What is a dry-aged steak?
A dry-aged steak is just a steak that has been left to sit and tenderise for anytime over 28 days.
When a cow is slaughtered and steaks are cut out, lactic acid builds up in the muscle and causes it to tighten up, this is a process called rigor mortis. While you can eat steak that is undergoing this process, it will often be tougher and less flavourful than a steak that has been aged so a well-aged relatively cheap cut will have the tenderness of a much more expensive cut.
We’re all guilty of leaving meat in the fridge perhaps a little longer than we should have. When I leave a steak in the fridge for too long it certainly doesn’t become an aged delicacy prized for its texture and flavour. So what is it about aged meat that makes it better instead of a mouldy mess?
How does steak become “aged” instead of just rotten?
While the beef is aging there will be the growth of mould, this is unavoidable unless you’re in a total vacuum and space aged steak hasn’t quite made it onto the U.K. market just yet. The only other way to prevent bacteria growth is to freeze the meat which, while preventing bacteria growth, will also prevent any maturing of the meat. The key to the aging process is keeping the meat as close to being “frozen” as possible without actually freezing it.
Steak cut from a healthy, disease-free cow will only ever grow mould on the exterior of the beef that is exposed to the elements. The mould that doesn’t grow there, under a controlled environment, will become almost like the mould on high-quality cheese. It acts as a seal and prevents the deterioration of interior beef.
In a professional beef aging facility, the cuts are kept just above water freezing temperature at between 1 - 3 degrees Celsius. The air around the meat is also kept incredibly dry. This helps to stave off the growth of bad bacteria and promotes the growth of good healthy mould. While you’re not really going to find mould on a piece of popular 30 day aged steak, you will start to see it in delicacy meat that has been aged for many months.
Once this aging process is complete you can cut away the outer more floral layers and reveal the darkened and intensely flavourful beef inside. Almost like revealing a stunning geode of meat, it really is quite the experience.
When you age a piece of beef there are two main things that are happening.
1) The moisture contained in the steak is pulled out. While the majority of this moisture is retained in the fat cap there is still a good amount in the beef itself.
As the moisture is removed, the lean beef shrinks and contracts up towards the fat. This makes the fat a lot more pronounced and gives the beef a richer flavour.
2) The bacteria that is allowed to accumulate starts to impart a robust flavour profile onto the meat. This flavour is highly desirable and is prized on high-end cheeses. While not technically being the same kind of mould on cheese as it is on steak, the principles are the same.
Is aged beef really better?
The main benefit of aging meat is that it allows all of the lactic acid released during slaughter to gradually leave the muscle and the muscle fibers to relax. This produces a tender piece of meat that is absolutely bursting with flavour.
If you’re ever in a steakhouse and see an aged piece of meat along with a non-aged piece, it’s almost certainly worth the extra couple of pounds to get the tastier piece of aged meat.
I’ve heard of wet aging and dry aging, what’s the difference?
In this article, we’ve mainly focused on dry aging because it is the most complex, most well-known, and produces some of the most desirable flavours.
Wet aging follows the same principles of letting the beef relax. Allowing the lactic acid to release and the muscle fibers to stop contracting. The key difference is that wet aging will take place in a vacuum-sealed bag with a sort of flavour boosting sauce inside.
The majority of “aged” beef you find in supermarkets and chain restaurants will be wet-aged because it is a much cheaper and much more scalable way of aging meat which makes it more appealing to businesses. While wet aging will still produce a fantastic piece of meat and is not something to shun, our recommendation would be to opt for the dry-aged if the option is there.
Whether dry-aged or wet-aged almost any form of meat will benefit from a period of aging to produce a more complex flavour profile and more tender meat.
If you have a quality piece of aged meat then the flavours will absolutely speak for themselves however a pinch of our signature salt or a dollop of our famous steak sauces will always go down a treat!