As partakers of life’s fine things, we have been trained to believe that the longer it takes to make something, the better it is. With some exceptions, this mostly holds true. Who doesn’t get excited at the prospect of tasting a decades-old whisky or admiring an objet d’art that was thousands of man-hours in the making? With this principle in mind, a piece of meat that’s been left to age, raw and exposed, for several weeks should be downright thrilling.
Before refrigeration was invented, dry-ageing meat – somewhere constantly cool and dry like a cave or cellar – was one way to preserve it aside from pickling, smoking or curing. But these days, chefs and butchers embark on this time-consuming practice because successfully aged meat explodes with flavour while also being more tender.
This happens because dry ageing breaks down the meat protein and connective tissue whilst also pulling moisture out, giving us softer meat with more concentrated flavours. “Think about it as a reduction. You’re taking away the non-essential elements and allowing the good bits to take the stage. In this case, we are talking about both flavours and texture. This explains why meat pieces that have been dry-aged for extended periods tend to be small and expensive,” explains Charmaine Hung of fridge manufacturer Dry Ager.
“Additionally, depending on the diet of the particular cow, some could achieve a blue cheese-like flavour with extended dry ageing of six weeks or more. It’s a hit or miss because this particular enzyme is not present in every single cow, even if they share the same diet. So it’s almost like a lucky draw. But earthy flavours tend to kick in with lengthened dry ageing periods in general.”
Hung advises beginners to try a four-week course and to add a week or two if heavier, nuttier flavours are desired. To stop ageing a piece, trim off the darkened, hardened edges, slice up the pieces and vacuum pack them for storage in a chiller for up to two to three weeks, or in a freezer for up to a year.
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The magic begins with the right environment. Strictly speaking, all you really need for a home dry-ageing set-up is fridge space, a fan and a rack.
The fridge should ideally be kept at a temperature between 0 and 4 deg C, with humidity at 75 to 85 per cent. The fan is to ensure constant airflow so the meat can dry as quickly as possible. This is also why a rack or a perforated shelf is necessary. A small stand-alone fan can achieve this.
If you don’t want the hassle of setting all of that up, there are dedicated drying cabinets that will take away the guesswork and self-regulate the environment. There are various sizes to suit your ageing needs, from mini fridge-sized boxes for 20kg of cuts to massive towers for carnivorous consumers wanting to age whole ribs and loins.
Cabinets like the ones Dry Ager offers include convenient features like temperature controls with 0.1-degree increments, humidity controls, active carbon filters and UV sterilisation systems, as well as glass doors so you can watch the progress. Fridges by Steak Locker have a companion app to pair with its cabinets so you can monitor the microclimate at all times.
To amp up the flavour during the ageing process, consider investing in a salt wall or at least a few salt blocks to place in the fridge or cabinet.
The salt helps further reduce humidity in the chamber and ionisation between the particles found in the salt and meat contribute to even more flavour.
Forget the filet mignon and tiny tenderloins. Never age individually cut steaks. Dry ageing causes the meat to lose water and size, which means small cuts will all but disappear by the end of the process. So, if you’re going to go to all that trouble of ageing meat, think big and primal (or subprimal) – striploin, porterhouse, bone-in ribeye and the like.
In fact, you want as many bones and fat caps in your cuts as possible. Not only does fat give flavour (so a good amount of marbling is recommended), but fat caps also guard the meat from moisture loss. This means the amount lost during the dehydration comes from the outer layers that weren’t meant to be eaten anyway. The bones serve a similar protective function.
Now, the question is how long you’re going to leave it in your ageing chamber. Most will only be able to discern aged beef’s unique flavours after about 28 to 30 days of ageing. How much longer you want to take it will depend entirely on your penchant for funky flavours.
You’ll often find steaks aged around the 45-day mark at restaurants as they have just enough intensity for it to be interesting, but not so much that it tastes beef-flavoured Roquefort. But some have pushed that limit very, very far. APL Restaurant in Los Angeles once had a 380-day aged steak that reportedly smelled like foie gras when raw and tasted like truffles when cooked. Let your palate be your guide.
01 CURE MEAT: Curing meat is virtually the same as ageing it – except that it gets a liberal coating of salt first to draw out moisture and kill bacteria and doesn’t require as cool a temperature. Thoroughly bury the meat in salt and/or flavourings, wrap it in cheesecloth and hang until it loses 35 to 40 per cent of its weight. Sausages and breasts take weeks, but large legs for prosciutto can take months or even a year.
02 MAKE BOTTARGA: To make the umami missile that is bottarga, first soak the roe in a saltwater bath overnight. Pat dry with paper towels, lay them out on fresh ones, fully cover with salt and place them in the fridge. For the next few days, you will have to replace the paper towels and salt as the roe firms up. Once firm, hang it in the dry ager for 10 to 14 days or even longer if desired. The harder the roe, the more intense the flavour. When it’s reached its desired consistency, brush with olive oil, wrap and refrigerate until ready for use.
03 AGE OTHER MEATS: Beef benefits the most from dry ageing because of how its unique enzymes break down during the process, but other meats like pork and game birds can also be dry aged. Pork cannot endure too long an ageing period due to its higher water content, so just a week can result in a juicier piece of meat. Fattier cuts like pork belly may be aged longer for a punch of flavour.
04 AGE FISH: It’s also possible to age fish, and you would only have to wait a day or two for typically tough fish to melt in your mouth. Lean, meaty fish like snapper, bass, tuna and knifejaw take well to ageing. Start with fish that is as fresh as possible and clean it carefully so as not to let the meat come into contact with blood or viscera. Once cleaned, dried and wrapped, hang the fish whole to dry for 24 to 48 hours. Check for spoilage after the first day.
05 STORE WINE: The older the wine, the more finicky its care. The right temperature – usually about 13 deg C though this may vary between vintages – is paramount in keeping the wine in drinkable conditions. Too warm and it will age too fast, too cold and the wine can freeze and expand, pushing the cork out, or the cork itself might dry out and crack. The correct humidity will also preserve cork health.