Dry Aged Beef: The Magic of the Old Ways

Dry aged beef

Credit: InterContinental Hong Kong

Considering all the conveniences that this generation of foodies is enjoying, you may wonder how our predecessors survived the years without them. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” so they say.  References will tell you the ingenious ways our ancestors have dealt with the situation. Food Processing History shares …

“History of food processing is the history of transformation process of raw ingredients into food or food into other forms. Food processing dates back to the prehistoric age when crude processing including various types of cooking, such as roasting, smoking, steaming, fermenting, sun drying and preserving with salt were in practice. Food processing is probably one of the oldest avocations man has been involved with from time immemorial.”

Dry-aging is just using this antiquated method of preserving or curing meat. This traditional meat processing method was the mode until plastics and refrigeration came into the picture. Vacuum packaging improved the method of preserving the quality of meat, but it deprives the eaters that distinguishing dry aged complexity of flavor and rich quality – more robust and tender and with buttery succulence.

The Magic of Aging on Texture

Dry-aging beef changes the texture and flavor of the meat. In simple terms, if the meat is left to dry, factors such as healthy bacteria and enzymes can do its magic on the texture and flavors of the meat.

The structure of the collagen and Grill Meats’ History of Dry Aging explains the changes that happen in the meat.

“Aging also increases tenderness. It has been shown that during the aging process certain changes take place in portions of the structure of collagen and muscle fibers. Currently, it is thought that enzymatic-caused changes in the structure of muscle fibers are largely responsible for the increase in tenderness …”

Rigor mortis or the stiffening of the carcass happens in six to twelve hours. What many foodies don’t know is that stiffening wanes after this. After rigor mortis, the meat starts to get tender and this process continues, even intensifies, for up to 11 days. This means dry aging the beef beyond 11 days serve no purpose.

The Delicious Changes

Dry aging also changes the flavor of the meat. Gizmodo’s The Science of Taste Or: Why Dry-Aged Meat Is So Damned Delicious explains how the change happens.

“What happens is that enzymes in the meat’s muscle cells begin to break down the meat’s proteins, fats, and glycogen—a carbohydrate—into amino acids, fatty acids, and sugars. One amino acid generated by dry-aging—the most important and flavorful one, in fact—is glutamate, which is part of MSG. other amino acids have flavors somewhat similar to MSG; others still are sweet.”

In addition, the process causes some moisture to be lost; this causes the flavors to intensify. The tissue also becomes more concentrated, making the meat more “meaty-tasting.”

The Role of the Ideal Conditions

The process has to be well-guarded, or you’ll end up with decomposing meat. Three factors are vital in transforming a piece of carcass into a delicious steak: temperature, air flow and humidity.  Steak University explains in its post Learn the History of Dry Aged Beef and How to Age your Steak the right condition to be maintained to successfully dry age the beef.

“Once a piece of beef has been selected as adequate for dry aging, the beef is hung in a refrigerated room with temperatures maintained between 32 and 39 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 to 4 degrees Celsius and humidity is controlled to ensure freshness. The preferred humidity setting varies from 50 – 85%, according to individual preference, but usually is set closer to 60%. The recommended air flow is 0.5 – 2 m/s or 1.6 – 6.6 ft/s. to ensure optimal weight and trim loss during the aging process…”

It is most important to let the normal chemical processing happen for the texture and flavor to change, resulting in a delicious and tender change. The muscle and connective tissues must break down so the meat becomes tender. The temperature must be regulated, so drying or shrinking of meat will result to the intensified flavor. While “tenderization” can occur in 11 days, the depth of flavor can be completed best in 20 to 40 days.

Returning to the Glorious Days of Dry Aging

In search of better food, more and more chefs and restaurants are going back to age drying method to cure their steaks. This is the essence of Bonappetit”s Dry-Aged Beef Is a New Trend in Restaurants Around the Country by Francis Lam. Lam accounts the experience with Daniel Humm of the Eleven Madison , an ambitious tasting menu-only  joint in New York City. Humm’s craving to satisfy his culinary creativity brought him to “reinventing” his steak. When you managed to book a seat in Eleven Madison, expect a burst of flavors courtesy of dry aged beef.

It is not just Humm who is “crazy” about dry-aged beef.  “Lately, there’s been a funktastic arms race among chefs in search of new flavors through longer aging times: 35, 42, 56 days.” Lam mentioned “… Saison, in San Francisco, regularly takes its beef out to 90; Eleven Madison Park, 140; and, in the sun-addled haze of Las Vegas, Mario Batali’s Carnevino features steaks so old they’re verging on toddlerhood.”

Aside from the intense flavor and tender meat, there is something else you must know. Dry aged beef is expensive. This brings us to our next topic… how would you like to dry age your own steak?

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