Dry Aged Steak: What is it?

In this post, we’ll discuss the fascinating dry aging process and explain why a dry-aged piece of meat is such a luxurious indulgence. Dry aged beef is probably the more accurate term than dry aged steak. Butchers are more likely to hang whole cuts of beef rather than single steaks for this technique.

What Is Dry-Aging?

Dry aging is a specialist technique that requires a carefully controlled environment. The butcher keeps a careful balance between airflow, temperature, and humidity to promote:

  • Oxidation
  • Enzymatic breakdown
  • Bacterial activity

These naturally-occurring processes change the taste and texture of the meat, making it uniquely tender. Essentially the butcher allows the beef to ferment safely and promotes the formation of a moldy layer on the meat.

The key to the process is to hang each piece of meat so that air can reach every surface. In this manner, the mold creates a fine even layer across the surface.

Like with fine cheeses, the mold is perfectly harmless to humans. In fact, the mold that forms on dry-aged beef dehydrates the meat and improves its flavor. The more water the mold removes, the better it grows, and the more concentrated the meat’s flavor becomes.

The butcher’s skill lies in knowing when to halt the process and place the meat up for sale. They do so by removing every trace of mold and trimming the meat. At this stage, they will divide it up into the various cuts for cooking.

It would be a wasteful exercise if done the other way around, as too much meat would be lost.

How Does Dry-Aging Change the Taste and Texture of Meat?

Consider the difference between a standard sauce and a reduction. The latter is more concentrated because you simmer away most of the moisture. The remaining sauce is thick, rich, and has a different flavor from the original. There may not be as much sauce anymore, but the condensed flavor means you need less to make an impact.

Beef consists of about 75% of water. When you remove that water content, you’re left with an increasingly concentrated flavor.

That is not, however, the only change that occurs. The bacterial and enzymatic activity breaks down the compounds within the meat, causing it to change chemically.

The primary change is the conversion of proteins into amino acids. As a result, they may develop a delicious umami taste. Other compounds within the meat, like glycogen molecules, may be relatively tasteless before dry-aging. These compounds help create a rich, delicious flavor when the process is complete. You’ll also be able to discern a nutty flavor that reminds you of cheese. This is due to the fermentation of the meat.

The other effect of this transformation process is that it makes the meat incredibly tender. Dry-aged beef adopts an almost melt-in-the-mouth texture that makes it easy to enjoy. Forget sinew other bits of gristle – dry-aging makes them soft and pliable.

Dry-aged beef reacts well to several cooking methods, no matter what cut you receive, and will not take an excessive amount of time to prepare.

What Does Dry-Aged Steak Taste Like?

Best Conditions for Dry-Aging Meat

Dry-aged meat is something of an acquired taste. It is aromatic out of the bag because it has such condensed and concentrated flavors. However, most home chefs start to truly understand what the fuss is about during cooking.  

As the meat heats up and starts to sizzle, it releases a rich, unmistakable aroma that wakes up your tastebuds. The meat is a feast for the senses even while it’s still cooking. The flavor itself is entirely different from a standard steak. It is rich, creamy, and far more intense with a hint of walnuts and cheese.

Dry-Aged Steak vs. Regular

The comparison is somewhat unfair because both products are very different. There are two main points of difference.

Tenderness

The connective tissue and muscle fibers in a fresh piece of steak are intact and tough. The dry-aging process breaks down those connective tissues, completing the first part of the digestion process for you. Fresh steak is tougher and more challenging to chew, no matter which cut you choose.

Flavor

A fresh steak tastes meaty and delicious. However, the dry-aged steak takes that beef flavor to an intense new level with bold undertones of umami and a hint of sweetness.

How Does Dry-Aged Beef Not Spoil?

Dry-aging is a type of fermentation rather than rampant decay. The meat ages in a highly controlled environment, with consistent conditions. The butcher does not subject it to extremes of temperature extremes to avoid spoilage.

The primary protective factor in the dry-aging process is that air runs over every surface of the beef. The exterior, therefore, dries out and crusts over. The crust seals the meat, preventing any external bacteria from gaining access.

Further, the humid conditions ensure that the water in the meat evaporates slowly, adding an additional measure of control and preventing spoilage.

What Are the Best Cuts of Dry-Aged Meat?

It’s not cost-effective to dry-age a single steak because of the amount of meat you will discard. Fat and bone play a protective role during aging, so choosing fatty cuts or one-the-bone cuts generate the best final product.

For example, a ribeye or New York strip on the bone is a far better choice than a more petite fillet because they are nicely marbled and are substantial cuts.

Why Is Dry-Aged Beef More Expensive?

Some epicurean delights come with a steep price tag for no good reason. That is not true here. If you consider the amount of work that goes into producing this meat and the wasted meat the process produces, it’s easy to justify the extra expense:

  • Fresh meat consists of about 75% of water. The meat loses much of this water weight during the process
  • The butcher cuts away the mold, and so loses more meat

It’s possible to lose half of the original weight due to aging before factoring in business costs.

Is Dry Aged Beef Really Better Than the Alternatives?

If you’re a fan of fresh meat, dry-aged beef may be something of an acquired taste. However, so much of the meat’s flavor depends on the butcher’s skill. Getting the perfect balance between age and taste is something of an art.

Experts agree that there’s no comparison. An appropriately dry-aged steak is flavorful, fork-tender, and can easily be the star of the show. Little to no sauce, seasoning, or toppings are necessary. Dry-aged steak provides a robust main dish that pairs well with simple sides such as asparagus, greens, or roasted fingerling potatoes.

The Best Conditions for Dry-Aging Meat

This specialty product requires a significant investment in space and extensive knowledge. The beef needs plenty of space with sufficient airflow all around it. It’s essential to maintain consistent temperatures and humidity and adequately monitor the progress.

There is some debate over how long to age the meat for, and some claim that wet-aging produces the same results. Everyone has an opinion on the best conditions, but consistency proves best every time.

What is Your Next Taste Adventure?

We’ve got so many more juicy reads for you to sink your teeth into and learn all about steak. Browse our site for recipes guides, and stake your claim as your town’s steak aficionado!

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About the author

Adam can tell you the difference between a flank steak and skirt steak and any other cut of meat. He loves sharing his knowledge of steaks with everyone, ensuring you get the perfect steak every time.