What comes to mind when you imagine eating a spectacular steak? You might think about the tenderness, the flavor, the juiciness of the meat. Those are the attributes that most people think of, and they are influenced by how the meat is aged.
Virtually all beef is aged. There is still some cellular activity going on for up to 24 hours after the beef is harvested, and beef that isn’t aged will lack the tenderness and depth of flavor we look for in beef. There are two ways to age beef, wet aging and dry aging.
Wet aging is the most popular. It is cheap and efficient to do, especially on a large scale. The meat is cut quickly and vacuum sealed, then left to rest in a highly controlled environment. The natural enzymes in the meat begin to break down the proteins and connective tissue, and it inhibits moisture loss so that the meat stays juicy. After a set amount of time, the meat is ready to be sold. The drawback to this method is that it inhibits the aged aroma and flavor that can set beef apart. The beef that you buy in the grocery store is going to be wet-aged.
As recently as 50 years ago, all beef was dry-aged and now some butcher shops are going back to dry-aging beef because it creates a flavor that cannot be replicated with wet aging. Dry aging occurs when beef is left to hang unwrapped in a highly controlled environment. The temperature, airflow, and relative humidity are all carefully controlled to make sure that the beef doesn’t spoil as it ages.
As the beef hangs, the natural enzymes begin to work their magic. They start to break down the protein into peptides and free amino acids. The different amino acids have different flavor profiles. Some taste a bit sweet, while others yield an umami flavor. Dry aging enhances the flavor of beef like nothing else. It’s more intense than wet-aged beef, and it has been described as having a slightly nutty or buttery flavor.
The connective tissue and links between the muscle fibers begin to break down while the meat is aged, which makes it much more tender. There is very little difference in this part of the process between wet and dry aging.
The best dry-aged beef is usually grain-finished beef, which is more highly marbled than grass-finished beef (more on that here). This makes up for the slight moisture loss that occurs with dry aging; as the beef is cooked, the fat specs melt into the beef, making every bite mouthwateringly flavorful and tender.
The amount of time that beef is left to age varies from 14 to up to 200 days. The longer it’s left to hang the funkier the flavor gets, and studies have pointed to 21 days being the sweet spot, where the beef is tender and flavorful but not too funky. All our beef has been dry-aged for 21 days, making it unlike anything that you can buy at the grocery store.