Before a piece of meat can become an outstanding steak, it must be matured, because meat from freshly slaughtered animals is far from delicious. To obtain tender steaks, the meat must undergo a biochemical development process to develop a chewable structure. This process is called "maturation", to use the technical term, and can be triggered and promoted in various different ways. In this article, we not only explain what is meant by the standard "dry ageing" and "wet ageing" methods, but also introduce three other less-well-known maturation methods that have been developed in recent years.
Wet ageing is currently the most common way to mature meat. In this process, it is vacuum-packed and left to mature for two to four weeks in its own juices, i.e. in a relatively acidic environment. This technique was invented both to save space and to make it easier to store meat during maturation – as compared to dry ageing. Packed inside vacuum bags, the meat is easy to transport and bacterial growth is inhibited due to the air-tight seal. These practical advantages for the meat industry are offset by a drawback in terms of flavour, as the meat does not develop any "mature" aromas during wet ageing, but instead takes on slightly acidic, metallic notes. For some consumers, however, this rather flat and sour mineral taste is the desired standard. Meat connoisseurs, on the other hand, tend to prefer the flavour of dry-aged steaks.
In contrast to wet ageing, during dry ageing the meat is matured under the influence of oxygen. This gives rise to oxidative notes, which are desirable flavour components. The crucial difference to wet ageing, however, is that the cut surfaces dry out as they slowly lose water. This evaporation concentrates the meaty flavour as the flavourless water disappears. At the same time, enzymes begin to break down the protein structure of the meat. New amino acids are created, including flavour-enhancing glutamic acid, which increases the delicious "umami" experience with dry-aged beef. All in all, these factors lead to a significantly more intense and multi-layered aroma, which may vary depending on the maturation environment. Dry ageing thus "imprints" the unique flavour signature of the drying location onto the meat. Many steak fans appreciate precisely this exciting culinary aspect of dry-aged meat.
Alternative maturation methods: Aqua ageing
In recent years, so-called "aqua ageing" has become established in various butcheries as a variant of wet ageing. In this process, the meat is matured in containers and mineral water is poured over it. Weights ensure that the meat is kept submerged in the water and does not come into contact with oxygen – this maturation method is therefore similar to anaerobic wet ageing. The key difference is that the meat is not surrounded by its own juices and thus develops a less sour flavour. According to the inventors of wet ageing, the presence of carbonic acid also helps to break down the protein structure in the meat. Although the flavour profile produced via dry ageing does not develop, the meat nevertheless develops the same degree of tenderness as with wet ageing.
Alternative maturation methods: Luma ageing
Luma ageing is a process invented and patented by the Swiss company Luma. The meat is coated with a noble mould culture and matures under the growth of this fungus. A white fluff forms on the surface of the meat as the fruiting bodies of the mould become visible. This process is currently only approved in Switzerland and is the exclusive intellectual property of the originator company. Unlike with dry ageing, the presence of mould is a desired component in the process and is strictly controlled. If, on the other hand, mould forms during dry ageing, the meat should not most definitely not be consumed.
Alternative maturation methods: Ash ageing
In the ash-ageing process, first practised by Dirk Ludwig, the meat is rolled in dry charcoal ash and matured in it for several weeks. According to the inventor, the ash absorbs the escaping meat juice during this time and thus has a dehydrating effect. Spices incorporated into the ash also flavour the meat during the ageing process. Finally, the PH value of the ash creates a protective environment that shields the meat against bacterial and fungal attack. Of course, the ash also contributes to the smoky flavour of the steak, which, even when pan-fried, is reminiscent of meat grilled over charcoal.