The Science Behind Dry-aged Beef

Melt-in-the-mouth tender and filled with flavor, dry-aged beef is exquisite. Over the past few years the culinary world has seen greater interest in beef which has been dry-aged as gourmands seek out only the very finest ingredients.

Dry aging beef is a complex and time consuming process requiring specialized equipment. Therefore, it is typically only found in high-end restaurants and quality butcher shops.

While beef is being dry-aged it is stored and monitored in a purpose-built room or refrigerator that keeps the temperature, humidity and air movement constant to ensure the beef is kept within safe parameters. Natural enzymes, called calpains, break down the internal meat fibers during this chilled storage to increase the tenderness of the finished steak. Air movement is also closely monitored to control the evaporation of moisture, which causes the intense concentration of beef flavor. Together, these processes ultimately render a uniquely flavored and very tender cut of beef.

Sean Brasel, executive chef/owner of Meat Market Miami, a stylish Miami-based restaurant that offers a whopping 32-ounce center cut dry-aged porterhouse, said the minimum amount of time beef should age before there is a noticeable effect is 21 days, with the average aging time around 30 days. “But I’ve seen up to 100 days,” he says.

Phil Bass, corporate meat scientist for Certified Angus Beef in Wooster, Ohio, says that the flavor of aged beef varies, depending on the amount of evaporation, the concentration of flavors and the aging process. Typically, aged beef has an intense flavor, with a nutty, oaky or earthy taste.  Some cuts may even have a hint of blue cheese.  Phil says a shorter dry age, such as 30 days, will result in a milder flavor enhancement, whereas a longer dry age, like 60 days, creates a very intense, nutty beef flavor.

If you’re going to try dry-aged beef for the first time it’s recommended you start with something around the 30-day age mark, and work your way up from there. Like most delicacies, such as oysters and caviar, dry-aged beef can be an acquired taste.

Short loin, bone-in striploin and bone-in ribeye are among the best cuts to dry-age because they have excellent marbling and a natural layer of fat to protect them from over-evaporation and oxygen exposure, known as the “fat cap.” Once the beef is aged the majority of this fat is trimmed away exposing the tender, flavorful meat. This is another reason dry-aged beef carries a heavier price tag; around 25 to 30 percent of the meat is lost during the aging process due to moisture evaporation and trimming after the meat has been aged.

Dry aging of other meats such as pork, lamb or buffalo is uncommon because although they possess the calpain enzymes that break down the meat fibers, they appear in much smaller quantities so the meat tends to dry out before having a noticeable difference in tenderness. Sean also notes that certain breeds of cattle, namely Bos taurus like Angus and Hereford, age much better than Bos indicus cattle like Brahman. Phil explains this is due to the fact that Bos indicus cattle produce higher amounts of calpastatin, a naturally occurring enzyme that prevents the calpain enzymes from breaking down the meat fibers during aging.

Before the age of vacuum sealing, all beef was dry-aged to some degree. It would be stored in refrigerators uncovered or wrapped in cloth which would start the aging process naturally. When vacuum pack machines were invented in the 1940s, dry-aging largely went by the wayside. Producers and suppliers opted for the vacuum packed beef because it was much easier and convenient for storage and distribution. This gave birth to a newkind of aging called “wet-aging.”

“Wet aging is the industry standard these days,” Kenneth Bryne, master butcher for Progressive Food Services, says. “Most beef is aged this way.”

He adds: “Beef that is wet aged is placed in food safe bags and is vacuum sealed before being stored between 34 to 40 F for anywhere from 7 to 28 days. As the meat ages it becomes more tender, but unlike dry-aging there is little flavor development.”

Kenneth also notes that wet-aging is popular because it is cheaper to produce, more profitable to sell, and aids in storage and distribution for the producers, suppliers and retailers.

So which aging process is superior? Sean says neither. He believes there is a place on his menus for both as really aged beef can be too intensely flavored for some customers.

“The best aged beef is the one you personally enjoy, whether you prefer a mild wet-aged porterhouse or a 60-day dry-aged New York strip that’s more akin to blue cheese. It’s all down to personal choice,” Kenneth adds.

Phil says he personally prefers the flavor of dry-aged beef, but agrees with Sean that it can be too intense for some people, which is why both wet and dry-aging play integral roles in bringing great-tasting, tender beef to the dinner table.