We’ve all been there: standing happily in the cool of an open refrigerator, considering hot dog vs. hamburger, or bologna sandwich vs. leftover chili, when you notice the fridge light reflecting off of the cellophane wrap on that steak that was purchased a while ago. You know, the one with the expiration date that passed two days back.
Your first thought may be that it might still be o.k., but your gut knows different. It’s old, it’s turned, it’s no good at all. But if you’re like me, it’s occurred to you that butchers charge big money for aged beef, so why is the stuff in your fridge no good?
The answer lies in what the aging process is, and what it does. Properly aged beef, unlike the soylent green in your fridge, is tender and delicious, particularly when it starts with a particularly nice hunk of USDA prime meat. You didn’t age the stuff properly at all though, you just destroyed it. It’s no way to honor meat, either, so unless you want a gang of cows slowly kicking your ass, I’d keep it to yourself.
But too few people understand aging, so this week’s School of Meat is all about aging beef.
So what is aging (as opposed to rotting)? Aging is defined as the time between the slaughter of a cow (but not a pig, that you do not want to age), and the point at which the beef is made into retail meat cuts, and it’s measured in days. Simple. Which means that all meat, even the stuff you buy at the supermarket, is aged at least a little. What sets the expensive stuff apart from the cheap stuff, though, is how it was aged, and for how long.
Supermarket beef is generally wet aged, also referred to as aged in the bag, which means that the wholesale or retail cuts are packed where the animal is slaughtered, then shipped to the market. Aging time in this case is the period of time that elapses until the meat has reached its point of sale, usually between five and 11 days.
Many butchers, supermarket or otherwise, buy entire sides of beef with which to make their own retail cuts, but that still isn’t considered aged, at least in the sense of the aged beef that most of us are all in a tizzy over. That stuff, the stuff that makes us all drool a little more than usual, is dry aged beef, and that’s the stuff I’ll be talking about from here on in.
What exactly will dry aging do? You know that old broad on the beach in Boca who’s face looks like a football that keeps asking you to light her ciggy and call her Auntie Rose? That.
And dry aged beef? When it’s beef we’re talking about as opposed to your great aunt, the results of dry aging are considerably more appetizing. First and foremost, aging tenderizes meat by allowing enzymes to break down the connective muscle tissue, which turns it into that butter-knife-cutable slab of joy you’re thinking about right now.
Then you’ve got the fact that those enzymes that aren’t very particular about what they break down, and along with connective tissue go muscle proteins, which become amino acids and help the meat climb a few rungs on the tasty-ladder. Also helping it up that ladder is the fact that meat dehydrates during the aging process, which means less moisture and more powerful meat flavor.
Downsides? Less moisture means less mass, which translates to a higher per-pound price. Also, when it’s aged, beef has a shorter shelf life, so you should have it cut, cooked, and eaten the same day. Which, come to think of it, is also an upside.
So how do you properly age beef? Pretty simple in theory: take a side, carcass, or primal cut and hang it or rack it in a carefully temperature-controlled environment for a while. Usually, the minimum here is about 21 days, but picking the right amount of time is an art that depends on things like the age of the animal, the cut, and the fat content. So it really pays to visit a butcher that is experienced and knowledgeable about aging before buying some.
While the meat ages, the insides get delightfully tasty while the outside begins to resemble good ol’ Auntie Rose from Boca that I mentioned earlier . When it’s ready, the leathery dried sections are trimmed, exposing the meaty treasure within, steaks are cut, and joy is spread throughout the land.
As for that steak in your fridge though, that can’t be trimmed into anything except a bacterial weapon that could take out a city block.