Whiskies might be doing away with age labels these days, but steakhouses, and now upscale supermarkets, remain firm believers of the adage “better with age”.
To be sure, dry-aged beef is nothing new. The process harks back to our primitive roots where carcasses were left out to dry, then salted and cured to extend shelf life. But thanks to technology, the hardware is much fancier now, and gourmet grocers here are selling the visual appeal. At upscale Japanese supermarket Emporium Shokuhin, for instance, an all-glass chiller cabinet displays rows of hunky loins covered in a snow-like mould.
If this all sounds a bit funky, think of it as chemistry at work. Given time and kept in a controlled climate, the meat’s enzymes will break down proteins into amino acids, among which is glutamate – key to producing the intense umami juices loved by many.
In the 1970s, the introduction of vacuum packaging allowed beef to be wet-aged, a process where meat is sealed and kept in a bag. Both techniques share the same science, but the flavours produced differ.
“In dry-ageing, there is no protective packaging around the meat so moisture evaporates from the muscle to create a greater concentration of flavour,” says Andre Huber, executive director of Huber’s Butchery.
“The less expensive alternative to this is wet-ageing. But, because there is hardly any moisture loss, you get minimal concentration of flavour. And, if the beef is left too long in its own juices, it starts to taste a little sour,” he continues.
Paul Sailor, master butcher at Swiss Butchery, compares dry-aged beef to the likes of wine, cheese and even vinegar. “The flavours get more intense as you age them and itself is an art,” he says. Still, Sailor cautions against dry-ageing beef for longer than 30 days.
“Most places would not age beef for longer than 35 days, though in Europe and America, it can go up to 60 days,” he says. “There’s a higher risk of the meat spoiling, especially if not well handled. You also tend to get a lower yield (of meat) as the crust needs to be shaved off before the beef can be cooked.”
FOR BEST EFFECT
Andre Huber, executive director of Huber’s Butchery, shares the perfect way to dry-age beef.
01: Are there certain cuts best suited for this process?
For meat to age properly, you need to choose a large piece with some fat so there is a protective layer. This means cuts like the short loin, which produces steaks like the porterhouse and prime rib.
02: Would wagyu benefit from dry-ageing, even though it’s already considered premium?
When dry-ageing wagyu, you do not get the benefit of tenderising the meat as it is already so soft. But what you do get is a greater concentration of beefiness and the funky flavours of fat oxidising after being aged for, say, 30 days. The umami level of the meat increases greatly.
03: Is there a best way to cook dry-aged beef?
There’s a common misconception that dry-aged meat is, because of its name, drier than fresh meat or wet-aged meat once cooked. Although there is moisture lost in the dry-ageing process, the meat fibres are better able to hold on to the remaining juices when being cooked. I would recommend the reverse sear technique – starting with the steak in the oven, letting it rest for 15 minutes then searing it on a super-hot pan for a couple minutes on each side.
We break down the numbers behind dry-aged beef.
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WHERE’S THE BEEF?
More upscale supermarkets are including dry-ageing services for customers serious about their beef. Here’s where to find some of them.
Ground up koji rice, which contains live culture Aspergillus oryzae, works to break down enzymes and fibrous muscles when rubbed on all sides of a steak to create a dry-ageing effect.