not only the expensive cuts of meat and time invested in the process, but also the equipment needed to age meat properly. Beef must be aged in a walk-in cooler, with wire shelving that allows ample air circulation. Because of this, some chefs choose to purchase their aged beef from a butcher or meat purveyor instead of aging it in-house.