For meat-eaters, not all cuts of beef were made equal. Add in the aging process and that meat is simply on another level of greatness. Like a fine wine.
Dry-aged beef is quite expensive and mostly only something you treat yourself to at a restaurant. The good news is that, like most things, you can dry-age beef in the comfort of your home. The bad news is that, unlike most DIYs, it is an expensive process; from the equipment required to the meat selected. If you want to do it properly, shortcuts and poor equipment are not recommended. Before we get into how to dry-age beef at home, there are a few things you need to know.
What is Dry-Aging?
Many people may think, “Aged beef? Eeeww.” If you think about it, the last time you left a steak in the fridge too long it probably didn’t turn out so great. That’s because moisture and oxygen have messed it up. If you’ve had dry-aged beef, then you know that there’s a certain skill required to bring out the flavors that come with dry aging.
Controlled rotting: That’s what dry-aging is. The beef is placed in a sanitary room with 70 to 80% humidity, a brisk airflow and at 34 to 38 degrees Fahrenheit. It is the treatment of meat designed to intensify flavor as well as tenderize the steak. Enzymes break down the amino acids, protein, and other compounds, and in the process create new compounds such as glutamates – the source of umami, the savory flavor we look for in a steak. The reduction of moisture levels leads to a concentration in flavor, as well as encouragement of the growth of “good” bacteria and mold that help to give the steak a sort of savory, salt, sweet, mushroom and nutty flavor, and aroma. As such, dry-aged beef is not for everyone. Some people can’t get enough of it. Some Egyptians, for example, loved it so much that they were buried with it. Others simply cannot stand it. If you’ve never tasted dry-aged beef before, we suggest you do before attempting to dry-age it yourself.
There are two types of aging processes – dry-aging and wet-aging. Wet-aging is a relatively new process that involves vacuum-sealing steaks. Dry-aging, on the other hand, has been done for centuries and involves leaving beef to age in a climate-controlled and dry environment.
The general consensus is that dry-aged beef tastes much better than wet-aged beef. It is also more expensive, mostly due to the loss of weight that occurs during the dehydration process. The completely dry exterior also has to be cut off.
What Kind of Steak Should Be Used for Dry-Aging?
Due to the shrinking and trimming of the steak, it is important to note the following:
Do NOT uses individually cut steaks? Technically, you can, but this would be a waste of time, effort and beef. At the end of it all, you’d be left with so little steak that the process wouldn’t have been worth it at all. Instead, opt for bigger cuts of meat, whole muscles or subprimals. The beef should also be unwrapped or “naked,” otherwise it will be wet-aged, and that’s not the goal.
This is not the time for cheap or extremely lean cuts of beef; steer clear of those because they do not intensify with flavor – not enough to make this process worthwhile, anyway. Opt for beef that has a minimum degree of marbling. You may have heard many people say that fat is the best part of any meat. That is true in this case. There certainly is flavor in the fat, and without it, you are lacking a critical component of the taste foundation. Water evaporates, fat does not. So the ratio of marbling to muscle will inevitably change. The more fat there is, the juicier and richer the steak will become.
For how Long Should the Meat Dry-Age?
Both wet- and dry-aging allow the enzymes to tenderize the meat, but dry-aging takes longer – at least 14 days to sufficiently tenderize the steak, and at least 21 days to allow complex flavors to develop. The longer the steak is dry-aged, the sharper and funkier the flavor. Leaving steak to dry-age for 8 weeks, for example, results in a very sharp taste that will undoubtedly appeal to fewer people. The key is to find that middle ground, that sweet spot, which lies somewhere in the 4-6 week mark.
However, the length of time chosen depends on a number of factors such as the cut of beef, type of mold in the refrigerator and personal preference. Additionally, it is important to remember that the longer the beef is left to age the more you will need to cut away. If this is your first time dry-aging beef, we suggest leaving it to dry-age for a shorter period of time.
How to Dry-Age Beef at Home: The Set-Up
- Choosing the Fridge
DO NOT use the refrigerator you have in your kitchen. That fridge is opened several times a day with moisture, warm air and bacteria coming in and out – hardly a controllable environment. Plus if you have or have had other food items in there your premium cut of steak will happily absorb their smells. Remember that time you spilled milk in the corner or left onions in the fridge for too long and they became moldy? You may not have cleaned up as well as you thought and now that mold will attach itself onto your beef. All this will ultimately not only affect the taste and quality of your prized aged beef, but the entire process.
A dedicated fridge is of the utmost importance. It should be clean. In fact, we suggest cleaning it again with bleach and rinsing that off well. It should then be aired out to get rid of the smell of detergent. Try not to be tempted to store anything else in this fridge. It should strictly be used for dry-aging.
The fridge should not be too small as you want some air flow around the edges. Replace any solid glass shelving with wire shelves to allow sufficient air flow. You can also add a standalone fan to ensure adequate circulation. Place it at the bottom of the fridge and simply angle it to face up towards the shelves. A fridge that is too large may present challenges in controlling humidity levels. Dorm refrigerators or keg fridges are good options. Opt for a fridge with a glass door to avoid having to open and close it to check what’s going on.
- The Temperature
The ideal temperature is between 34 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Any temperature before 32 degrees and the enzymes won’t be able to do their job, and anything above 40 degrees will result in spoilage. You may want to invest in a digital thermometer, just to be sure.
Keeping the humidity of your refrigerator in the optimal range of 70 to 80% is critical. Excess shrinkage can occur if humidity levels are too low. This is not a way to speed up the process. Beef that shrinks too fast compromises the integrity of the muscle, resulting in air pockets. If humidity is too high, spoilage will occur. If your budget allows, invest in a gadget that displays both temperature and humidity.
- Introducing the Right Mold
This gives you a great, if not a head start to the dry-aging process. Simply purchase dry-aged beef from a trusted facility and smear the interior of your fridge with it. If this isn’t an option for you, don’t worry; the ideal microclimate will simply take longer to develop in your fridge. This may result in your dry-aged beef being more tender and less funky than you may have originally intended.
What influences the mold in your fridge is the atmosphere where you live. Mold is good, except if it’s black. If you see this type of mold growing on your beef you may want to stop, disinfect your fridge and start again. You want dry-aged beef that is funky, not foul.
- Let the Meat Do Its Thing
At this point, there is nothing left for you to do but let the meat age on its own. All you have to do is check up on it.
Once you are ready to eat it you can either:
- Trim the entire slab of meat, cut it up, wrap it in plastic and store it in the fridge, or
- Cut off only the amount you want to eat, trim it and leave the rest of the slab to continue aging.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor!
How to Dry-Age Beef At Home: Is it Worth It?
If dry-aging is done right – absolutely. You probably have to have a passion for meat in order to truly appreciate and take pride in this process. You should also remember that DIY dry-aging is less controlled and therefore less precise than having it done professionally. This may result in the beef ending up with its own unique taste instead of that of your favorite restaurant. In our books, that’s not a bad thing at all.