Dry-aged beef has become a strong favourite among meat lovers in recent years. This is meat that matures on the bone for three weeks or more and as a result develops an unbelievable amount of flavour. Dry-aged meat seems to be an inflationary buzzword for the layman, however that isn’t true – at least not in terms of the basic idea behind dry aging: Dry-aging definitely isn’t a new discovery, but without doubt it is the best way of perfecting good meat. A few years ago meat experts rediscovered this maturing technique and since then increasingly more meat fans have realised that it is worth asking for dry-aged meat. The opposite of dry-aging is wet-aging, i.e. aging in a vacuum. We carefully scrutinise both techniques.
Why is aging even necessary?
When an animal is slaughtered, the oxygen supply to the muscles is cut off. However, the metabolic activity continues for a little while even once the animal is dead – this breaks down the stored energy-rich compounds such as glycogen or glucose into lactic acid. In turn, this leads to the pH level in the meat dropping. Due to the acidic environment the meat can only just retain 75% of its water content. When frying the meat large amounts of fluid will leak out of the meat. In this state, the meat would be unpalatable. As soon as the energy stores have been emptied cross-links start to form between the muscle fibres which make the meat almost impossible to chew. However, if you leave the resulting lactic acid to continue to do its work, by leaving the meat to mature, little by little the positive impacts will become evident. Meat therefore only becomes edible through aging.
The work that enzymes do
This is when the processes that meat lovers appreciate so much begin - enzymes play a central role in this. Proteolytic enzymes change the structure of the myofibrils, breaking up the muscle structure. The meat becomes chewable and the first signs of its tender consistency can be seen. It takes at least two weeks until the tenderising processes deliver noticeable results – after four weeks the process is completed. This is the same for dry-aging as well as wet-aging in a vacuum.
What does wet aging mean?
Wet aging or vacuum aging is the classic maturing method that has been used since the 70s. It is particularly economical and has been accepted as a standard method on the mass market. It is cost-effective and practical and provides reliable but rarely outstanding results. How does this process work? The meat will be detached from the bone and vacuum-sealed. It then matures at just over 0 degrees for a period of at least two weeks in its own juice - without any oxygenating effect in an acidic environment. No liquid can escape during this process and the maturing process proceeds in a very slow way due to the low temperatures. The flavour of the wet-aged meat pieces only changes to a marginal extent. The economic advantage: no liquid escapes at all, the meat doesn’t lose any of its weight. And every gram of meat generates revenue. Wet-aged beef characteristically has a slightly sour, sometimes metallic taste, which comes from the lactic acid in the vacuum.
What happens with dry-aging?
Dry-aging means maturing the meat on the bone, in the air in a special refrigeration chamber at temperatures between 0 and 2 degrees. Dry-aging creates uniquely flavoured products, however for the producers it does come with economic disadvantages: The meat loses water and therefore loses weight - up to 20 percent of the original weight.
In order to successfully, and above all hygienically, manage a dry-aging process without any problems, ventilated cold storage rooms are required with sustainable air exchange, consistent air humidity and sterilisation technology so that the meat doesn’t spoil. There is always a residual risk. The development of unpleasant flavours due to the unpredictability of biochemical processes in the meat can never be completely ruled out. In this process butchers and those who age their own meat always have to critically scrutinise whether their dry-aged beef has really aged perfectly. Mould formation on the meat is an absolute taboo.
Dry-aging and mould formation
Dry-aged beef – contrary to many misstatements – should never develop mould. But how can you prevent this during such a long aging process without using pickling salt? On the one hand, this is due to the low temperature in the aging cabinet, which strongly inhibits the formation of harmful cultures. Due to the air circulation in an aging cabinet, which is designed for this process, the upper surface dries out so quickly that generally only harmless microorganisms settle on the meat. It is also important to remember that only pieces with a fat cap and protective bone are suitable for long dry-aging. The prime example for this is sirloin. Due to the shield provided by the fat and bone only a small amount of moisture manages to escape so the meat loses increasingly less moisture.
Why does dry-aged beef taste different?
During the dry aging process the pH level in the meat increases again, which makes steaks taste less sour and often even mildly sweet. The biochemical processes created by the work done by the enzymes ensures that flavour is also developed in parallel, which you don’t get from wet aged meat. Nuances of ham, nuts and cheese are classic aging flavours, that are desirable with dry aging. They develop on a very individual basis depending on the moisture and duration of the aging process and give every piece of dry aged beef its very individual character.