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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Calcium and Beef?

Calcium and beef, not a combination that you hear paired together very often, but it is a very important combo!  Calcium is important in beef as it helps make the meat tender.  How does it do that you may ask?  Well let me tell you…

All muscle contains enzymes, called calpains, that breakdown protein and are activated by calcium.  These enzymes are important during life because they help remove any weak, or injured proteins in your muscles and let new, healthy protein be formed.  Think about exercising.  When you work out, your muscle fibers are injured and the protein that makes them up is damaged.  Calpains help get rid of those injured proteins and let new, healthy proteins take their place, helping your muscles gain strength.

Postmortem, when this muscle has been converted to meat, those calpains are still active.  The only difference is that meat no longer has energy available to rebuild the muscle.  Calpains are busy breaking apart the protein, without new protein being formed.  This continuous breakdown is what causes meat to be tender.  Think about eating a steak. Did your mouth just water at the thought?  If you have a whole steak and try to just take a big bite without first cutting it, it will probably be kind of tough to chew through.  Cutting the steak across the grain into bite-sized pieces makes it much more tender and easier to chew.  Calpains “cut” those fibers and break them down, leading to a more tender product.

Calcium is important because it is responsible for activating these enzymes.  Without calcium, there would be no need to age beef, because the enzymes responsible for tenderness wouldn’t be active.  The beef we consume would be much tougher than what we know it to be today.  It is so crazy to me that although beef isn’t known to be a good source of calcium in our diet, it still requires calcium to create a palatable product.

While at University of Idaho, my research has been focused on finding a method to improve beef tenderness by activating calpains earlier postmortem.  Basically, I am trying to find a way to make more calcium available to kick the enzymes into high gear!  This project has kept me busy in the lab the past few months, but it has been so fun and exciting to see the data pour in.  I am continually amazed at the amount of science that is involved in making a steak taste great, but it has been so much fun to be a part of the research!

The Science Behind a Steak

Did you know that every food and drink item that you can buy in a grocery store has been through various forms of scientific testing?  Whether it be for pathogens, allergens, microbial growth, flavor development, ingredient use, sensory appeal, the list goes on and on, there is a lot of science that goes into the food we eat!

The same goes for the products that you can purchase at the meat counter.  Now, when I say that there is science in your steak, I don’t mean that it has been chemically altered.  I mean that there has been significant testing put into place to help improve that piece of meat to provide a great eating experience and safe product for you and your family.  One of those tests is Warner-Bratzler Shear Force (WBSF).

Although a long name, WBSF is a simple concept.  Imagine biting into a big, juicy steak and having one of these two thoughts:

 “This is so tender, it just melts in my mouth,” or “This is so tough, I feel like I’m chewing on rubber!”

Sound familiar?  These two thoughts are describing the tenderness of the steak.  WBSF is a measurement of tenderness.  To complete this test, steaks are cooked and cores (basically bite sized pieces) are removed.  The cores are then cut with a machine that measures how many kilograms of pressure it takes to cut through the piece (the force it takes to shear the core, hence the name).  This represents how much pressure you would have to use to chew through the product.  The lower the WBSF value, the more tender the steak.  Using this information, we can find different things that can improve tenderness, whether that be a production method (think the animal’s environment it is raised in or what it is fed), a processing method (how long the product was aged, how the meat was cut, etc.) or cooking method (rare vs. well-done). 

WBSF is often used alongside taste panels. It is helpful to use WBSF as it gives a definite number without being influenced by personal preference.  However, taste panels are necessary because even if a machine tells us it should taste good, it’s people who need to enjoy it.

For those of you who are new to The Meating Room and haven’t read my bio, I am currently pursuing my master’s degree in meat science.  Last week, our lab group spent three days running WBSF analysis.  Three days, 230 steaks, 1,400+ cores to cut, all to try to find a method to improve steak tenderness and consistency for the end consumer. 

This is just a tiny fragment of the science that goes into producing great tasting steak.  As I continue with my project, I hope to share more of the work we are doing in the lab and to give you an insight into what a “meat scientist” really does!

How much meat do cattle provide?

Have you ever wondered how many pounds of beef that cattle provide?  It’s a great question, and something that livestock producers and packers care a lot about:

More muscle (what becomes meat) per animal = More pounds of saleable product

So, how much meat do we get?

The average market weight (body weight of the animal the day that it ‘goes to market’, ie: when it is harvested) of beef cattle is around 1,400 pounds.  As the animal goes through the harvest process, the head, hide, blood, viscera (internal organs and digestive system), and hooves are removed.  At this point, what is left is referred to as a carcass. 

From here, we can calculate the dressing percent of the carcass.  Dressing percent is equal to the carcass weight, divided by the live weight of the animal.  For cattle, this value is typically around 63%, but can vary depending on how much muscle and fat the carcass has, as well as what gender and breed the animal was.  A high dressing percent means that more product is available to use.

At this point, the carcass is fabricated. This means that it is cut into large, wholesale cuts, and then into retail cuts (what you buy at the store: steaks, roasts, etc).  In the agriculture industry, the amount of actual saleable product is known as the amount of yield from a carcass.  This is also referred to as the percent of boneless, closely trimmed (much of the extra fat removed), retail cuts (yes, some cuts have bones that remain with the product, but many are removed).  The percent yield in beef animals is typically around 65%.

So lets take a look at an example:

Say a steer has a market weight of 1350 lbs.  We expect that animal to produce around an 850 lb carcass.  From here, we cut the carcass into saleable product and remove excess fat and bones.  We are left with approximately 553 lbs of meat. 

Now, it is important to remember that all the product that is removed before we reach our final retail cuts is able to be used!  Almost nothing from the animal is thrown out. Here are just a few examples of products besides meat that cattle provide us:

  • Hide: leather for furniture, car seats and clothing.
  • Bones:  Used to make gelatin, used in things like jello and gummy bears.
  • Fat:  Also known as tallow, used in production of biodiesel and in some cosmetics.
  • Intestines:  Cleaned and sanitized and then used for casing for sausages and other processed products.

I hope this post helps answers your question about how much meat that one animal can provide us, but don’t forget, they offer us so much more!