What is Beef Aging?
Beef aging is a biochemical process which breaks down the meat’s connective tissue making it tenderer. This takes place after the slaughter when the lack of oxygen initially triggers an anaerobic glycolysis process. This causes what we called ‘rigor mortis’ or the hardening of soft muscle tissue.
It is only at this stage that the enzymatic aging starts, which is roughly 8 to 10 days when the meat tissues turn soft again. However, such a period of time varies depending on the age, sex and breed of the animal. To further intensify the flavor, the beef can be aged for 8 additional weeks provided it is properly handled.
Beef aging comes in two methods – dry beef aging and wet beef aging.
Why is Beef Aging Done?
Here are some good reasons for aging beef:
- Rich Flavor
Many don’t favor cooking unaged beef because of its strange ‘metallic’ taste and the lack of usual beef flavor. Beef maturation provides beef that distinct ‘gamey’ flavor – a strong, earthy, tangy flavor. The real beef flavor can be achieved after 11 days of aging. With increasing aging time, the flavor of the beef also increases.
- Increase Tenderness
Aging can increase the meat’s tenderness. During the beef aging process, changes occur in parts of the muscle fiber and collagen structures. The action of the enzymes causes the muscle fibers to soften. After slaughter, rigor mortis takes places, which takes about 6 to 12 hours. Immediately following the rigor mortis process, the meat’s tenderness increases.
This continues up to 11 days and then there is no additional increase in tenderness. The maximum tenderness during beef aging differs depending on the muscles and the color of the lean. In general, dark beef age less easily compared to lighter colored meats. Also, the tenderness effect of beef aging is more apparent in meats from older animals in comparison to meat from younger animals.
History of Beef Aging
The process of beef aging isn’t a modern invention. Rembrandt, one of the greatest painters of the 17th century, made a scene known as ‘Carcass of Beef’ – depicting a carcass hanging and skinned in a dark shed.
During that time, the method was simply called ‘hang out’ since the meat was hung using a hook. The biggest challenge was the erratic temperatures. Beef can produce bacterial growth during the aging process. Thanks to the development of modern cooling systems, this risk has been minimized.
In the 1970s, people used the dry aging method. Soon after, the vacuum technology had been invented and the food industry completely changed. The wet beef aging has been introduced which leads to a faster meat maturation and less weight loss. Because of this, more meat was sold and higher profit margins have been obtained.
Types of Beef Aging
There are two ways to age your beef.
- Dry aging – the process of allowing meat hang in the open inside a climate controlled cooler.
- Wet aging – the process of maturing meat through vacuum sealing and storing it inside a cooler or refrigerator for the aging process.
How Dry Aging Works
In essence, the dry aging method is the process of letting meat breathe, lose moisture and break down through enzymatic and microbial action.
During the dry aging method there are some factors to consider such as storage temperature, air flow, days of aging and the storage temperature. All these factors can affect shelf-life, meat shrinkage, microbial spoilage and other concerns related to quality.
The meat is placed in perforated shelves, special wire racks or suspended using hooks to hold the meat for dry aging so all sides are exposed to the cold temperatures for uniform drying. Some commercial coolers use UV light to prevent microbial spoilage. Additional fans are also used to assist the drying process by helping in the movement of air.
Storage temperature should not be below the freezing temperature of meat, which is -26.6 to -28.8 F, because the enzymatic actions necessary for meat aging will stop. Elevating the storage temperature will increase enzymatic actions but can increase bacterial spoilage that results in a flavor that just doesn’t seem, or smell, right. For this reason, setting the proper storage temperature is very important.
- A distinct flavor develops that is not present with vacuum sealed meat, which is the result of oxidation
- Flavor development
- High meat shrinkage due to evaporation and trimming
- High demand for chiller space, hence high energy cost
- More expensive in terms of cost per pound due to shrinkage
How Wet Aging Works
Wet aging is the process of aging meat inside a vacuum-sealed plastic bag under a storage temperature of 32 to 33.8 F. In this method, air flow and humidity are not necessary for proper wet aging. Since the meat is vacuum packaged right after cutting, this aging process is the conventional method of beef aging today.
As a result of the holding period at the packing plant for meat chilling, the meat reaches the grocery stores about 8 to 10 days after the slaughter. Therefore, the time needed for tenderization is usually 7 to 10 days, and the time associated with moving the product to grocery stores is similar.
During wet aging, the meat is allowed to soak in its own juices which causes the beef to have that distinct metallic taste. However, this method is more cost-effective for meat processors. More than 50 years ago since vacuum packing had been introduced, consumers’ tastes changed and they forgot what true beef flavor is and how it should taste.
- Lower weight loss
- Less space requirement
- Lower in cost as the meat does need to be stored
- Has that metallic taste
- Lacks the true beef flavor
So, Which Do You Prefer?
To be honest, it is still a matter of preference. Both beef aging methods help improve the tenderness of meat. Obviously the biggest difference between them is the flavor. Dry-aged beef has that nutty, earthy flavor while wet-aged beef has more of a metallic taste and lacks depth in terms of flavor.
Unless the beef is specially labelled as ‘dry-aged’, the beef sold in most stores is wet-aged beef. Dry-aged beef may cost more and can be difficult to find but it’s definitely worth the try.
As for Atlas Steakhouse, all of our steaks are properly dry aged for at least 21 days.