Can you do it? Yes. Is it simple? Yes, and no. Is it something you can do easily without a dedicated setup? Hell no.
How To Dry Age Steak At Home:
There’s lots of questions surrounding dry aging in the home setting, and I’m gonna answer all of them here for you. On a weekly basis, particularly leading up to the Holiday prime rib season, I was getting emails from folks who weren’t even exactly sure what dry aging was, asking if they should do it to their roasts. The potential threat of ruined meat and upset stomachs was both high and alarming, so instead of saying “no, don’t do it!”, I instead decided to write this guide. I enlisted the help of Diana Clark, a meat scientist at Certified Angus Beef®, to ensure that this guide was more than just a personal opinion on how it should be done. The do’s and don’ts within are all based on professional scientific recommendations. Also thank you to Texas Beef Council and Dr Davey Griffin from Texas A&M for extra assistance in answering the hard questions.
Dry aging is an expensive process, both in equipment required and meat investment cost. It’s not something you can do (correctly) with a bag or plastic box, and you need to be prepared to cut away a fair chunk of the final product you worked so hard to create. Now, if you’re still on board after reading all that, here’s what you need to know:
What Is Dry Aging?
Dry aging is a post mortem treatment for beef designed primarily to intensify flavor, with a secondary benefit of promoting tenderness. The flavor development is shaped by both a reduction in moisture which correlates to a concentration of flavor, and the cultivation of ‘good’ mold and bacteria to lend a funky, nutty profile to the meat. In short – dry aging makes beef taste really, really good.
CAVEAT: dry aging does not appeal to everyone. There are some folks who prefer regular beef, and who find the intense and nutty flavors of dry aging too much for their palate. The assumption here is, if you’ve arrived at this article interested enough in creating a set up at home, that you enjoy aged beef. If you haven’t yet tried it, I thoroughly recommend getting in touch with a local purveyor (be it butcher or restaurant) and tasting dry aged beef before you embark on this journey.
What Kind Of Steak Can You Dry Age at Home?
This is pretty important. You SHOULD NOT age individually cut steaks . Technically speaking you CAN age individually cut steaks, but it’s a colossal waste, and you’re foolish for undertaking it. Your meat will shrink vastly in size as it loses water through the aging process. When you combine the amount of rind trimming that needs to occur along with the smaller size, you’ll be left with barely a sliver of a steak.
What you SHOULD be dry aging are subprimals – or larger whole muscles. For example, a strip loin shell (bone in), or a 107/109 rib (basically a giant slab of bone in ribeye). It doesn’t matter whether it is grain or grass fed – that’s just a case of personal preference. You want to look for meat that is on the bone, not because it tastes better, but because you can cut the bone away during trimming and not lose any meat. If you keep reading, I’ll explain why you cut the bone away, rather than cook the meat on the bone.
The quality of the meat also matters. You need to use meat with a minimum degree of marbling, Choice grade or higher, and steer clear from overly-lean cuts (like the Round). Lean or lower grade meat does not develop any significant intensification of flavor, because the marbling is slight. Fat equals flavor, and so the absence of fat means you’re lacking the taste foundation which you need to build on.
Feel free to do some experimenting with other cuts, like beef ribs, as long as you remember you WILL need to trim any rind off. For example, dry aging may not be suitable for a brisket, where the flat may already be too thin to cut away and sacrifice any further. In their own experiments, CAB also noticed that dry aged brisket did not absorb any smoke flavor, and thus determined that dry aging briskets for BBQ was a pointless exercise.
It is perhaps stating the obvious, but since this is an attempt at a complete guide: all dry aging should occur with unwrapped/unbagged meat, where the cuts are placed ‘naked’ into the fridge. Leaving meat in a vacuum bag is wet aging. To learn more about the difference between Wet and Dry Aging, read this article.
How Long Should You Age Meat For?
Here’s where the art of dry aging becomes a rabbit hole… Let’s chat for a moment about tenderness. Yes, dry aging can help tenderness, but it’s mainly undertaken to intensify flavor. After about 28 days of aging, the meat is about as tender as its going to become. Technically speaking, for you sticklers, it has the capacity to continue to tenderize, but it’s practically negligible beyond this point. What you are looking at now is intensity of flavor, and nutty notes from the mold and controlled decomposition (yeah, it’s not the most pleasant way of putting it, but that’s literally what dry aging is!).
Short answer – the length of time you leave meat to age depends on numerous factors. What cut are you using? What kind of mold do you have in your fridge? Is it more intense than other strains? How much of that mold is in there? And most importantly: what is your personal preference?
Generally, it takes at least 30 days before you can start to taste any signature dry aged flavors. My personal preference is for something between 60-80 days. That may change as I get to know my own set up better (in terms of the intensity of the flavoring). After a certain point, dry aged steak turns from a delight to a delicacy. Meaning – the more funky it gets, the fewer people it will appeal to. Kind of like a light blue cheese versus a gorgonzola. One is much mustier than the other, and some palates find that too overwhelming.
You also have to consider the loss versus gain. The more you leave the meat to age, the thicker and tougher the rind will be, ergo the more you will need to cut away. There comes a point at which the benefit of flavor intensification is negated by the sheer loss of product and shrinkage.
The message here is: don’t be a hero. You’re not cool because you left a tenderloin in your fridge for 365 days so you can boast to your facebook friends that you’re eating year old steak. Slow your roll. Try less before you try more.
The Dry Aging Set Up:
THE FRIDGE: You’ll need a dedicated fridge for your dry aging. When I say dedicated, I mean it. Do not store any overflow items requiring refrigeration in here- no beer, no birthday cakes, no freshly harvested deer quarters. You’re trying to create and maintain an ideal microclimate for your beef to get funky. Protect your atmosphere! Further, sharing the space with other items may lead to cross contamination of flavor profiles which manifest in the fat.
I chose the 8.6 cubic feet Edgestar model, because it’s large enough for me to have a “starter” piece, plus 2-3 additional pieces aging at one time. It seemed to me that any smaller model would not allow me enough space to have a reasonable selection actively aging. And if you’re going to spend the money, then give yourself the extra space. Also take note to make sure the interior widths aren’t too narrow – the pieces of meat you’ll be aging are wide and will need extra room for air flow around the edges. Conversely, a fridge that is too large (if you’re only aging 1-2 pieces at a time) may have more trouble with humidity levels. You’ll notice this unit also has wire shelves – you’ll need these (as opposed to solid glass shelves) to make sure airflow is sufficient.
Finally, the unit I chose also has a glass door – which isn’t necessary, but is preferable for two reasons. 1) it allows you to check progress without opening the door. 2) it looks cool AF. This fridge is slightly cheaper than the Edgestar but still has a glass door. Obviously there are even more budget options, but here are some things to watch out for. You may need to pay extra $ to swap out glass shelves; if it has a built in freezer that detracts from overall usable area, and if it has a veggie crisper drawer you may also lose some space where otherwise the fan could have gone.
Be sure to disinfect your fridge before you use it for the first time – I used a water/bleach mixture to wipe down all internal surfaces.
THE AIRFLOW: Airflow is a crucial component to your dry aging set up. The good news is, ensuring you have adequate circulation is easy, and cheap. Just add a standalone fan. I chose this one – it was cheap, the perfect size for my fridge and offers 360 swivel of the fan head.
I actually placed my fan on a sheet pan to catch any meat drips (for easy cleaning), and angled the fan to face straight up towards the shelves. The cord will come straight out of the front of the fridge, just make sure it’s sitting as flat as possible against the seal.
THE HUMIDITY: 75-85% is the humidity range recommended by Certified Angus Beef®, which was within the parameters of humidity levels as cited in Dry Aging of Beef Executive Summary, produced for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association by Dr Jeff Savell of Texas A&M.
It’s important to keep your humidity levels in this optimal zone. Too much humidity can lead to spoilage, with bacteria growth producing nasty odors and also spoiled flavor. If humidity is too low, excess product shrinkage will occur, and drying too quickly can compromise the integrity of the muscle structure, creating gaps and air pockets.
For many locations in the United States, humidity will not be an issue, as a level around 80% will be easy to maintain. For example, in the winter, you would simply ensure that your fridge is stocked to capacity, so the water within the fresh (also called green) product would contribute to humidity. If you do live in an area where you will be dealing with extremely dry or moist air, you will need a humidity control on your fridge. Although not cheap, the simplest solution is to look for a wine fridge that has this feature.
If you’re just flirting above the 85% mark, an easy solution to control humidity is to install a giant salt block somewhere in your fridge. This will help lower humidity, can act as a air purifier and assist with controlling unwanted or “bad” bacteria.
THE TEMPERATURE: Your refrigerator needs to be set to below 40f and above 29f. I have mine set to 37f, just to account for any potential inaccuracies in the built in thermostat. The sweet spot is 36-39f. Although my fridge has a temperature display, it’s a great idea to invest in a stand alone thermometer which will monitor the temp. Anything above 40f will lead to faster spoilage and oxidization… aka rancidity. I’m sure you are aware that rancid meat is not a good thing. I’d rather pay an insurance premium of $15 for this Thermoworks unit (that you simply leave in the fridge) than lose expensive meat or get sick from it being held at incorrect temperatures. If you’re looking for something to display both temperature and humidity, consider this model.
Get Your Dry Aging Fridge Knocked Up
When I discovered the concept of dry age fridge inoculation, it kind of blew my mind. I had never considered it before, yet it was so obvious! Much like a sourdough needs a starter, or salami requires introduced mold cultures, your dry aging fridge will benefit from being inoculated by an already dried piece of meat.
In short – introducing the “right” mold to the fridge gets you off to a flying start, and makes sure the correct bacterias are present from the get go. The Certified Angus Beef® dry age locker in Ohio got their “starter” piece from DeBragga meats, New York’s Butcher® (who, fun fact, were one of the original purveyors in New York’s Meatpacking District). And my fridge was started off by a 70 day old strip shell from the CAB facility, with DeBragga provenance. It’s kinda cool to trace it back that far. So ideally, you want to start off your fridge by smearing the interior with the already-aged meats (that haven’t yet been trimmed) from a facility that has a good program already set up. This may require you to trace down some online options or try to negotiate with your local dry age purveyor.
So, what happens if you can’t get your hands on a piece of dry aged meat and you don’t inoculate? Well, nothing bad. You can still start your own fridge off, but the microclimate will just take far longer to develop. So, your meat will be tender and slightly more intensified, but will lack the funkiness of a mature dry aging facility.
Mold Is Good…Depending On The Color.
Mold in dry aging is like terroir. In winemaking, terroir refers to the hyperlocal environmental conditions that form the unique flavor and aroma profiles in the wines. So each region, sometimes down to the different vineyard plots, has its own unique terroir.
The mold in your fridge will be influenced by what is locally present in the atmosphere where you live. For example – even though CAB in Ohio got their starter meat from New Jersey, it will have evolved over time to account for the local bacteria that can be found there. Not to mention the bacteria on the various humans handling the meat and opening the door. My fridge will be another evolution of that mold again, with a Texas twist being added into the Ohio hybrid. This is also the reason you want to make sure not to put any additional items in your dry aging fridge, and to keep the door closed as much as possible.
When it comes to good versus bad molds, meat scientist Diana Clark states “I am comfortable with any colored mold as long as it’s not black”. Black mold is bad, folks. If the meat in your fridge develops this mold, you’ll likely wanna stop any further aging, disinfect the fridge and start again. Conversely, Walter Apfelbaum of Detroit’s Prime & Proper, a butcher who has been involved with intensive dry aging programs for over 25 years, maintains that proper dry aged beef should be completely devoid of mold. He states: “I’ve had primals aged with mold and the meat always taste like mold not beef”. Thus suggesting, whether to mold or not mold is up to personal preference. Me? I’m in camp mold. I like getting funky.
Proper Preparation & Cooking Of Dry Aged Meat:
Your set up is a huge part of the dry age process, but so is knowing how to treat the product when it’s ready to eat. There are important two factors you need to consider when approaching the preparation and cooking stage: palatibility and food safety.
PALATABILITY basically refers to how enjoyable it is to eat, both in terms of flavor and texture. Assuming all your aging parameters were correct and there’s no spoilage, the only hindrance to perfect palatability is going to be the rind, or hard outer shell that forms during aging. The rind does not soften during the cooking process and so needs to be removed. Don’t be stingy with your trimming here – there’s no point in aging steak only to have a poor eating experience by leaving rind on there.
When trimming back your rind, you may notice that there are parts of the muscle itself that have turned a brown shade. In most cases, this is nothing but oxidization of the myoglobin, a harmless color change. As long as you feel the darker areas and they seem to be the same consistency (and not firm or “rindy”) they will be fine to eat, despite not being appealing in color. There’s always a chance that the discoloration is not simply part of the myoglobin cycle, but a more concerning issue like meat that was close to an air pocket or seam which held mold. You should be able to make a judgement call here using smell and touch, but if in doubt, trim it away. Food poisoning is not fun, FYI.
FOOD SAFETY is another factor to consider. When you sear a steak, the surface area comes into contact with high heat which kills of any bacteria. The middle of the steak is safe to keep rare, as it’s sterile, and has never been exposed to said bacteria. So it’s really only the outside that needs the heat treatment.
So this is where the bone comes into play. Given it’s shape and rigidity, not all of it will come into direct contact with the heat source. Further, it’s highly unlikely that the heat is going to reach the porous and hollow bone interior and heat it to a safe temp of at least 165f. Basically, the bone is going to remain a fairground for bacteria and mold. If you want to serve your steak with the bone, cut the bone away, cook your steak as normal, throw the bone into a super hot oven to roast (which will make it taste better when gnawed anyway) and serve together.
AND SO TO SUMMARIZE…
The Do’s and Don’ts of Dry Aging At Home:
- DO NOT use a non-dedicated fridge. A very esteemed writer in the meat world (who I personally admire) wrote about his dry aging experiment where he used the office fridge as a test lab. GASP! Do you have ANY idea how many times a day that thing is opened and closed? Not to mention the variety of questionably-sealed food it houses! Put it this way – I would refuse to eat a piece of meat that had been aged under those circumstances. Domestic fridges are often warmer than the recommended safe temperature of 40f, due to inaccurate thermostats and the door being frequently opened. Other items stored in the fridge can also taint the flavor of your meat.
- DO know the difference between funky and foul. You’ll have to use a bit of common sense here, but you’re going to need to understand the difference in smell between a heavily dry aged steak, and a steak that has gone rancid. One will be weird, but not unpleasant, like blue cheese. Perhaps not unanimously liked by everyone, but still pleasant. The other will make you recoil in disgust. Do not eat the latter.
- DO NOT use the dedicated dry aging fridge as storage for any other items aside from meats you specifically mean to age. As stated above, you’re creating a delicate environment of delicious molds. Plus, any other items can lead to cross contamination of flavor profiles into the fat.
- DO use whole muscles like subprimals that can be trimmed back from all the rind.
- DO NOT season your meat prior to aging, or wash/rinse it after aging. Save the salt until it’s time to cook each individual steak.