What is Dry Aged Beef
If you’ve ever had a steak, whether at a high end steakhouse or a gourmet dinner, that has blown you away with its flavor and tenderness, I’d wager that you were eating dry aged beef. Dry aging is the process in which beef is aged in a temperature controlled environment for a specific length of time before it is trimmed and then cut into steaks. The dry aging process is unique in its ability to intensify the natural flavors of the beef, while imparting a tenderness that you cannot replicate with unaged beef.
A Brief History Of Beef
Dry aging beef has always been a ‘niche’ process, and butchers who wanted the improved quality of dry aged beef were able to age the beef in much different scenarios than are available in today’s world. Years ago, beef processing plants would only sell whole beef, either in halves or quarters, and this is how the beef would be delivered to the butchers. The plants would process the beef, and then transport it to the butchers in a truck stacked like cordwood. If you have any old butcher shops in your neighborhood, you might have noticed that at the receiving door, there is a rail extending outside the building. This was to facilitate putting the beef quarters on wheels that could then roll right into the butcher shop.
Now if you were one of those butchers who dry aged, you were in hog heaven. The dry aging process is a destructive one; parts of the meat that are exposed to the open air must be trimmed once the dry aging is complete. Because of this, the most ideal condition for dry aging beef is to receive the beef in quarters. You’ve got the bones acting as a protection on one side, and a thick layer of fat on the other side.
Sometimes in the late 80s, however, there was a major sea change in the business with how the beef was processed and packaged. During that time, slaughterhouses were starting to coalesce, and small independent slaughterhouses were closing. In our case, it went from 5 or 6 small slaughterhouses in northern CA to maybe just one, and the rest where large operations out in the Midwest. With the shift in where the cattle were slaughtered came increased shipping costs. Stacking the beef quarters in a truck didn’t make sense if you were going cross country – there’s simply too much wasted space. Thus, the beef began to get processed into what are called “primals” or “sub primals” – major muscle groups that could be separated out and fit into smaller boxes, which in turn could stack neatly in a truck for transport. Now, instead of receiving a whole steer in 4 pieces, butchers were receiving 6 or 8 boxes, containing these primals. The ribs would be in one box, the shortloin in a separate box, the round in another, and on down the line. As this method of packaging and transporting beef caught on, slaughterhouse realized they were able to sell different configurations of these boxes – they were no longer having to sell beef as a whole unit. If a customer wanted to purchase only the prime ribs, for example, it was possible to do so. This is pretty much where the industry is today.
Moving from dry aging whole quarters to smaller beef primals does not change the beneficial effects of dry aged beef, but it does increase the waste factor. As the smaller primals, they will shrink faster, because there is a smaller surface area to size ratio.
Why Dry Aged Beef
So what makes dry aged beef different, and how is it done? Let’s start with what sets dry aged beef apart from unaged beef. There are two major elements that are affected in dry aging beef – the tenderness and the flavor. If you look at dry aging from a scientific perspective, you can think of it as a controlled decay process. When done in a monitored environment, introducing the beef primals to the air allows the occurrence of natural enzymes that slowly begin to break down the molecular bonds of the meat. As these bonds are slowly broken, the end result becomes more tender. Now, the next question you’re probably asking yourself is ‘So the longer dry aged the better?’ Not necessarily. In a properly controlled dry aging environment, you could in fact take a primal out 100, 150, even 200 days. However, the noticeable tenderness of the dry aged steak at 200 days will not be tremendously different than that same steak dry aged 100 days, or even 45 days. What is going to be a hugely different is the flavor.
The longer you dry age beef, the more pronounced the flavor is. A good analogy for any of you who enjoy cooking is to think of what happens when you turn a stock into a demi. As the moisture evaporates, the flavor concentrates. For those of you who don’t regularly enjoy making messes in their kitchen, a stock is like a broth – by simmering bones in water, you will impart that flavor into the water. Stocks are widely used as that basis for soup. A demi, or demi-glace, is a much thicker liquid that is made by simmering a pot of stock on a low flame until enough water evaporates to reach the desired consistency. All that is happening during that simmering process is the heat is causing the water molecules in the stock to slowly evaporate. But the flavor of the stock isn’t leaving the stovetop with those water molecules – it’s remaining in the pot. At the end of the process, you have 1 fifth the amount of liquid, but with the same amount of flavor. A spoonful of demi will pack the same flavor punch as several cups of stock.
Though a long-winded analogy, the concept is the same for dry aged beef. Except instead of putting that pot of stock over a low flame and waiting 24hours, beef primals are exposed to the open air in a controlled aging environment and left for anywhere from 7 to 60 days (or longer, depending how crazy you are). By ensuring the primals are open to the air on all sides, it allows the moisture within the meat to slowly evaporate over time. Depending on how short or long the aging process is, you will have relatively tame to absurdly intense flavor profiles. You will also see a surprising amount of weight lost, proof that moisture from the beef is evaporating. Interestingly enough, this moisture loss occurs at the fastest rate during the first two weeks of dry aging beef, then it will slowly decrease. Both of these elements, the tenderness and the flavor, that are brought about by the dry aging process, cannot be truly replicated. Rushing or cutting corners isn’t an option, true dry aged beef is a luxury that can turn an ordinary dinner into something remarkable.
At this point, more than a few of you are probably wondering “can I dry age steaks at home?” In a nutshell, yes you can, but the real question to ask, do you want to? Let’s take a look at exactly what goes into the aging process, so you can best understand the requirements.
There are two major elements that need to be controlled during the dry aging process: temperature and airflow. Humidity plays its own part, but to a somewhat smaller degree, because by controlling those first two, you’ll pretty much be able to keep it in check. Temperature is the most obvious control, and our aging rooms are kept at 38 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature control is the reason why even though a 60-day dry aged piece of beef looks like something your dog buried in the backyard last year, it’s entirely safe to consume. The bacteria that grow at these low temperatures are entirely natural, and it is only once they go above certain temperatures that they are able to equilibrate into harmful strains.
The second factor in play when dry aging beef is the airflow. Depending on the size of your aging cooler, how much product you have in there, and what you keep your temperatures at, you have to have varying degrees of airflow to ensure that the primals ‘dry’ properly. If any of you have attempted to dry age steaks at home, you might have seen the steaks take on a slightly wet look to them – this is in indication that you don’t have proper airflow. By ensuring that there is plenty of airflow in the aging room, you are creating an environment in which the beef will form an outer ‘crust’ during the first week or so of dry aging. This crust is important, as it will act as the shield for the inner meat. Thinking back to how beef used to be aged in whole quarters, the purpose of this crust is to recreate what used to be the natural barrier provided by the bones and fat of the carcass.
Hopefully this has helped explain not only why Dry Aged Beef is hands down the best beef you can buy, but also some insights into the process of how it is done. At the end of the day, when the aging is complete, the primals trimmed, and the steaks cut, what you are left with is a truly remarkable product. A rich taste, a velvet-like texture, and a dining experience that is sure to leave a lasting impression.