By definition, Dry aged beef is beef that has been hung to dry for several weeks. After the animal is slaughtered and cleaned, either an entire half will be hung, or primal cuts (large distinct sections) will be placed in a cooler. This process involves considerable expense as the beef must be stored at or near freezing temperatures. Also only the higher grades of meat can be dry aged, as the process requires meat with a large, evenly distributed fat content.
For these reasons one seldom finds dry aged beef outside of steak restaurants and upscale butcher shops. The key effect of dry aging is the concentration of the flavor. It’s generally accepted that the taste of dry-aged beef is almost incomparable to that of wet-aged with four weeks being a recommended minimum.
The process enhances beef by two means. First, moisture is evaporated from the muscle. This creates a greater concentration of beef flavor and taste. Second, the beef’s natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, which leads to more tender beef.
The process of dry-aging usually also promotes growth of certain fungal (mold) species on the external surface of the meat. This doesn’t cause spoilage, but actually forms an external “crust” on the meat’s surface, which is trimmed off when the meat is prepared for cooking.
In addition to endogenous enzymes (those found naturally in the beef) which help tenderize and increase the flavor of the meat, these fungal species do so as well. The genus Thamnidia, in particular, is known to produce collagenolytic enzymes which greatly contribute to the tenderness and flavor of dry-aged meat.
Fourty years ago, most of our beef was dry aged. In the early 1960′s the process of vacuum packing beef became the norm for most processors.
The advantage of vacuum-packing was that they could “wet age” the beef in the bag and not lose any of the weight of the beef. Wet aging was much more cost effective for the processors so a weaning of the consumers’ taste buds began to occur. Slowly, the consumer forgot what the real taste of steak was.
Beef is aged for 7 to 21 days. During this process a crust forms on the outside of the loin, very similar to the texture of beef jerky. This layer is trimmed away, leaving steaks that are superior in tenderness and flavor. During the dry aging process, the juices are absorbed into the meat, enhancing the flavor and tenderizing the steaks.
Research from major universities, including Kansas State University, indicates the enhancement of flavor and tenderness occurs in this Dry Aging process. Dry Aged Steaks are very popular in the fine, white linen steakhouses on the coasts.
The dry aging process takes special care and requires a relatively large inventory. It is very time consuming and expensive, requiring extra effort, storage and high-quality beef.
Up to 20% of the original weight of the loin is lost during the dry aging process. This is why dry aged steak is offered only in fine restaurants, upscale grocery stores and gourmet steak companies.