NICK SOLARES CORNER
THE PHILOSOPHY OF DRY AGING
We truly live in the golden age of dry aging. While there was a time when quite literally all meat was dry aged, there has never been as much research, experimentation, development, and innovation put into the practice. Across the globe we are seeing boundaries being pushed in terms of aging periods, cuts utilized, and flavor development; today’s passion for dry aged beef is unmatched. In this series we will examine the principles of dry aging beef, meet some of the industry's leading experts, visit commercial and restaurant dry age facilities, and seek to apply what we learn to home aging in the DRYAGER cabinet.
Dry aged beef is often considered the “old way of doing things” and indeed it is true that in the days before vacuum packing, let alone electricity and refrigeration, beef was processed quite differently than it is today. In antiquity, whole animal carcasses were hung for several days to prepare them for market. Then, as now, beef was aged primarily for the purpose of tenderizing it, however, when new techniques of aging supplanted traditional ones, something was lost along the way. The essential flavor of beef for most consumers changed. Dry aged beef never went away, it was still found in steakhouses and fine dining restaurants, but it became an exclusive item, generally unavailable to the consumer market.
But in the last decade and a half we have seen a renewed interest in the art of dry aging. In fact there has been more research and development in the last decade than the four that preceded it! Dry aging has become more widely available during this time, especially as it dovetails well with many of the culinary trends of the 21st Century such as the farm to table movement, and nose-to tail butchering. As we shall discuss below, the way we enjoy dry aged beef today is unprecedented both in its innovation and in its attention to the aesthetic virtues the process produces.
The Principles of Beef Aging
Completely fresh meat needs several days to relax before it becomes tender enough to eat. The fat must cool and solidify completely, rigor mortis, the stiffening of the joints and muscles, takes as long as four days to dissipate at which point decay begins. Beef aging is literally controlling this structural breakdown. This is accomplished in two ways - wet and dry aging.
Dry Aging is the old fashioned way of preparing beef for market, traditionally this meant hanging whole carcasses but beginning in the 1950’s, with the advent of boxed meat, much of the market made the move to aging beef Primals such as the rib and short loin, from which the best steaks are fabricated. To dry age beef one stores it uncovered in special rooms that are kept just above freezing with humidity levels as high as 85%. Ventilation also plays a role, and many aging rooms are like the wind tunnels automobile manufacturers use to test aerodynamics. This environment allows a controlled form of decay to occur which is not dissimilar from wine and cheese production.
The process of dry aging leads to shrinkage in the product; beef can lose as much as 15% of its weight when aged for a month using traditional methods, although this can be reduced to around 8% with modern devices like the DRYAGER cabinet. This shrinkage is the reason dry aged beef it is generally more expensive than wet aged product, which loses none of its weight during the aging process as it happens in a hermetically sealed environment. As the meat begins to dry out a hard crust forms on the exterior, this will become increasingly darker over time as it desiccates. Similarly the meat inside will become darker in color as moisture is driven out and it becomes oxygen deprived. Dry aged beef will have a color closer to oxblood than the bright cherry red color associated with wet aged beef.
The advent of refrigeration coupled with vacuum packing technology allowed for rationalization within the distribution system. It became easier and more economical to break down the carcass into Primals at centrally located processing plants, seal them in plastic, and ship them to regional distributors, rather than shipping the whole carcasses and having them broken down in individual markets. This process is called wet aging and it accounts for an overwhelming percentage of modern beef production.
The same enzymatic tenderizing effect that occurs in dry aging is accomplished by storing the beef in vacuum sealed, refrigerated bags. The beef achieves tenderness in a matter of days and it loses no moisture during the process, making the beef cheaper than dry aging. While tenderness is indeed achieved in wet aging it does not change or enhance the fundamental flavor of the beef in any meaningful way. That’s not to say that wet aged beef isn't delicious, but as we shall discuss at length the flavor differences are profound when compared to dry aged product.
Be wary of restaurant menus and retail markets that refer to beef as "aged" - technically all beef is aged, you should have them clarify whether it is dry or wet aged. Due to the loss of weight, not to mention the climate controlled shelf space required to store dry aged beef expect to pay significantly more for it. And it’s not just the loss of moisture that adds to the expense, the exterior of the beef that has been exposed to the dry age room and has become hardened and discolored must be trimmed away. The longer the beef is aged the more trimming will be required as the desiccation increases into the muscle.
Dry aged beef, even on what passes for the industrial scale is still a vanishingly small segment of the market. The commoditization of the industry long ago dictated that wet aged beef was the most profitable method of production. It is also far easier to manage wet aging — just stick it in a bag and put in on the shelf. Dry aging ray comparison requires not just sound fundamentals of the basics of preservation but also requires considerable aesthetic decisions to be made — there is no singular flavor of dry aged beef, it has a massive bandwidth in comparison to the relatively limited one of wet aged product. Dry aged beef’s flavor can go from being relatively mild to so intense that it doesn’t taste much like beef at all. In most cases, assuming it hasn’t been trimmed away, the exterior of a steak aged for a month will exhibit the flavor of dry aging most prominently around the periphery of the cut, the muscle itself will have a more neutral flavor. As the aging process lengthens the flavor of the dry aging will begin to permeate the meat, changing its essential character as it desiccates. Dry aging environments differ markedly in how this occurs.
For this reason, there is no one right way of dry aging beef, assuming of course that food safety guidelines are met. While studies have indicated that whether dry or wet aging 14 days is enough time to achieve tenderness. But the industry standard for dry aging for the restaurants and hotel trades has been 28 days since time immemorial. Aging beyond 14 days is more about developing flavor than tenderness, and frankly, is only relevant to dry aged beef. On the rare occasions that I have been presented with long term wet aged beef, over 45 days for example, I have found the resulting beef to have a mushy texture, and a sour, slightly metallic flavor.
I've heard the philosophical argument that the taste of wet aged meat is actually closer to the “real” flavor of beef, truer to the essence of the animal, by virtue of being unaffected by the external factors at play during dry aging. I feel precisely the opposite way. Cattle, even when reared under the most modern, industrial process’, are still subject to the laws of nature.
As assuredly as what it is fed affects its flavor during life, so too does the passage of time after it is harvested. The element of time is an important factor in the development of flavor. As macabre as it sounds, we place value on things the further removed from life they become. As it is with wine and spirits, so it is with beef.
The similarity between beef aging and wine is not inconsequential. Just as passage of time adds both virtue and value to fermented grapes, so too does it for aging beef. To take the analogy further: when discussing the flavor differences between wet and dry aged beef I draw the comparison between grape juice and wine. Juice and wine are both beverages made from grapes, but the former is quite simple and elemental while the latter is complex and evolved. So too is it with wet and dry aged beef. Just as fermentation transforms the grape, dry aging produces complex and profound flavors in beef.
While dry aging is the traditional or “old way” of doing things it needn’t stuck in the past. While the decades old wooden dry age box of a fabled steakhouse or butcher shop has a romance and mystique that is hard to resist, it isn’t the only way to achieve a superior product. In fact both our understanding of dry aging generally and the underlying technologies required to achieve it successfully have never been more refined.
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