Chef Mike extols the wonders of dry-aged beef, in all its meaty goodness
The first cool nights of fall and the emergence of winter clothes from their mothball-laden cocoon triggers a particular region in my brain that longs for the blackened sear and mouthwatering aroma that only comes from a sizzling slab of medium-rare beef.
I know, I know, we’re supposed to be collarbone-deep in pumpkin spice by now, but I’m not just yearning for any old beef. I’m craving the complex flavors and buttery tenderness that bathes your tongue—nay, your very soul—with the juicy sweetness and nutty savoriness that comes from the holy manna of the meat kingdom. I’m talking about dry-aged beef.
Believe it or not, meat sliced fresh from the cow is not necessarily best when it comes to getting the most flavor out of a steak. When a cow is first slaughtered, its beef is considered “green.” Not green as in a raging mass of E. coli, but green as in wood from a freshly cut tree. Green beef is tough, bland, and susceptible to being dry when cooked.
Prior to the late ’50s or early ’60s, most beef was dry aged. But then vacuum packing came along and processors found that by aging beef in a vacuum-sealed package they wouldn’t experience the loss of weight that occurs with dry aging. This process, however, didn’t produce the big flavors of dry aging and, over time, consumers’ palates forgot that beef was supposed to taste, well...beefy.
Most beef today is “wet aged” (although not necessarily deliberately) for a very short period of time in plastic shrink-wrap while it waits to be sold in your local supermarket. Makes your mouth water, doesn’t it?
Dry-aged beef, on the other hand, is allowed to sit in carefully controlled conditions under cool temperatures and relatively high humidity for several weeks up to a couple of months. These conditions allow enzymes to do their magic and turn a high-quality steak into a magical meat masterpiece. Enzymes are essentially molecules that can break down bland building blocks like proteins, carbohydrates, and fats into things like glutamate, for example (the “G” in our good friend MSG). The result is a complex kaleidoscope of flavors that no cooking method can generate on its own.
Dry aging also causes beef to lose between five and ten percent of its water in the process. This decrease in moisture means the flavor-holding tissues become more concentrated, which concentrates the flavors themselves. This doesn’t mean dry-aged meat will be dry. Quite the contrary, Grasshopper. It will be as succulent and juicy as ever, but those juices will be full of more flavor than Padma Lakshmi’s spice rack.
Dry-aged beef is obviously expensive to produce. That’s no surprise if you’ve ever stood paralyzed by the price tag on a La Freida 50-day ribeye. The solution for the budget-conscious carnivore: Dry age your own.
Start by buying the best quality boneless beef rib or loin roast you can afford from a butcher or farmer you know and trust (you can’t age individual steaks), then rinse and pat it dry with paper towels.
Use a dedicated fridge to dry age your beef and clean it like Howie Mandel on an OCD bender. It needs to be really sanitary. A dorm fridge works great, but your family fridge will never be clean enough and it gets opened and closed too much to retain the steady temperature and humidity that are necessary. You’re looking for about 60 percent humidity and 35° (+/- 3°) temperature.
Don’t trim the fat cap. That layer of fat will protect the meat, and once it’s aged, you can peel it off, and everything underneath will be beautifully aged and preserved.
Wrap the meat loosely in three layers of cheesecloth or an immaculately clean dishtowel and set it on a rack over a rimmed tray on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator—that’s the coldest spot. Be sure to change the moisture-soiled towels as needed throughout the duration of the aging process.
Refrigerate for three to 14, maybe even 21 days; the longer the beef ages, the better it tastes.
Once it’s aged the desired time, or you’ve begun to quiver in anticipation like Ralphie on Christmas morning, unwrap the meat and, with a sharp knife, shave off the hard, dried outer layer of the meat and the fat cap, leaving behind as much of the good fat as possible.
Roast whole or cut into steaks and try not to howl like “Lassie” Honeywell when you take that first magical bite.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants, and singlehandedly increased Chattanooga’s meat consumption statistics for three consecutive years. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits