Unlike salads, bread, seafood, and baked chocolate chip cookies, steak that is fresh is a bad thing.
Fresh meat from a just butchered cow is so “fresh” that it’s tough and has no flavor.
That’s why beef must be aged.
Like art, burong mangga, cheese, wine and cheesy teenagers who whine, beef matures with age and improves over time.
Aging is a process that occurs when the muscle fibers in meat are slowly broken down. If you want to impress your fellow hot nerd, the scientific word is proteolysis.
Enzymes in the meat attack the structural proteins that make up the muscle fibers. The muscle fibers weaken and slowly break down making the beef more tender. All this enzyme action also helps improve and heighten the beef’s flavor.
The rate of aging decreases over time with most improvement in the first 21-28 days, although some restaurants age steaks even longer.
There are two ways to age steaks.
For the steak connoisseur, there is no substitute for a dry-aged steak.
Dry aging is a process where unwrapped cuts of beef are hung or stored out in the open of a climate controlled environment, which breaks down the fibers in the meat, tenderizes them and allows the natural flavor to intensify.
Dry aging rooms maintain strict levels of temperature and humidity, need lots of airflow and usually use UV lights for bacteria control. The beef is never frozen but kept at low temperatures just above freezing, generally between 1-3°C (33-37°F) while the humidity is maintained between 50% and 60%.
Due to the low humidity, the beef “dries” up on the outside and loses a great deal of its moisture. About 20% to 25% of its weight is lost during the aging process which allows the flavor to become more concentrated. This is how the flavor intensifies.
Check out this video to see an example of a dry age room:
Talk about getting older, losing weight, and tasting great!
Over time, as the beef ages openly, it is exposed to air inside the coolers and ages from the outside in, forming a hard “crust.” Think of it as a controlled decomposition.
At the end of the process, the “crust” is carefully removed, leaving meat that is very tender and with a distinctive “beefy” flavor.
The downside is that you lose quite a bit of the meat due to moisture loss and the removal of the “crust.” This makes the meat more expensive by weight.
Let’s say a 16 oz. ribeye costs P2,000 (~$45). After it’s dry aged, it’s now 12 oz. and you still pay the same price.
Since dry aged beef requires unique storage requirements like a specially constructed room that must be monitored 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, this also increases its price.
Most restaurants usually just serve wet-aged steaks. Unless the steak is specifically labeled as dry-aged on the menu, it’s been wet-aged.
Instead of aging in an open-air chiller, the meat ages in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag. This seals the moisture in, which intensifies the beef taste and tenderizes it.
With wet aging, the meat retains its weight so the flavor doesn’t intensify as much as dry aging. And since the meat is aging in its own juices (hence the name wet-aged), it tends to develop an acidic taste.
The plus side is that wet-aged beef costs less to make since the meat doesn’t need to be stored or monitored. So the price for wet-aged steak on the menu will be cheaper.
Which is Better?
I think it’s a matter of preference and how much you’re willing to spend. But if I had to really choose, I’d prefer that my steak spends its last days as a piece of raw meat aging in an open-air chiller than in a sealed plastic bag.
The biggest difference between the two is the flavor.
Dry-aged beef has that more intense beef flavor. Wet-aged can taste slightly acidic and the flavor doesn’t pack the same level of punch.
I’d definitely recommend trying dry-aged steaks. It’ll cost more but it’s usually worth it.
Not Every Steak Should Be Dry-Aged
Lastly, if you’re going to order a filet mignon, skip the dry-aged version.
The tenderloin, the part where filet mignons come from, doesn’t have any protective tissue and the dry aging process is too harsh for this cut of meat. Even if the filet is dry-aged, the difference of flavor is negligible, so save your money.