Does the idea of being served ‘old’ beef gross you out? Well it shouldn’t, because it’s actually a good thing. Here’s everything you need to know about aging beef.
Let’s start with the big one: why do we age beef at all? Aging is employed to improve two major meat characteristics – taste and/or tenderness. As unpleasant as it sounds, the process of aging meat is essentially carefully controlled decomposition.
Did you know that even the meat you buy at the grocery store has undergone at least 7-10 days of aging? It’s an industry-wide consensus that beef aged for at least this long is significantly better than freshly-slaughtered product, which ironically can taste “less-beefy” and highly metallic.
In fact, tenderness is such an important quality for steaks that the meat industry has developed a method for measuring and assessing the texture characteristics of meat known as the Warner-Bratzler shear force test (kinda like how chilis are measured in Scoville units). So I guess you can actually assign a value to something that ‘cuts like a hot knife through butter’!
So let’s look at the two different types of aging:
Wet aging is less talked about, but far more commonly practiced. The term ‘wet aging’ simply refers to product that is vacuum packed, and therefore “wet” from sitting in its own liquids. So think about it; any piece of vacuum sealed meat you see is technically being wet aged right in front of your eyes! It’s a faster process than dry and is also cheaper because all you really need is a vac sealable bag. In addition, it’s the more popular method because you don’t lose any of the product to shrinkage. Wet aged meat can have a pale, unappealing appearance when first de-bagged, but when exposed to air oxymyoglobin is allowed to form, and the meat will start to return to it’s signature red color. The downside to wet aging is that because the product sits in its own ‘juices’ (FYI, technically speaking these ‘juices’ are not blood, but rather a mix of water and myoglobin), it retains a strong minerally/serumy taste.
Dry aging works by exposing the naked beef to a carefully controlled environment with precise temperature and humidity levels. In addition to an increase in tenderness, the flavor of the beef is altered during this process from a combination of bacteria, enzyme breakdown and oxidation (yup, the same process we try to stop in our own bodies by consuming antioxidant-rich foods!). There’s also a theory that the water loss concentrates the flavor, too. The conditions necessary for dry aging require expensive refrigeration equipment, plus the significant moisture loss results in reduced saleable yield of product. Meaning: it shrinks a helluva lot, so there’s less of it to sell, and whatever is left becomes more expensive per pound. Additionally, the surfaces which are exposed to air develop a gnarly dark appearance which is dryer than gas station jerky, and must be cut away before cooking, meaning even more loss of final saleable product. Sometimes if you have a particularly funky-tasting dry aged cut, it may be because the outer layers were not trimmed back far enough.
The biggest difference between the wet and dry aging methods is while both have an effect on tenderness, only dry aging intensifies flavor.
Technically speaking, there’s even a third method which involves accelerating aging at higher holding temperatures with ultraviolet lights, but it’s not commonly used.
HOW LONG TO AGE?
For tenderness: Whether using a wet or dry method, here’s the bottom line: in terms of tenderness, aging is most effective between 14 – 28 days. Studies utilizing the aforementioned Warner-Bratzler method show that any benefit starts to decrease after the 14 day mark, and by 28 days the change in tenderness is nearly negligible. So basically, any given piece of meat has a limit to how tender it can become, and it generally hits that mark within 28 days. In fact, wet aged meat that has been sealed too long will actually go beyond the point of tender, starting to decompose into unpleasant mushiness caused by rotting. I know, I know… gross.
For taste: There are some pretty fancy restaurants selling steaks that have been aged for 60, 90 or even 240 days, and you can bet you’ll be paying a premium for their aging efforts. Since taste is so subjective, it’s nearly impossible to define the point where ‘sublime’ becomes ‘stinky’, and the bulk of the scientific research so far has been centred on tenderness, not taste. Having said that, general consensus is that 30-40 days of dry aging will bring out some incredible characteristics in your beef, and intensify the flavour. Sort of like a High Definition version of your regular steak.
Extended dry aging (I’m talking 100+ days…) is an extremely personal preference, where older and pricier doesn’t necessarily mean better. One could argue that there’s something inherently wrong with your waitress merrily volunteering that the odoriferous reek coming off your plate is intentional. A super whiffy dry aged steak is a completely different eating experience to the traditional beefy steaks that are universally adored by carnivores worldwide. In fact, I’d compare extreme dry aging to a mega-stinky cheese (say, Epoisses, which has such a horrendously pungent odour that it has been banned from public transport in France) it’s not for everyone, and it’s ok if you don’t like it.
And while wet aging doesn’t improve taste, it can still affect it (and not for the better). In addition to an unappealing mushy texture, over-wet aging will also result in unpleasant, serumy flavor changes from unwanted microbial growth.
WHAT TYPE OF MEAT SHOULD BE AGED?
Overall, a number of factors determine how significantly meat will benefit from aging. Lower grades actually get more out of it, so a Select graded cut will respond better than a Choice graded cut, because there’s more room for improvement. Although a certain amount of aging does ultimately help all beef, some muscles respond better than others; so the eye part of your ribeye (Longissimum dorsi) will have a higher tenderness response than the cap on your ribeye (Spinalis dorsi), even though you’ll be buying them together as one steak.
And have you ever noticed it’s only beef that gets aged? Well, out of all the commercial consumer proteins, beef is the most variable in terms of tenderness. Generally, pork, lamb and veal are tender enough to begin with, it’s just poor cooking skills that can make them tough.
So, let’s summarize what we’ve learned and clear up a couple of myths:
- Scientifically speaking, there’s little evidence to support that aging for anything less than 12-14 days will yield any discernible results. So all this jazz about putting your uncovered steak in the fridge for a night or two to intensify flavor is complete BS. Sorry. #notsorry
- Not only is the short-term home fridge method useless, but dry aging is only suited to sub-primals (i.e. whole chunks of meat before they’ve been cut into steaks), not individual steaks. Why? Because there’s so much intense dehydration and tough rind that forms on the exterior, a single steak would be trimmed down to a mere sliver by the time you’re done. It’s like trying to make a baked ‘tater with a single thin slice of potato – you’re gonna end up with a Pringle.
- People like to show off and make things seem fancier than they are (e.g. renaming steaks). Someone boasting about having a “wet aged brisket” is akin to being proud of driving a “four wheeled car” – impressive to the unenlightened, laughable to those in the know. Yes, it’s technically accurate, but completely redundant to mention. Unless you’re self-slaughtering or getting your meat delivered straight from a cool room on a meat hook, brisket in particular will nearly always come vacuum sealed, so nearly all of it wet aged by default.
- With either method, the aging process stops altogether as soon as you put the meat in the freezer.
- Aging will have the greatest effect on meat between 14 and 28 days.
- Only dry aging intensifies taste, wet aging only affects tenderness.
Now the only thing left to do, is figure out whether your personal taste preference is for wet or dry! Got some thoughts on the aging process? Chat about it with me on Facebook.