dry-ageing

Photos: Victoria Burrows and Marguerite

Australian chef Josh Niland is known as the king of scale-to-tail cooking, having revolutionised the way chefs look at aquatic produce with his insistence that anything that can be done to an animal can be applied to fish. He opened the world’s first fish butchery and made fish offal sexy at his 34-seater Sydney hotspot, Saint Peter. This month, Niland opens his first restaurant outside Australia at the new Edition hotel in Singapore.

It may be surprising to learn the path that this trailblazing chef has taken — his life’s work, if you will — all began with a mistake. Niland was working at now-closed Sydney restaurant Fish Face under chef Stephen Hodges when he forgot to wrap the fish overnight in plastic and the cool-room fan dried it out. Hodges was less than pleased at the negligence and waste. Without telling his boss, Niland cooked. He was stunned.

Related: Chef Sam Aisbett opens a new culinary chapter at Akuna, where modern Australian meets Vietnamese influences 

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A row of dry-aged fish in Saint Peter in Sydney by chef Josh Niland. (Photo: Saint Peter)

“It was extraordinary. It was probably the best fish I’d cooked. The skin sort of puffed off the flesh, like crackling,” he recalls. “I didn’t tell Steve, but I served the fish. The guests loved it.”

When he thought about it, it made no sense to put a wet fish in a hot frying pan full of hot oil. He “squirrelled away the idea” for another day. 

Fast forward to 2016, when Niland opened his first restaurant, Saint Peter. The seed of that error took root in his mind, watered by necessity. His first invoice for fish came in for AUD$4,500 ($3,900), but, according to culinary dogma, a significant portion of that fish would be considered inedible offcuts, such as bones and eyeballs. He would also be under pressure to use up all the fish in a short window of freshness.

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Australian chef Josh Niland is known as the king of scale-to-tail cooking. (Photo: Alan Benson)

The statistics are eye-opening: a whopping 50 per cent of fish is thrown away even before it reaches the market, with half of that thrown away again by restaurant kitchens. “It’s like slaughtering a cow only for primary cuts. And it would mean AUD$2,250 in the bin,” he says. “My approach was driven more out of fear than anything else — how to promote day one quality for extended periods and generate desirability in what’s perceived as waste.”

So he began to use fish and seafood parts traditionally considered unpalatable, including curing wild kingfish livers and calamari semen. He also experimented with ageing whole fish, building on what he learned from his mistake at Fish Face: moisture is the enemy. He hooked and hung the fish in a cool room so it never came into contact with anything it could perspire against. 

To work out exactly how to dry-age fish, he relied on gut feel and experimentation. “How long I would leave a fish hanging was based on instinct and when it became texturally better. I would stop the ageing when the flavour it reached resonated with me, when it tasted freshest, sweetest, more savoury, or more complex — it depends on what you are aiming for,” he explains.

It’s like slaughtering a cow only for primary cuts. And it would mean AUD$2,250 in the bin,” he says. “My approach was driven more out of fear than anything else — how to promote day one quality for extended periods and generate desirability in what’s perceived as waste.

Australian chef Josh Niland of FYSH in the Edition Singapore hotel

Enhancing the flavours of fish

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Sea ham — aged tuna belly — served at three-Michelin-star Aponiente in southern Spain as a dessert with chocolate marshmallows. (Photos: Victoria Burrows)

A growing number of chefs around the world are experimenting with ageing fish, even serving it for dessert: At the ground-breaking, three-Michelin-starred Aponiente in southern Spain, Ángel León cuts aged Atlantic bluefin tuna belly into the shape of a ham, sets it up on a stand usually used for carving legs of jamon iberico, and serves it in slices with chocolate marshmallow.

Innovations such as these are radically expanding our perceptions of how fish can be used, but ageing techniques have, of course, been used in Japan for centuries. It is standard practice for most fillets of fish used for sushi to be aged for a few days.

Traditionally, sushi ageing is more akin, however, to wet ageing, with fish aged in chambers with gigantic blocks of ice and no fans. The fish was tightly wrapped up with little exposure to air. Exactly how each species and cut of fish is aged is up to each chef.

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At Andō in Hong Kong, chef Agustin Balbi ages fish for his raw seafood platter. (Photo: Andō)

Agustin Balbi, executive chef and co-founder of one-Michelin-starred Spanish-Japanese restaurant Andō in Hong Kong, spent several years cooking at top kitchens in Japan, including three-starred Nihonryori Ryugin, and integrates Japanese techniques into his cuisine.

“Usually we think that eating fish fresh out of the ocean is best, but if you try the fish when it’s just caught, it has pretty much no flavour at all. It needs to rest to develop its best flavour,” he says. 

“Dry-ageing strips the fish of any excess moisture and breaks down the proteins, giving it a more buttery texture. Furthermore, the flavour molecules — glutamate and insulate — are released during the ageing process, adding complexity of flavour. Certainly, being a tastier, juicier, and more tender cut, dry-aged fish is also easier to cook.”

He ages fish for his raw seafood course paired with different dipping sauces and condiments, such as his excellent samegarai (roughscale sole) served with black olives. He ages just the fillets, places them between two sheets of kombu seaweed, and leaves them in a special fridge with a fan for three or four days until peak flavour and texture are achieved.

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Dry-ageing strips the fish of any excess moisture and breaks down the proteins, giving it a more buttery texture. Furthermore, the flavour molecules — glutamate and insulate — are released during the ageing process, adding complexity of flavour. Certainly, being a tastier, juicier, and more tender cut, dry-aged fish is also easier to cook.

Complex coating of flavours

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At the chef’s table of The Sea, The Sea in London, chef Leandro Carreira dry-ages a variety of fish and is now experimenting with seafood. (Photo: Victoria Burrows)

Leandro Carreira, of London’s innovative The Sea, The Sea (which includes a seafood bar in Chelsea and a 14-seater chef’s table in Hackney), was inspired by Japanese fish ageing techniques at another London restaurant, Sushi Tetsu. Carreira, who spent three years at the exceptional Mugaritz in Spain and was executive chef at London’s Viajante by Nuno Mendes, has perfected his techniques of dry-ageing fish over the last several years that he now supplies to restaurants across the British capital.

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A fish dish at London’s The Sea, The Sea. (Photo: Victoria Burrows)

Long strips of monkfish and whole turbot are strung up on hooks in front of a wall of pink Himalayan salt in the walk-in temperature-controlled dry-ageing cabinets at the front of the Hackney restaurant, while state-of-the-art shellfish filtration pods gurgle to one side. Carreira is now experimenting with dry-ageing seafood, including squid, scallop, and cuttlefish.

“We’ve left our line-caught squid hanging for six days, sometimes encased in beeswax. The beeswax doesn’t make the squid gain flavour, but maybe because it’s coated and protected, it has developed its own flavour,” he says. “Next to a fresh piece of squid, you wouldn’t believe it; it’s remarkable, with deep umami flavours.”

Fishing around for solutions

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Chef Ricard Camarena dry-ages tuna coated in carob at his eponymous restaurant in Valencia. (Photo: Ricard Camarena)

Dry-ageing fish in various coatings is something Ricard Camarena has also been perfecting at his two-Michelin-star and green star eponymous restaurant in Valencia, Spain.

The process began with what he describes as the “syllogism between nori seaweed, tuna, and carob”. The smell of carob, when he broke the bean, always reminded him of nori, while the seaweed and tuna are a classic pairing. 

He tried cooking tuna in carob bean juice but it was a “disaster”; he powdered carob bean in a macerator but could not get the ratio right. He then moved on to a puree of carob with yoghurt whey and coated various cuts of tuna in this puree, leaving them for up to two months in a dry-ageing fridge.

After a year of serving morsels of tuna this way, he substituted steamed rice for the yoghurt whey, using koji (yeast starter) spores to effectively create an acidic amazake (sweet drink made from fermented rice). But he soon realised he could use the leftover bread from his restaurant to replace the steamed rice.

“We never throw anything away and were already making two different drinks from leftover bread that we would serve in our no-alcohol pairings,” he says. “We made a lot of drinks, even putting them in barriques to sell, but we had more than people wanted. So I thought to use the bread, inoculated with aspergillus, for ageing tuna. We’re very happy with it this way.”

He uses the same process for various cuts of the tuna, dry-ageing it for an impressive four to six months, depending on the weight and thickness of each cut: “The process is the same; just the complexity and depth of aromatic flavour are different,” he says.

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The dry-ageing cabinets at Marguerite in Singapore. (Photo: Rebecca Dickson)

For Michael Wilson, chef-patron of Marguerite in Singapore, he was compelled to dry-age fish due to the inability to get fish delivered from Europe every day. 

“We were looking for a way we could store fish that wouldn’t degrade it, for example, by freezing, and a way to prevent us from processing the product too far in advance,” he says. “Dry-ageing was the answer, and not only did it solve these issues, it made the fish better.”

Wilson has been dry-ageing everything from ora king salmon and Patagonian toothfish to John dory and scorpion fish since Marguerite first opened in November 2021.

Related: Michelin-starred Korean steakhouse Cote to inject fun and conviviality into Singapore restaurant

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Ora king salmon, French breakfast radish, finger lime, wax pepper fumet at Marguerite. (Photo: Marguerite)

When the fish comes in, he removes the scales with a knife or a scaler, opens the gut cavity and removes the contents. If the fish is aged with the head on, he removes the gills, otherwise, the head is typically removed. He then uses a toothbrush and fresh, cold water to gently scrub the inside free of any blood. He then pats the fish dry and hangs it in the cabinet within the restaurant, which is set at one to three degrees celsius and at 70 to 80 per cent humidity, from two days to a month, depending on the species.

For Wilson, the success of dry-ageing comes down to the quality of the product and precise technique: “You’ve got to first start with getting the freshest quality fish in good condition. Then you need to prepare the fish correctly,” he says. As more chefs around the world experiment with their own approaches to ageing fish, boosting flavour, and reducing waste, culinary possibilities continue to expand.