Did you ever notice the difference in flavor and tenderness between steaks purchased at a grocery store from those ordered for dinner at a fine restaurant? Of course, a lot of the difference has to do with the preparation of the steaks by the chef, but the difference in taste also has much to do with how long the beef has been aged.
Finer restaurants typically purchase beef from purveyors that age their beef for approximately 21-30+ days from harvest in temperature controlled environments. Grocery stores typically sell beef with less than 14 days age from harvest and turnover their inventory faster.
When beef has been properly aged before serving it has a deeper richer flavor and increased tenderness. During the aging process the natural enzymes inside the meat breakdown the muscle tissue and make it more tender and flavorful. There are two primary ways of properly aging beef: Wet Aging and Dry Aging.
Wet aging is the most common way beef is aged. At harvest, packing plants vacuum seal primal cuts in plastic film. This process seals the beef and protects it from exposure to open air. Beef left inside this vacuumed sealed package and stored at temperatures under 40 degrees keeps the beef wholesome and allows the natural enzymes to breakdown and enhance the meat. After two to three weeks, there is a noticeable difference in the taste and texture of the meat – that’s about the perfect time to cut into steaks or roasts. Too much age beyond that and the meat begins to spoil. The best meat purveyors have strict time and temperature controls in place to ensure quality.
Dry aging is the way all beef used to be aged up until the 1970’s when vacuum packaging was brought to the meat industry.
Dry aging is a time honored, old world tradition where primal beef cuts are aged for 28-50+ days in a controlled open air environment. During this process the external service of the meat becomes hard and envelops the meat with a crust. The beef inside the crust develops a fine rich concentrated flavor and tender texture as the natural moisture in the muscle is evaporated. When the beef has reached the desired age, the inedible outer crust is carefully removed and the meat can be cut into steaks that will have an incredible flavor.
To properly dry age beef you must have separated refrigerated space with precise temperature, relative humidity and air circulation controls along with specific UV lighting to control bacteria growth to create the perfect environment. Dry aged beef is more expensive than wet aged beef because you typically lose about 20% of the meat during the dry aging process. Dry aging is best for cuts of beef that have higher marbling such as Prime and Upper Choice grades. The most typical dry aged cuts are from the short loin (Porterhouses, T-Bone, Bone-In Strip) and the ribs (Bone-In Rib Eye Steaks).
Other factors which affect the taste and texture of beef are breed of cattle, feed and USDA grade. Proper aging of beef is always a beneficial enhancement.