The Art and Science of Aging Beef

Have you ever seen the phrase “aged beef,” or “dry aged beef,” in a menu or on an add and wondered what it really means?  Aging is very important for tenderness development in beef.  It allows enzymes that are naturally found in the meat to be active and breakdown protein that leads to tenderness.  Beef can be aged for just a few days or up to a couple months before it is eaten.  Outside of tenderness, aging can also be used to help with flavor development.  Depending on how it is used, aging is not just an important science but an art.

There are two types of aging that used in the beef industry: wet aging and dry aging. 

Wet aging is storing large cuts of meat in a sealed, vacuum package bag under refrigerated temperatures, and is the most commonly used form of aging in the industry.  This method is great because the packaging inhibits cross contamination with other products, controls bacteria growth and retains the moisture from the product within the bag.  Since the product doesn’t dry out, there is very little waste once removed.  Once removed from the package, the product is further cut into steaks and roasts before being sold to the end consumer.

Dry aging is storing the product without packaging in open air.  This method allows for mold growth on the product as well high amounts of moisture loss.  Although this may sound unappealing, the mold growth allows for intense flavor development (example: one of the molds that is commonly associated with blue cheese can be found on dry aged meat, giving the meat a blue cheese like flavor).  Once the product is ready to be divided into retail cuts, the dried portion and mold is cut off and discarded. 

These are strip loins that were used for a research project in our lab this semester. The bright red loins were wet aged. Notice that they do not have the same “crust” like the others that would need to be removed before steaks are cut. The other loins were dry aged for 45 days.

Dry aging is really where the art and science meet.  Mold growth allows for flavor development, but also has the potential for unsafe organisms to develop.  Controlling temperature and airflow around the product is key to limit dangerous growth.  Keeping these factors in mind account for the science, but how about the art?  Dry aging has not been extensively studied, but has been done for ages.  From high end restaurants, to meat cellars, dry aging can be done in many different places and conditions.  Choosing the cut of meat to age, length of time of aging, temperature control, etc., each person doing the aging may have a different method to their madness.  It’s an incredible collaboration of meat science and culinary creativity.

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