What is Dry Aged Beef?
In the most basic sense, “aging” of beef is simply the time that passes between when the animal is slaughtered, and when the meat is consumed. There are two types of aging when it comes to protein – Dry Aging and Wet Aging.
Wet aging is simply leaving the primal in the vacuum bag as it came from the slaughterhouse. Because it’s still in the bag, it remains moist or “wet”. From a technical standpoint, you could make the claim that almost all beef produced in the United States is wet aged – vacuum sealed at the slaughterhouse, transported to a wholesaler or retailer, being wet aged during that time.
Studies have shown that for up to 20 days of wet aging, there will be some noticeable tenderization of the muscle and no real change to the flavor. After this time things can only go in the opposite direction. That’s really all you need to know about wet aging, and is why we are so focused on dry aging. Dry aging produces the best possible beef you can get. Nothing else comes close. We love dry aging because we’re convinced it’s how we provide our customers with the best possible beef, and it’s also how we honor our craft.
Dry aging is an artisan process. It is time consuming, labor intensive and expensive (up to 35% of the beef’s starting weight is lost in the process). It’s a carefully controlled process in which beef primals are aged in a temperature controlled environment for a specific length of time before they are trimmed and cut into steaks. Dry aging is unmatched in its ability to tenderize and intensify the natural flavors of beef. There’s nothing like it.
Some perspective is in order to appreciate the rarified positon dry aged beef holds within the world of beef. First, only USDA Prime grade steaks are dry aged. Prime represents 2% or less of all graded beef. There are no accurate data on the percentage of Prime beef that is dry aged, but we’d estimate it to be 2% tops and likely less. That means dry aged beef represents 0.04%, and likely less, of the beef sold in the U.S. That’s a very exclusive club. But the unparalleled flavor and texture imparted by dry aging cannot be replicated with any unaged beef. Nothing compares to dry aged beef.
What sets dry aged beef apart from unaged beef is the tenderness and the flavor. If you look at dry aging from a scientific perspective, you can think of it as a controlled decay process. When done in a monitored environment, introducing the beef primals to the air allows the occurrence of natural enzymes that slowly begin to break down the molecular bonds of the meat. As these bonds are slowly broken, the end result becomes more tender. The noticeable tenderness of the dry aged steak doesn’t really improve after 30 days. But for longer times what is going to be a hugely different is the flavor.
The longer you dry age beef, the more pronounced the flavor. A good cooking analogy is to think of what happens when you reduce a stock into a demi-glace. At the end of the process you’ve evaporated most of the water molecules and only a small fraction of the original amount of liquid remains, but it is packed with a very concentrated flavor.
The concept is the same for dry aged beef. Except instead of putting that pot of stock over a low flame for hours, beef primals are exposed to the open air in a controlled aging environment and left for anywhere from 7 to 45 days (or longer, depending how crazy you are). By ensuring the primals are open to the air on all sides, it allows the moisture within the meat to slowly evaporate over time. Depending on how short or long the aging process is, you will have relatively tame to absurdly intense flavor profiles. You will also see a surprising amount of weight lost, proof that moisture from the beef is evaporating. Interestingly enough, this moisture loss occurs at the fastest rate during the first two weeks of dry aging beef, then it will slowly decrease. Both of these elements, the tenderness and the flavor, that are brought about by the dry aging process, cannot be truly replicated. The process cannot be rushed and corners cannot be cut.
We typically age our beef for up to 30 days. Some of our chef and restaurant customers have other specific aging times that we honor. Consistent results require a strict attention to detail. Properly dry aged beef is a luxury food item that can turn an ordinary dinner into a truly remarkable meal. There is nothing else like it and there are no short cuts.
There are two major elements that need to be controlled during the dry aging process: temperature and airflow. Humidity also plays a part. To maintain the consistency and quality we are fastidious about starting and moving cohorts of primals together through our five cooling rooms during the process. This ensures the beef is losing moisture and aging at the same rate while keeping the humidity in the cooling rooms steady. The primals remain in the first cooling room, where much of the blood and moisture loss occurs, for 5 to 6 days. Then they will be moved together to the next cooling room for up to 14 days. And, so on until they are ready to removed.
Temperature is the most obvious control, and the controlled temperature and airflow in the cooling rooms will trigger an aerobic (lives in air) bacteria which will produce beneficial molds on the exterior of the primal. Think of the rind on a fine brie. This serves to both bring out the flavor of the beef and to make it more tender during the dry aging process.
The second factor in play when dry aging beef is the airflow. Ensuring there is plenty of airflow in the aging room creates an environment in which the beef will form an outer ‘crust’ during the first week or so of dry aging. This crust is important, as it will act as the shield for the inner meat. For primals this crust is to recreate what used to be the natural barrier provided by the bones and fat of the carcass.
When the dry aging process is complete, the primals are trimmed, and the steaks cut, what you have is a truly unparalleled piece of beef. The rich taste and velvet-like texture of Prime Dry Aged beef will surely leave a lasting impression with your customers.
So Why Doesn’t Everyone Dry Age?
Dry aging is time consuming, labor intensive and expensive. Up to 35% or more of the beef’s starting weight will be lost in the dry aging process. To put that in perspective, when starting with a 100 pound primal, after the dry aging process, between the moisture loss and trim loss only about 65 pounds of beef may remain.
Attention to detail throughout the entire process, which can last for up to 30 days or more, ensures the consistently highest quality of our beef. Monitoring the temperature and air flow in the cooling rooms, tracking and moving the cohorts of primals through different cooling rooms all require an attention to detail not required in a traditional butcher shop.
The result of all of this time, labor, expense and attention to detail is an ultra-premium cut of beef that is unmatched in tenderness and flavor by any unaged beef. Nothing compares. That is the dining experience you will provide your customers. That is the Flannery Beef Difference!