The Science of Dry Aging and How to Do It at Home
What is dry aging?
Dry aging is a process where primals or subprimals of beef are left to store without protective packaging in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. This environment allows the enzymes to breakdown the protein structures, extracting moisture from the meat which creates extremely tender and flavorful cuts.
What is the process and how does it work?
Four elements make up the dry age process:
Personally, I found that 34-38 °F is the sweet spot. Anything lower than that will cause the meat to freeze and stop the process. Anything higher could potentially work, but you risk introducing dangerous pathogens into the meat causing spoilage, a funky odor and an unpleasant taste.
You want 80% to 85% humidity. Too much relative humidity will creates harmful bacteria, leading to spoilage. Too low relative humidity will cause your meat to shrivel like it’s been hit by a shrink ray.
It is important to have open air flow for the meat to create even growth of good bacterias. Common ways to to allow air flow to circulate the meat even include setting your meat on racks, perforated shelves, or hooks. Uneven air flow can cause mold to form resulting in bad odor and spoilage.
The amount of time you allow your meat to age under the proper conditions will really dictate the flavor and tenderness of your meat. I recommend 35 - 45 days to really start to see a drastic difference in the flavor and tenderness.I have had friends and other butchers really push the limits of dry aging, going as far as 365 days and sometimes even further.
Why does dry aging taste better?
The breaking down of the enzymes, the growth of good bacteria, and the extraction of moisture create a deeper and more luscious flavor. The meat will taste bold and rich. The longer you age it the more complex and beautiful the flavor gets creating lasting memories of the time you had a 65 day dry age steak. I would compare it to cheese, the longer you let a blue cheese mold the more distinct aroma and taste you will achieve.
How is it different than wet aging?
Wet aging is the new kid on the butcher block. You simply seal the meat in bag and allow it to sit in cold storage. You will still get a small amount of tenderization with your meat, but in this butcher’s humble opinion, it’s like letting your meat sit in its own fluids (i.e. blood) for 3 to 6 weeks. (Most meat you buy at the grocery store has had some amount of wet aging happening naturally, since the packages are sealed and left to sit on a cold shelf.)
As you can tell, I am not as high on wet aging as others might be but I can understand why people would like it. With the convenience of vacuum sealing and minimum amount of waste, it is much easier for the common meat lover to be able to do it at home.
Why is dry aging more expensive?
Time equals money. The meat also shrinks so you are losing weight. The longer ageing enhances tenderness and flavor, but does take up space in the fridge and energy.
Do you only dry age beef? If so, why?
I have not experimented myself outside of beef, but I know butchers who have dry age pork loins, both bone in and bone out, successfully. You have a similar reaction in the breaking down of enzymes and protein structures in the muscles to create beautifully flavored pork. (Drop us a hint if you’d like to see this option in the shop: email us at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Can I dry age at home?
Absolutely! Here’s how I do it: Get yourself a small dorm room sized refrigerator specifically designated for dry aging. It’s worth the investment. You will want to get a thermometer for the inside of the refrigerator to ensure correct temperature throughout the aging process (see notes above about the importance of temperature control). Make sure to place your primal on a wire rack or a perforated shelf to allow even air flow.
Let the meat have plenty of time. This is the most important step determining the success of your meat. 35 days is a good base line to really develop rich flavors and excellent tenderness. But you could really experiment and take it as far as your curiosity will allow you to go.
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