Aging Beef: Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
It's true. We are all eating slightly old beef. Whether one week or five, in plastic or in a dry environment, all beef needs to sit around for a while before eating unless cooked immediately after slaughter. This controlled rot allows the meat to evolve into a more flavorful and tender steak.
At the slaughterhouse, sides of beef are hung for a day to allow the muscles to relax out of the rigor mortis stage. This is the beginning of the aging process. At the packing plant, the carcass is then cut into "sub-primal" cuts – the stage between the whole animal and a small cut. Then it is sealed in plastic bags and shipped off to its retail destination. This process and the travel time effectively wet age the meat another week or two.
The stores or restaurants can then decide whether to sell the meat immediately, wet age the beef further, or dry age it for a period of time. Both ways of aging occur because of microbes and enzymes that are naturally present in the meat. These enzymes work to break down some of the muscle fiber and connective tissue, making the beef especially tender.
In today's market, most aging is done in plastic. Sealed in their plastic bags, the cuts of meat do not come into any contact with oxygen, essentially aging it in the meat's own juices. This is obviously more popular in the meat industry as there is less loss of product, and therefore, less loss of profit. While the enzymatic breakdown helps the steak become tender and succulent, the taste is different, often described as "bloody" or "metallic," and it doesn't develop the same concentration of flavor as dry aging.
Dry aging has been done for centuries, including hanging joints of animals and game birds until they became mildly putrid, or as French chef Antoine Careme recommended "as far as possible." As the meat dries and loses moisture, the molecules shrink, concentrating the beef – not unlike reducing a sauce – and making the taste of the meat more complex. Dry-aged steak, like an aged Cabernet or a wheel of funky cheese, sports a unique musky, nutty and meaty flavor, paired with a pleasing tenderness.
Dry aging beef is now done in a carefully controlled environment – cool temperatures, relatively high humidity – most often a civilized 21 to 28 days, but steak aged for 60 days or longer has become a niche market. Eleven Madison Park in New York City serves slivers of super-aged steak on their tasting menu that are a whopping 140 days old.
So which is better? Ultimately, it's a matter of taste. John Paul Khoury, Executive Chef at Preferred Meats, purveyor to some of the area's best restaurants, weighs in: "Dry aging and wet aging are both in fact aging, just with different results. Both can be very good." Do you prefer a big juicy steak to put on the grill and slather with sauce? A wet aged steak is probably the best choice. Or are you a fan of the funk? If you dream of a good ripe stinky Epoisses cheese, or a musty old aged wine, check out a steak aged 21 to 28 days, or longer. . . . if you dare.
(In Sacramento, aged steaks are available at Taylor's Market and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, or check out my instructions to dry age your own steaks at home.)
EDIBLE'S GUIDE TO AGING BEEF AT HOME
You can get great results – and save money – dry aging beef at home if you have a second refrigerator. It's easy! Purchasing dry-aged steak from a butcher will run you at least double what you'll pay per pound of fresh beef. You'll trim a fair amount away, but it's still more cost effective than buying individual steaks at $23 per pound at area markets. Plus, the bragging rights are pretty awesome.
Start with a large roast of beef. Don't try to age individual steaks; there's not enough meat there to allow for trimming, and what meat is left will be too tough for good eating. Rib eye, New York strip loin or nice big rib roasts are good choices. Make sure that you've got the fat cap intact. I aged a 13-pound New York strip loin. It was approximately $9 per pound through Preferred Meats.
First, make sure your refrigerator is clean. Using a second fridge is best so you are not opening and closing it often. You want to maintain the cool temperature. Unwrap your roast in the sink and drain off all accumulated juices. Pat it dry with paper towels. Set up a baking sheet with a rack on top. Place the roast on the rack with the fat cap on top. If you wish, you may LOOSELY wrap or top with cheesecloth, but I don't recommend it because there is the possibility that it will stick to the meat. Place the rack in the fridge, close the door and walk away. If you choose to use the cheesecloth, you may want to check it occasionally to make sure it isn't sticking anywhere.
Come back in five to seven days. A little longer, if you are brave. The roast will be significantly smaller and appear dried out on the ends. There may be some white or slightly moldy spots. Don't worry! These will all be trimmed away.
Transfer roast to a cutting board. Using a very sharp filet knife, trim away the dried out fat and edges of meat on all four sides. For a roast with a large fat cap, you may be able to salvage some of the fat. On my strip loin, the amount of fat was minimal so I trimmed it all the way back. If you remove all of the fat, make sure to remove any silver skin. Using a yard stick or plastic measuring tape, measure the roast and cut steaks so that they are of even thickness.
Sprinkle with kosher or sea salt and cook steaks over high heat until they form a crust and are deeply browned on both sides. I recommend a cast-iron pan. Use a meat thermometer to test the internal temperature; the steaks should 125-130 degrees in the center for rare to medium-rare. Let rest a few minutes before serving.
Illustrated by Serene Lusano