The dry-aging of beef is a practice with an interesting history. Despite its current incarnation as a usually high-end steakhouse delicacy, its origins are far humbler. It’s unclear how far back dry-aging of beef goes, although the fundamentals of dry-aging, along with its cousins like salting, curing, and smoking, are older than recorded history. Dry-aging specifically is at least centuries old, as Rembrandt painted an ox being dry-aged in 1655.
So why is an ancient process for the aging of meat all the rage from armchair-foodies to Michelin-starred chefs, pros on the barbeque circuit to suburbanites grilling their backyard? Its popularity is the result of what the aging process does to (and for) the beef.
How Does Dry-Aging Work?
Dry-aging beef is pretty much what it sounds like—the right cuts of beef are left to age in the right conditions. The right cuts are pretty much universally agreed to be the ribeye, New York strip, the top butt (sirloin), and the porterhouse. Dry-aging DIY hopefuls should be aware that the process is applied to big slabs of beef from whichsteaks are cut. Any dry-aging of individual steaks would result in a sad, shriveled hunk of extremely expensive jerky.
The key to producing top-shelf steakhouse-grade dry-aged beef is to keep a well-marbled, liberally fat-rimed hunk of beef in a low-temperature, high-humidity enclosure. A temperature between 33-36 degrees and humidity between 60-80%, with constantly circulating air, is the Goldilocks zone for a good dry-age. Those conditions encourage aging of the meat without allowing it to spoil.
Why Bother Dry-Aging Beef at All?
The short answer is: Dry-aged beef is better than un-aged beef. At least that’s the consensus among the people who buy, sell, butcher, age, cook, and eat higher-end and specialty beef.
There are two distinct reasons for this. First, when beef ages in the right conditions, naturally-occurring enzymes present in the beef begin breaking down the collagen in the meat. Collagen is the protein that binds muscle fibers and is responsible for steak being tough. The breakdown of that collagen makes dry-aged beef extremely tender, more so than non-aged cuts.
Second, while that collagen is breaking down, the beef is naturally dehydrating. Depending on how long the beef ages, it loses between 10-25% of its moisture. That results in the flavor becoming more intense, almost more concentrated. A rough correlation would be a sauce reducing to become thicker and more flavorful.
It’s sometimes asserted that the dry-aging process makes the beef taste “beefier” or “stronger,” but that’s not entirely accurate. That terrific flavor of beef that steak-lovers are looking for is certainly intensified but there’s more to it than that. One of the by-products of dry-aging is the formation of the amino acid glutamate in the maturing beef. And glutamate is a flavor enhancer—so not only is the beef flavor emerging more robustly, enzymatic changes taking place are flavoring the beef as well.
How strong these flavors are in the beef depends on how long it’s aged. About 14 days is considered the minimum length of time for the dry-aging process to result in any substantive increase in tenderness. And about 21 days is considered the point at which the flavor profiles unique to dry-aged beef really begin to emerge. If there’s a dry-aging standard at which the beef is consumed, it tends to be between 21-30 days.
Beef can certainly be aged for longer than that and the flavors will continue to mature and become more complex. Depending on who you ask, the aging process either keeps making the beef better, or it tops out in the month to month-and-a-half range after which the flavor becomes too intense.
Regardless, those who are familiar with dry-aged beef insist that it’s so tender and delicious, it requires no seasoning beyond salt and pepper. And that is reason enough for any fan of a good steak to try a dry-aged cut at least once.
About Snake River Farms
Snake River Farms is a family-owned beef business that has distinguished itself for the 50 years it’s been in operation by oversight and involvement in every step of beef production, from start to finish. That total commitment to the quality of their beef has meant meeting and exceeding the highest standards of quality, sustainability, and ensuring the well-being of their animals. The experience they’ve acquired since their founding in 1968 ensures that your meat is the best quality and the most delicious, whether it’s their tenderloin steak or dry-aged beef.
Experience the best of what beef can be at Snakeriverfarms.com