This Blog post is dedicated to the aging process we value so much at the Organic Butcher. Dive in to learn all about the difference between wet and dry aging, why and what we age, how we do it, and all the nuances in between.
Did you know we age our meats on site, ensuring our customers receive the absolute pinnacle in quality? Our expert butchers closely monitor both the wet and dry aging process and sell the meat at the ideal moment of flavor and texture development.
Master butcher, Greg Herring, who plies his art behind our counter most every day, explains why. “If you ate beef the day after it was slaughtered,” he says, “it would be tough as shoe leather. The muscles bind up... You have to let them chill out.” Aging meat is a process of highly controlled decomposition; enzymes break down some of the fibers in the meat over time, giving it the tenderness found in a good steak.
Wet and Dry Aging Compared
Beef can be aged in two ways: wet or dry.
Flavor-wise, wet-aged beef is, well, beefy. It’s beloved by carnivores for a reason. Keep in mind that, as Greg noted, all beef is aged for at least four to ten days before sale to tenderize the cut. Wet aging “sort of happens along the way” from harvest to retail purchase, says Herring. Most abattoirs aim to break down an animal immediately and get it to their distributors, who like us, may then elect to wet age the beef for up to another month or so before deciding it’s tender enough for sale. Wet aging allows the meat to be cut into retail-size portions early in the process, because no evaporation occurs to shrink the meat.
Dry aging, on the other hand, requires that the beef be left in large cuts—small cuts will shrink and dry out to the point that no useable meat remains. The “sub-primal” (read: big) cuts are hung in a space like we have on site; controlled for temperature, humidity, and air flow. The enzymatic action that tenderizes the meat happens more quickly with dry aging, even though the process itself offers more flexibility than wet aging.
When it comes to dry aging, both the animal and the cut matter. Meat with more fat marbling dry ages better overall than lean meat or lean cuts, because, says Greg, “fat content slows the process of aging, tempers it a little bit.” Dry aging involves a fair amount of water evaporation and therefore shrinkage, and the outer portion of the cuts (the “crust”) must be cut off before retail distribution because it becomes extremely dry, almost like beef jerky. Lean animals or cuts will shrink more and develop a more penetrating crust—meaning more product loss.
Dry aging is more expensive overall than wet aging. Unlike wet aging, in which cuts can be stacked and transported in vacuum-sealed bags with no unused space, dry aging demands a lot of space and air flow even during transportation; combine that with the amount of beef that is cut away during the trimming after aging is complete and it makes it a higher-loss, higher-expense process.
Dry aging may be more costly than wet aging, but it’s also more interesting, says Herring. Dry-aged beef offers its own kind of fantastic flavor. The process yields a product that’s denser (thanks to water evaporation), more tender, and more taste-intense than wet-aged beef. Bacteria, enzymatic activity, and oxidation combine to shift the meat’s flavor in dry aging. After 28 days, the beef will have pretty much hit its maximum tenderness, but the flavor profile can continue to change for a long time after that. Between 30 and 40 days will likely yield a beef cut with intense but still beefy flavor and optimum tenderness.
Here at The Organic Butcher, beef is typically dry aged for between 35 and 60 days. But, sometimes we get stuff that already has 28, 45 days of dry aging on it. Dry aging can also just be a way to store product, for example we sometimes get a cut in from a distributor that does their own dry aging, cut the steaks a customer requests, and store the rest. We’re continuing to age at that point, but effectively just storing it.
That’s actually the safest way to store dry-aged meat—returning it to dry aging. It’s possible to vacuum seal the dry-aged cut, but the result will be a shortened shelf life. The beef will remain edible after two weeks, but the texture will begin to go south and funk will begin to predominate, according to Herring. “It’s not unsafe. It’s quality you’re losing.”
Going All the Way: Long-Duration Dry Aging
Extreme dry aging (100+ days) something we do on request, is a personal preference with a lot of variables at play, says Herring. One of the advantages of dry aging is its flexibility, both in terms of the factors at play and aging duration. Herring explains:
You have a bit more versatility with what you're manipulating. You can manipulate the temperature, the amount of air circulation, the humidity, and each of those will affect the final product, the flavor. If you want really complex, nutty flavor, then you lower your air circulation, and you'll get way more [flavor]. You’ll have mold on the outside; those flavors penetrate, and the cut will taste almost like a fancy cheese. The longer you go, the more you can develop.
At about 60 days, you stop really developing the classic dry-age flavor, because the aerobic enzymes have consumed all they can. But you can continue to dry it at that point. The beef will keep losing moisture, which concentrates flavors. It's just like reducing a soup. All the collagen, fat, nutrients, and minerals get more and more concentrated as you lose water content…. You're creating a craft, nuanced, interesting product.
Is Dry Aging Safe?
Short answer: Yes, assuming it’s done right. If it’s not, you’re going to notice—the meat will smell, look, feel, and taste (not that you would get that far!) awful.
Long answer: Yes. Remember, all meat aging—dry and wet—is controlled decomposition. Properly dry aging meat requires the right temperature, humidity level, and air flow. All these variables have wiggle room depending on the butcher’s goals.
Herring notes that dry aging, done properly, is safer than wet aging because, in the absence of liquid and the presence of air flow, any contamination remains on the cut’s exterior, in the “crust” that develops as air circulates around the meat. Says Herring, “With dry age, contamination stays on the outside. It doesn't penetrate, doesn't move around the cut, because there's no water activity to move in.”
As for eating the exterior—the “crust”—of dry-aged meat, it’s not dangerous, it’s just, in Herring’s opinion, not terribly tasty. As mentioned, the cut’s exterior gets dry and hard during the dry-aging process, so it’s unappealing to eat. The outer layers also act as a barrier against contamination, and mold will grow on the cut’s surface.
So, even though it’s safe to eat, standard practice dictates cutting away any hard or moldy portions after the aging process is complete. Health-department rules require that the exterior portions be removed for serving in restaurants, anyway. If you’ve ever eaten a really whiffy, odiferous dry-aged cut, it’s probably because the meat wasn’t trimmed back far enough.
Dry Aging: Not Just for Beef
Yes, it’s possible and useful to dry age other meats. Beef stands to benefit the most from dry aging, though, since of all commercial proteins, it presents the most variability in tenderness. Lamb, veal, and pork are generally tender to begin with; it’s cooking technique that’s most likely to make or break these meats.
Dry aging game birds is a longstanding practice. “Hanging” birds was, before the advent of refrigeration, pretty much the only option for preserving meat besides smoking or salting.
Pork can definitely be dry aged, and we do that often – if you haven’t tried it you’re missing out. Just ask one of our butchers for it at the counter. About dry aged pork, Herring explains it’s “not the same as dry aging beef. You don't have the enzymes that break down the texture as much, so you don't get much more tenderness, [though] you get a little bit.” Pork can’t be dry aged for as long as beef because of pork’s higher water content, which makes aging riskier when it comes to spoilage and meat loss.
But, according to Herring, even a week of dry aging an apparently unmarbled pork chop can work miracles. “Suddenly all this marbling blooms out of it… The texture gets a little firmer. It gets juicier… It blows people's minds the first time they have it.”
And you can dry age more than just the chops of a pig, we also dry-aged pork belly; leaving the skin on for protection and aging it for a whopping three months! About the pork belly Greg says “It was amazing…very, very complex. So rich.”
There you have it—dry aging in a nutshell. We offer a number of aged cuts and if you don’t see them just ask at the counter. Trying out a dry-aged cut could open the door to a delicious new world.