It might seem counterintuitive, but when it comes to beef, fresher is not always better. In fact, all quality beef should be aged anywhere from a few days up to a few weeks before consumption. What is this process and how does it affect the quality of the meat?
The main reason why beef should be aged is to make it more tender. During the aging process the connective tissue in the muscles of the beef will begin to break down leaving you with a much more desirable texture and enhanced beef flavor.
Wet-aging vs. Dry-aging
There are two ways beef can be aged. The more common option today is wet-aging, which is what most supermarket meat counters use. In this process, meat is wrapped in either plastic cling wrap, or vacuum sealed in plastic where it ages in refrigeration for several days to a few weeks. The benefits to wet-aging are that is cost efficient and easy for mass consumption.
The second means of aging beef is dry-aging. This is the process that high quality steakhouses and butchers use. Beef is hung in a giant refrigerator where it stays for several weeks. Since the meat is exposed to air during this process, much of the water in the meat evaporates leaving a more concentrated beef flavor.
Dry-aging will enhance both the flavor and texture of meat, but the process is much more costly than wet-aging. Beef must be stored at near freezing temperatures for up to several weeks. Additionally, because water evaporates from the meat during dry-aging, up to 30% of the weight of the cut will be lost in the process. Finally, dry-aging leaves a dried crust on the meat which must be removed, meaning that the original cut of meat is even further reduced in weight.
All of these considerations make dry-aged beef much more expensive than wet-aged cuts, but as any steak enthusiast will assure you, the cost is worth it.
How to Choose a Quality Steakhouse
So, you’ve decided you want to splurge on an expensive steak dinner out. What should you look for in choosing a quality steakhouse?
1. Look for high quality cuts of beet
In the USDA grading system, Prime is the highest quality you can get. USDA Prime beef is the most suitable for dry-aging because it has more marbling and evenly distributed fat than other grades of beef. The USDA Prime grading is so selective, that it represents only about 2% of the country’s beef production. Since USDA Prime Beef is in relatively short supply, it is almost exclusively found in high-end steak houses, but is definitely worth the price tag for a special occasion! There are also many high quality cuts of beef (Japanese Kobe, for example) which are commonly considered by be even higher quality than USDA Prime.
2. Dry-aging in House
If you’re in the market for a special steak experience, dry-aging is the only way to go. Feel free to ask a waiter how long different cuts of meat have been aged for. You’re bound to get the best flavor and texture out of your meat when the steakhouse has taken pride in perfecting this process for their customers.
3. Ambiance and Service
It might not have anything to do with the taste of the steak, but if you’re going to shell out big bucks for a nice steak dinner, you want everything to be perfect. There are traditional steakhouses with white tablecloths and waiters dressed to the nines, and there are more contemporary options with minimalistic dining rooms and creative side dishes. Think about what you and your party would most enjoy and do some research online to find the right fit.