Photographs in this post by Maureen Elizabeth of Maureen Elizabeth Photography.
On a recent trip up north with my father-in-law who apprenticed under a locally-renowned Chicago butcher, he shared with me the secret of the customers’ fierce devotion to the little meat market in the Windy City where he worked: dry aging of steaks for 21 days. My interest in dry-aging was, of course, piqued. Then, speaking last month with a rancher in Colorado whose beef business is seeing substantial growth each year, he shared with me that he employes the same technique. My interest was further piqued. When I read an article about how dry aging for between 2 to 7 days can be utilized in the home kitchen, I was pushed over the edge; I had to try it. In this, the first installment of the “In the Test Kitchen” series, I chronicle my foray into the process of dry aging steak, driven by the pursuit to enhance the flavor of food and, through it, the experience of dining. The experiment pits a steak dry aged over a three day period against a steak that was not.
But first, for those unfamiliar with the practice of aging beef, a practice that allows a steak to develop tenderness and (in some cases) flavor, there are two methods: wet-aging and dry-aging. The former is a method in which a thawed steak remains in sealed Cryovac packaging and is allowed to rest in refrigeration for days or weeks. The latter is a method that involves the skill of a seasoned butcher. In this method, the butcher exposes meat to the open air in a temperature-controlled cooler for a certain period of time–up to six weeks in some cases. Molding can occur when the beef is exposed to air for prolonged periods of time which is why a professional butcher’s skill is a really good idea for the dry aging of beef. The former method contributes to the tenderizing of the beef while the latter method contributes both to the tenderizing and improved flavor of the beef. Wet-aging is a method favored for commercial purposes as the yield of the meat remains a constant (there’s no water to evaporate or mold to be trimmed away). The latter is a method favored by those passionate about beef and who appreciate the craft of the artisan brought to bear on food preparation. It was, of course in this spirit that I went about my experiment…
On a Wednesday, I removed the steak to be dry aged from the freezer and allowed it to thaw overnight in its sealed packaging. (Note: “de-thaw” is not a word, something the associate producer of our videos reminded me of during an interview; and, while we’re on it, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the exact same thing, an assertion which will no doubt send you scurrying to dictionary.com). The next morning (Thursday) the now-thawed steak was removed from its packaging and placed on a cooling rack over a paper-towel-lined plate, this to catch the drippings that would fall off the steak as it aged. Next: the waiting game. For three full days the steak just sat there in refrigeration–drying and shrinking, shrinking and drying–until Sunday rolled around. (By the way, the other steak to which the dry-aged steak would be compared was removed from the freezer Saturday night and allowed to thaw overnight in the refrigerator, and it was only removed from its packaging just prior to cooking on Sunday afternoon.) From all appearances, the dry-aged steak certainly didn’t look as appetizing as the steak freshly removed from its package. The taste-test was performed in the company of my father (himself a chef), my mother, and my wife. The steaks were both seared and cooked in a skillet using a little olive oil. It seemed as if the dry-aged steak caramelized more quickly than its counterpart. When it came time to taste the steaks, it was as if the aged steak was tender but not as tender and juicy as the steak that was not aged. As to the flavor, the aged steak was perhaps a bit “spicier” than the comparison steak, and while my wife and I preferred the flavor of the aged steak, my parents preferred the flavor of the other. The only factor that may have accounted for the aged steak being less tender and juicy (and for it caramelizing faster) is that the cooking surface was a little uneven, causing a greater concentration of the hot oil on the side of the skillet with the aged steak. In the final analysis, this dry aging adventure gave the Strip Steak greater character in terms of its flavor profile and edged me on to further, future experimentation with dry aging.