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A long-time contributor to SeriouslySmoked. Jim has had a lifelong relationship with the art of grilling, passed on from his father and grandfather to him.
Doug is a hardcore barbeque enthusiast and connoisseur. While he spends most of his time on editing and research,
he sometimes moonlights as a product tester for particularly interesting things he comes across.
The aging of beef is a process that’s used to enhance its flavor. Dry aging and wet aging use different techniques that encourage enzymes to break down the beef muscle fibers. This makes it more tender and alters its flavor profile.
Dry aging allows water to evaporate within the meat, condensing it and giving it a strong, distinctive taste. Wet aging involves storing meat in vacuum-sealed plastic, which lets it retain moisture. This results in a fresher and juicier texture, more traditionally associated with beef.
Opinions regarding dry aging vs. wet aging can be polarizing. Understanding the process helps people form a more informed opinion on which they prefer.
1. What is Dry Aging?
Dry aging is essentially a controlled decaying process of beef. By hanging or storing cuts of meat at just above freezing temperatures for several weeks or even months, the natural enzymes brought about by oxygen exposure break down the meat’s molecular structure. Throughout the process, moisture is extracted from it.
With the altered molecular structure and dryness of the meat, the flavor concentration changes significantly. As the enzymes erode the muscular tissue within the meat, it becomes more tender. Dry aging also leads to the growth of fungus on the meat. However, the presence of this fungus doesn’t damage it. Rather, it complements the enzymes within the meat, improving its texture and flavor.
Although this bacterial crust is useful, it is removed before cooking the beef. A dry aged steak has a deep and strong taste that gives off aromas similar to that of cheese. It should be considerably more tender than a fresh cut of meat.
Dry aging is an expensive process. All the meat must be stored or hung in temperatures close to freezing. This requires access to large climate-controlled rooms or refrigerators, which are expensive to install and run. It should only be carried out on expensive grades of meat for best results because of the need for even and consistent fat distribution.
Dry aged beef is generally only available from specialist providers such as niche butchers and grocery stores or restaurants and steakhouses. The exclusivity and rarity of dry aged beef contribute to its high price.
2. How the Dry Aging Process Works
Once an animal is slaughtered and cleaned, it is hung before being butchered into various cuts. The dry aging process involves hanging beef in a humidity-controlled room. All sides of the meat must be exposed to the air, allowing the oxygen to flow over it. This promotes enzyme generation, which breaks down the collagen in the meat.
The meat usually hangs for around 30 to 35 weeks. Mold develops on the meat, further breaking down the muscle and causing the moisture to evaporate. Moisture is gradually extracted from the meat, preserving it and altering the taste and texture.
As the moisture is extracted, the flavor of the meat becomes more concentrated and intensifies. When the meat ages, the flavor molecules start to experience chemical change. Molecules such as glycogen, DNA, and RNA are broken down into flavor pockets. As the meat’s internal structure breaks down, it becomes much more tender and easier to chew. More on this topic on our how to dry age beef guide.
3. What is Wet Aging?
Wet aging is the most common process for aging beef in the US today. There are several reasons for this. The primary advantage is it doesn’t take a long time to age. This means that producers can sell more of their product faster and they don’t need to occupy as much storage space, greatly reducing costs.
There is no moisture loss throughout the process. This gives the meat additional water content, increasing its weighted value. Sellers can get a higher price per pound of weight is the key factor involved in pricing.
4. How the Wet Aging Process Works
In wet aging, the meat is placed into vacuum-sealed plastic. It is left to age for 4 to 10 days on average, but sometimes for a little longer. Like the dry aging process, enzymes in the meat’s juices act over time, breaking down the collagen and contributing to a more tender piece.
Most wet aging meat is stored in modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). This custom plastic packaging controls the concentration of gasses (most notably oxygen) within each package. This creates the desired atmosphere, which preserves the meat while the natural aging processes take place.
In wet aging, the oxygen levels per package are usually around 60% to 80%. This allows the process to take place without distorting the natural and appealing red color. It is stored between 32°F and 45°F.
5. What Meats Are Best Suited to Dry or Wet Aging?
There is no clear winner when comparing dry or wet aged meat. It comes down to what type of meat and flavor an individual enjoys. One distinct difference that influences choice is the price.
Due to the price and length of time, it takes to produce dry aged meat, most people have never tasted it. The exclusivity of dry aged beef means that it is often considered superior to wet aged, and it brings with it an element of status. However, the concentration of flavor makes it tough on the pallet for many.
In most cases, cuts of meat with a more dense fat content are used for dry aging. T-bone steaks or bone-in ribeyes are popular dry aged choices in expensive steakhouses. Leaner cuts of beef like filet mignon or strip steak are more commonly used for wet aging.
Final Thoughts: Dry Aging vs. Wet Aging
To determine which process of aging is best, it’s essential to try the meat for yourself. Although dry aging is a passion that many culinary professionals dedicate their lives to, dry aged beef is much less common than wet-aged beef. Head out to your favorite steakhouse, or try one of these processes at home.
For more tips on preparing meat. Read here.