When the topic of dry-aged steaks comes up, it usually brings a lot of questions from steak-lovers and lay-people alike. The dry-aging process can be a bit mysterious, admittedly. As well, the flavor it produces can be hard to precisely describe. Some wouldn’t shy away from using a phrase like ‘pleasantly rotten’. Others take a more optimistic route, and use words like ‘robust’ and ‘full-bodied.’ Regardless of your semantic persuasions, dry-aging creates a decidedly unique and complex flavor within your steak.
Today, we are going to look closely at the dry-aging technique, how it compares to wet-aging, and how (if at all) you can dry-age steak at home.
Nine out of ten steaks you buy are going to be wet-aged. In wet-aged steaks, the meat is vacuum-sealed and allowed to age without touching oxygen. This process is quicker, cheaper, and typically requires much less know-how. From a certain point of view, it’s no surprise that the majority of grocery-store steaks are wet aged. Unfortunately, the wet-age technique doesn’t do much for flavor or complexity within the final, cooked steak. Without access to oxygen, the chemical processes of aging meat are severely limited.
For the most part, this aging technique is limited to high-end steakhouses and the occasional discerning butcher.
Dry-aging is a centuries-old technique, utilizing oxygen exposure and evaporation to create ‘good’ mold and bacteria growth on a steak. Large, primal cuts of meat are hung in refrigerated units for anywhere from 15 to 60 days. During this time, changes in the meat occur in two separate ways.
First, moisture is evaporated from the meat. This moisture is essentially water when it is in the steak, so the evaporations creates a greater concentration of flavor. In fact, so much moisture is removed from the meat that the dry-aging process can result in a 33% (or more) loss in net weight.
Secondly, the natural enzymes within the beef begin to break down the animal’s connective tissue, which creates a much more tender piece of meat. All in all, the result is a fuller-flavored, more tender cut of steak.
With that in mind, there’s good news and there’s bad news.
The good news is that you can dry-age steak at home.
The bad news? It’s not easy.
Dry-aging beef is a time and resource-intensive process that is generally only utilized by steakhouses and artisanal butchers. This is because of the sizeable investment required for the process.
1. Get Your Space Ready
First off, you’ll need a dedicated refrigerator. Having anything else in the same space you are dry aging can taint the flavor of the meat and potentially ruin the dry-aging process.
2. Fins a Good Cut of Beef
Once you’ve got that, you’ll need the finest beef that you can find. Only the best quality meat can stand up to the dry-aging process, and you’ll need it in a primal or sub-primal cut. Whole roasts work the best. Generally, three ribs worth is the smallest piece of meat you can effectively dry-age, and as we stated before, expect to lose about 33% of the product to moisture loss and trimming. Dry-aging is going to create a crust of bacteria around the outside of the loin, and you’ll need to trim that off.
3. Required Materials
Lastly, you’ll need a small fan, a tray, and a wire cooking rack.
Once you’ve got all that together, the process is fairly straightforward.
Set your fan up in the fridge to maintain regular airflow. Place your cooking rack on the tray, and your cut of meat on top of the rack. From there, slide the entire thing into the fridge. The tray will collect any drippings, with the cooking rack allowing airflow around all sides of the meat.
Depending on how much of the dry-aged flavor you are looking to impart, the steak can be aged from two weeks, all the way to two months. Many people point to 21 days as the ‘sweet spot’.
Do your best to avoid checking on the meat, as a delicate ecosystem of bacteria and humidity are being created within the refrigerator. Opening it even once can reset everything that is going on, delaying or perhaps corrupting the dry-aging process.
We should also say -- don’t expect the world here....
When the pros dry-age their steaks, they do so with a team of experts, using the best equipment money can buy. The at-home process is going to yield much less precise results, and likely will not create quite that steakhouse-level of flavor.
In your search, it’s likely that you’ll find ‘quick’ methods to dry-age at home. Some may point towards wrapping a steak in cheesecloth. Others create a rub-like crust out of mushroom powders and dried fish. Skip these entirely.
At very best, you’ll get an uninspired facsimile of the dry-age flavor. At worst? You’ll ruin a perfectly good piece of steak. If the proper dry-aging process is too hefty for you to do at home, we don’t blame you.
But don’t try to fake it! Instead, find a nice, high-quality butcher shop or gourmet grocer. Chances are, they’ll have you covered.