When you go to a fancy restaurant, you may hear that their beef is "aged." Sometimes they may say that it is dry aged or wet aged. They may tell you it was aged for 14 or 21 days, maybe more.
Aging beef has nothing to do with how old the animal was. When beef is aged, it is stored in refrigeration for a set amount of time. The beef is typically not frozen, just refrigerated (29 to 34°F).
Aging beef makes it more tender.
The protein in an animal’s body is constantly turning over; breaking down and being built back up. One set of enzymes break down the protein and another mechanism builds it. Even after the animal is harvested, those breaking-down enzymes are still active, continuing to work until they are broken down or the meat is frozen or cooked. If meat is stored in refrigerated temperatures, those enzymes will break down the muscle and continue to make it more tender for 4 or 5 weeks, even longer.
Sometimes, the whole carcass is held in refrigeration, but that requires a lot of space and energy. Cuts used for pot-roasts and ground beef typically don’t benefit from aging. So, most of the time, the beef is cut into different parts and pieces, and the tender ones (ribeyes, strip steaks, T-bones, sirloins) are aged, while the tougher cuts are sent directly to market.
Wet or dry aging.
Wet aging - After the beef is cut, the middle meats (ribeyes, strip steaks, T-bones, filets, and sirloins) are packaged in plastic bags and vacuum-sealed. Vacuum packaging protects the beef from bacteria and from oxygen that can cause it to spoil. The beef can be stored in a vacuum package under refrigerated temperatures for 4 to 6 weeks.
We use the term ‘wet aging’ because the beef is aged in its own juices, not because additional water is added. If you hear that beef is aged without being specified wet or dry, chances are, it was wet aged.
Beef in a dry-aging cabinet in a grocery store in Texas.
You can see how the edges have dried and darkened.
Dry aging – Rather than storing the beef in vacuum packages, dry-aged beef is aged without packaging in a specialized cooler or cabinet. The temperature and humidity are closely controlled. It is usually a dark room or lit with special UV lights that help control microbial growth. After the aging period, the processor must trim the edges off the cuts because they have dried out or perhaps even growth a little harmless mold (like some cheeses grow mold). This trimming and the evaporation during the aging process cause the beef to lose weight during dry aging, thus increasing the cost.
|A rib in a dry-aging bag. This was sent|
to me by a friend who was worried
about the dark coloration and mold.
I told them to just trim it off.
Some companies sell special bags that can be used to dry-age beef. They protect the beef from some moisture loss and microbial growth. Some people like to use them to dry age beef cuts at home.
Originally beef was dry-aged as whole carcasses, then with the development of plastics, vacuum bags were used for aging. They cut down on moisture loss and the conditions for aging were easier to control. Now some restaurants and stores provide beef dry-aged in specialized rooms, cabinets, or in bags at a premium price.
Can you taste the difference? Wet aged beef has a more acidic, more rare flavor, whereas dry aged beef has a more brown-roasted, well done flavor. Both will be tender and juicy. I think it’s a personal preference.
Does it matter what grade it is? Aging will benefit any grade of young beef. It doesn't matter if it is Select, Choice or Prime, it will tenderize with aging. Very lean cuts and Select cuts are more prone to developing off flavors when they are aged for a very long time (longer than 4 weeks).
Does the animal's age matter to aging? Beef from older cattle will age some, but not as well. The toughness of older cattle is more due to connective tissue and it is not largely affected by aging. Tenderizing cuts from older animals usually takes plant enzymes like those from pineapple or figs.
That’s aging. It’s pretty simple. If you have any questions, just let me know.