The Meatist Gets Funky With Aged Beef

Categories: Food News
Photo by flickr user aliciazs.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you look in your fridge and see that beauty of a steak that you bought a few days ago and forgot about, and it looks a little... funny? And you think, "Well, maybe it will smell all right," but you know in your gut that it won't, and then you have that flash of desperate thought: "How the hell is this ruined when butchers charge an arm and a leg for aged beef -- isn't that what this is?"

No, it's not. And you know it's not. But do you know why it's not? And what the hell is aging beef all about anyway? And why isn't it gross?

Taking the last question first: It's not gross because aged correctly, beef is tender, flavorful, and well worth driving out of your way for (you're going to need a good butcher, preferably one who specializes in dry-aged USDA prime). But that green slab of meat in your fridge is gross, and it's an insult to cows everywhere, so bite the bullet and throw it out. As for the rest of the questions, well let me say this about those:

What does aging mean? Aging is the time from when the cow (not pigs; please don't consider aging pork) is slaughtered until the beef is converted to retail cuts, and it is measured in days. (Note to the squeamish: If the word slaughter is disturbing to you, well, I'm sorry, but I won't use a cutesy word like harvest just to avoid offending the sensibilities of meat eaters in denial. With that out of the way, let's get back to the aging story.)

So as you've probably figured out, by the time you buy any meat at all, that it has been aged to some extent. What matters, though, is how and for how long it was aged. Supermarket beef is usually aged "in the bag" (also referred to as wet-aged), meaning that either the wholesale or retail cuts are vacuum-packed at the point of slaughter and shipped to market. The aging time is however long it takes to get to the point of sale (usually about five to 11 days). Even if your supermarket butcher buys full sides of beef and makes his own retail cuts, that meat is still relatively fresh and hasn't been aged in the way that you're thinking of when you hear the term aged beef and begin to drool all over yourself. No, what you're thinking of is dry-aged beef, so henceforth, that's the stuff I'm going to be talking about.

What does dry-aging do?
You live in Florida and need to ask this? Been to the beach in Boca recently?

What does dry-aging BEEF do? Dry-aging beef does two wonderful things: First, it tenderizes the meat. Natural enzymes in the beef break down the connective muscle tissue, helping to make every aged slab of meat a buttery delight. Second, the beef becomes more flavorful because those same helpful enzymes break muscle proteins down into their tasty cousins, amino acids, and the muscle dehydrates over time, leaving more meaty flavor and less moisture. Downsides? As meat dehydrates, it loses mass -- part of the reason aged meat costs more per pound. Also, aged beef has a shorter shelf life, so buy it at a butcher the day you want to cook it (do I need to even say that? Why would anyone would got to a butcher, pick out a great steak, then toss it in the fridge for a few days?).

How is beef dry-aged, and why isn't that green steak in my fridge any good? In dry-aging, a carcass, side, or primal cut (think big chunk) is hung in a temperature-controlled environment for an extended period of time, usually at least 21 days. The amount of time to age beef is an art, though, dependent on the age of the animal, the type of cut, and the leanness of the meat, so if you want to get good aged beef, I suggest you visit an experienced butcher (of which there are plenty in South Florida) to take advantage of their knowledge and skill.

During the dry-aging process, all the tasty tenderizing and flavorizing takes place within, while a hearty, dried-out, leathery crust can build up on the surface (again: Been to the beach in Boca recently?). When they're ready the cuts or sides taken down, the dried-out surface sections are trimmed off, and the delicious aged beef within is cut or ground for preparation.

Is it worth it? Yes. Particularly if you work on your steak prep skills so that you can take full advantage of it.

Oh, and that green steak in your fridge? It's no good because it's covered in enough bacteria to take out the entire Osmond family.

Looking to score some dry-aged USDA prime? I've heard good things about the following butchers, though I have not been to all of them personally. They should, however, provide good starting points with for your search.

Smitty's Old Fashioned Butcher Shop of Coral Ridge
1980 NE 45th St., Fort Lauderdale

Charlie's Gourmet Meat Market
10800 N. Military Trail, Ste. 116, Abbey Road Plaza, Palm Beach Gardens
Guido's Meat Market & Deli
78 E. McNab Road, Pompano Beach

Bradford Schmidt is The Meatist. He's also author of the blog Bone in the Fan. He lives in northern Palm Beach County and believes that any conflict can be resolved with the help of meat.

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