Beef — should you dry age or wet age?
Ageing meat is a centuries-old practice, but it was once uncommon to see dry-aged beef at any restaurant. In fact, when Prime Restaurant introduced dry-aged beef to its menu in 1999, it was the first venue in Australia to do so.
“We’ve borne witness to how much its popularity has increased over almost two decades,” says Erwan Helary, head chef at Prime Restaurant. “More people are becoming educated about dry ageing and understand its benefits across both grass-fed and grain-fed cattle, which is reflected in the number of restaurants now offering dry-aged beef.”
Dry ageing techniques fell out of favour in the mid-twentieth century, when the development of vacuum packing allowed wet ageing to become the dominant method. The reason? While both processes help tenderise the meat, wet ageing does so without causing moisture loss. It also requires less space and time. All things considered, wet ageing is the cheaper option.
However, dry ageing offers something wet ageing can’t — flavour enhancement. Wet ageing lets the meat mature in its own blood, resulting in a slight metallic taste and a more subtle flavour profile.
What the chefs say
“I personally don’t think the two processes are even close in terms of flavour and quality,” says chef Simon Evans of Wollongong’s Caveau, which he co-owns with Tom Chiumento. “Wet ageing is putting the cuts of meat into vacuum-sealed bags shortly after slaughter, where some enzyme development will occur,” he says. “It works out cheaper because there is no moisture loss and it’s not aged as long as dry ageing. It’s probably preferable to eating it the same day as slaughter, but nothing compares to a 30-plus day dry-aged cut of meat.”
Dry ageing on the other hand sees the meat hung up in climate control room for upwards 21 days.
“Typically, the process of having the beef strung up means it drains of the blood and water causing the fibres within the meat to shrink and become compact, resulting in an initial loss of around 30 per cent of the beef chunk’s mass, as well as the exposed outer layer of meat which needs to be removed before serving,” says Helary.
Although dry ageing leads to weight loss, the concentrated flavour promotes smaller portion sizes.
“Dry ageing has three main effects on beef: moisture loss, tenderisation and a change in flavour profiles from enzymatic and bacterial action,” says Evans. “This basically means that your piece of meat will be smaller, increasingly tender, have a more concentrated flavour and will have developed flavours that you wouldn’t normally find in meat that has not been dry aged — including nutty, mushroom and parmesan-like aromas and flavours.”
The longer the meat is left to age, the stronger the flavours will become, with different nuances appearing in peaks and troughs throughout the process. Different people will prefer beef aged for varying lengths of time, and it often depends on the venue and manner in which the product is served.
At Prime Restaurant, Helary has found the sweet spot is between three and five weeks. “That period creates the flavour profile we want — it gives a stronger flavour but doesn’t overstimulate your palate when you eat a whole steak,” he says. “There are a few places offering something like six to nine weeks and some are even doing 20. I think that’s interesting, but not for steak, maybe it’s better for a tasting plate. We’re a steak restaurant serving portions between 200g and 1.5kg; if the flavour is too strong, it’s too much to eat.”
Caveau recently showcased beef that was dry-aged for 90-plus days. “We source our dry-aged meats through Nicholson & Saville in Sydney who buy from Richard Gunner in South Australia,” says Evans. “The beef is dry aged for 90-plus days and is from breeds including Scottish Highland, Belted Galloway, Red Poll and South Devon. These breeds are out of favour in commercial Australian agriculture, which is focused on fast and efficient production, but produce flavourful beef and each breed has their own distinctive characteristics.”
Sourcing the best
The increasing popularity of dry-aged beef combined with a movement towards artisanal products has led some restaurants to age meat in-house. However, Prime Restaurant and Caveau prefer to purchase dry-aged meat from butchers.
“If you have a specialised dry ageing cabinet, then yes, dry age to your hearts content,” says Evans. “These are some pretty expensive bits of kit though. If, like most restaurants, you just have a temperature-controlled cool room, I would definitely recommend leaving pieces of meat uncovered on racks for a few days before cooking, this just helps to avoid spoilage and to let the outside of the meat dry out, which increases the Maillard reaction when cooking. But you cannot truly dry age meat without keeping the meat at a specific range of temperature and humidity. At Caveau, we would rather spend the money with our butchers than thousands of dollars on a cabinet.”
Helary agrees it’s ultimately up to venues to decide whether or not to dry age in-house, but also cautions against it.
“If they have the appropriate space and technology to provide a quality process as well as the accompanying knowledge then why not?” he says. “It is however an expensive process which can often result in wastage if certain cuts are not sold promptly due to fluctuations in demand.”
It’s also worth considering the length of time it will take to learn the art and science of dry ageing.
“Working as a chef is one thing, working as a butcher is another,” says Helary. “To be a professional, you need to focus. You can dry age your own meat, but you need to train as a butcher. Chefs can google anything now, but skill comes with repetition. We use technology to cook the perfect steak but it takes more than that. Repetition allows you to become consistent.”
Besides a strong relationship with suppliers, what should chefs look for when purchasing dry-aged beef?
“The most important qualities are taste and tenderness,” Helary tells Hospitality. “We inspect all cuts bought and if anything is less than perfect, it is sent back to the butcher.”
When inspecting dry-aged beef at Caveau, Evans and his team keep a few things in mind. “First of all, the beef shouldn’t smell bad or be sour. It’s a surprisingly clean smell, but it will look dry and may even have some slight white mould on it and have a parmesan or truffle aroma.”
Raising the stakes
“Due to a lot of the moisture being lost, cooking dry-aged steak well done tends to dry out the meat too much,” says Helary. “It is recommended for rare to medium-rare cook with little seasoning and sauce. Salt the cut prior to cooking and sear off the outside.
“We train staff to provide recommendation and commentary for every steak on the menu. I don’t recommend having dry-aged meat blue either; you won’t have the full experience because they tend to be fattier cuts of meat.”
While the dry-ageing process may result in overcooked meat, it also has benefits.
“It’s tastier, has better texture and is actually easier to cook,” says Evans. “The loss of moisture enables you to get an amazing crust on your steak.”
The length of time spent ageing also affects cooking methods.
“For example, if a whole sirloin has been aged for 20–30 days, then cut into steaks, you’re good to go,” says Evans. “I like to leave the cut steak in the fridge on a rack overnight before cooking to partially dry out the exposed surfaces. [With the] 90-plus-day dry-aged sirloin on the menu from Richard Gunner, the ends were black, completely dry and had some mould build up. So with a longer ageing process, you have to trim the sides to remove this before cooking.”
The cost of dry-aged beef might be prohibitive for some venues, but for those who can afford it, it’s a no-brainer.
As Evans says, “It may cost you more, but when diners eat a properly aged and cooked steak, they realise what beef should actually taste like.”
This article originally appeared in Hospitality’s February issue. Subscribe here.
Photography: Tiitus Saaristo via Unsplash