Aging Beef At Home

"I must govern the clock, not be governed by it."Golda Meir

Dear reader: I have not quite finished this article yet. It needs photos that are stored at home and I am on the road at the moment. It also needs to be checked by Prof. Blonder and Dr. Mata. I post it here for only a few days to help some readers who have been asking me questions on the subject.

If you haven't tried it, you need to taste dry-aged beef. Start saving now, it ain't cheap. You can occasionally buy aged beef from specialty butchers, or you can do it my favorite way: Get three friends and head to a restaurant that specializes in dry aged beef and do an expensive comparison tasting.

Or make it yourself.

There are two types of aged beef: Wet and dry. Both methods are designed to allow enzymes to tenderize the meat but they are very different. When a steer is slaughtered, after a few hours the muscles get stiff, rigor mortis sets in. This "green" beef is tough, dry, and not very tasty. It takes a few days for the muscles to relax again and enzymes to kick in and begin to tenderize the meat. Enzymes are "nanocooks" in the words of food scientist Harold McGee, and they do what a professional cook does, they break down the proteins, amino acids, and other compounds and create new compounds, among them glutamates, the source of the savoriness known as umami, the flavor we look for when we eat steak. As the beef ages, more interesting flavors appear, and that is what the fuss is all about. But you can't just throw meat in the fridge and wait for it to get tender. Oxygen and bacteria can mess it up.

Wet aging

Before we dive deep into dry aging, let's explain wet aging briefly. At the slaughter house meat is usually packed in plastic "cryovac" bags that have had most of the oxygen removed. It rarely stays in the bag for more than 28 days. Enzymes tenderize but they have a minimal impact on the taste of the meat. If you buy meat in cryovac, check the packing date and if you wish, you can store it in the fridge for up to 28 days from the bagging date. Don't push it beyond that and don't try to bag meat yourself. If there are bacteria on the meat or in the air, if there is oxygen in the bag, if there is a leak in the bag, and there most definitely can be any and all of these, things can go south in a hurry. Brisket cooks swear that wet aging up to 28 days makes a difference in the tenderness of this tough cut. One word of caution: When you open a cryovac bag, the meat often smells odd. It is called the cryovac stink, and it usually dissipates within an hour.

Dry aging is controlled rotting

Some Egyptian royals were so fond of dry aged beef they were buried with it (click here to read about some dry aged beef ribs buried with the couple that loved it sooooo much). When dry aging the meat is stored in a sanitary room at 34 to 38°F and usually 70 to 80% humidity, with brisk airflow, for 28 to 75 days. Dry aged beef is noticeably different tasting than fresh beef. The longer it ages, the less it tastes familiar. Some describe it as earthy, nutty, gamey, leathery, mushroomy, cheesy, and some say it can even develop notes of prosciutto. Some people are addicted, some just plain don't like it. Before you decide to try dry aging at home, go to a restaurant and try several ages. In the picture below we see bone-in rib primals in the aging locker of David Burke's Primehouse in Chicago. They range from, left to right, 7 days, 20 days, 30 days, and 60 days.

Aging works especially well on beef and bison, less well on other meats, and it is not a good idea for pork since its fats rancidify rapidly. It is rare to find dry aged beef in grocery stores because most of them buy their meat in vacuum packed plastic bags. Some specialty butchers and high end restaurants offer dry aged beef. Only a few fancy steakhouses and upscale butchers have aging rooms. I have had aged beef often but a while ago I had the opportunity to do a steak tasting at David Burke's with the chef at the time, Chef Rick Gresh. They have a large aging room and buy all their Black Angus from the same farm raised and fed the same way. I brought members of my team and together we tasted ribeyes aged 28, 45, 55, and 75 days. 

Aged Ribeyes at David Burke's Primehouse

They were all wonderful, but all very different. After 45 days, the flavor had changed so that it no longer tasted like beef as we know it. It was as if it came from a different animal. Much of the taste changes came from the fat rather than the muscle. Beyond 45 days I was unable to notice much difference in tenderness. My favorite was the 28 day because it had not yet gotten funky, but the flavors were concentrated and the meat was oh so tender. Others preferred the older meats proving once again that taste is a matter of taste. 

Will you like the taste of dry aged beef? The question is similar to: Which do you prefer, beef or lamb? Mayo or Miracle Whip? Smooth or chunky? It is personal preference. But there's one way to find out. Find a steakhouse that ages beef and taste it.

Dry aging is sometimes called controlled rotting because enzymes, molds, bacteria, and oxygen do a lot of work on the meat. The exterior of the muscle gets dark purple and a small amount of moisture evaporates shrinking the meat about 5% (Kenji Lopez-Alt explains that it is not the 20% you have heard).

As water evaporates, the fat does not, so the ratio of muscle to marbling changes, making the meat fattier. The higher the fat ratio, the richer and juicier the meat feels proving that the juiciness sensation {LIKN} is much more than water content. Meanwhile, as water evaporates, flavors concentrate. Just before cooking, the outside crust is trimmed off, the meat is sliced into steaks, so another 10 to 15% is lost. Can you see now why aged steaks can sell for sell for about $1 per day added onto the normal price? Now we know why it can make sense to age beef yourself at home.

Don't bother aging single steaks

Alton Brown of Good Eats on the FoodNetwork likes the idea of aging single steaks and instructs us to "Wrap the steak in a single layer of paper towels and put on a cooling rack set inside a half sheet pan. Refrigerate 24 hours. Discard the paper towels, rewrap and return to the refrigerator, on the rack, for 3 days. Change the paper towels again if they become damp and stick to the steak. An hour before cooking, remove the steak from the refrigerator and remove the paper towels. Thirty minutes before cooking, sprinkle the steak on both sides with the kosher salt." I have tried it and, although I usually agree with AB, my response was that it was a heckuva lotta work for very little improvement, and I’m not sure there was any improvement.

How to age beef at home the old fashioned way

Select high quality meat, at least USDA choice or USDA prime, preferably tightly wrapped in a vacuum pack cryovac bag. Fresh meat is best, but if you have frozen, Chef Gresh says it is important that you defrost the meat slowly in the fridge, not under running water. Get the right cuts. You want to start with a prime rib roast that weighs 20 pounds. Or a strip loin. Or a sirloin. No tenderloin. It is already very tender, it is low fat, and it can get mushy with age. These are expensive meats, so do it right, don't screw around and don't take shortcuts. That's a lotta meat. What you don't use, you can freeze. 

There are five variables that you must control: Quality of meat, temperature, airflow, days of aging, and to a lesser extent, humidity. Some people use their kitchen fridge for aging beef. I don't recommend it. The door opens and closes, moist warm air and microbes enter, and there are smells in there that the meat will happily absorb. If there is any mold on the shelf from the time you spilled the milk or chicken juices or mold in the onion drawer, you likely will fail. It is best if you have a second fridge just for this purpose. If you want to store some beer in there, OK, but make sure the bottles are clean. Make sure the fridge is clean. Turn it off, wipe it down soapy water, rinse, and rinse once more with a bleach solution made with one tablespoon of 5% unscented liquid chlorine bleach per gallon of clean water. Then air it out to get rid of the chlorine smell. Some folks buy a small dorm refrigerator/var/folders/gt/gvfp7t2d54d_kt6lgcywxfw00000gn/T/com.microsoft.Word/WebArchiveCopyPasteTempFiles/ir?t=amazingribs--20&l=ur2&o=1 or a keg fridge/var/folders/gt/gvfp7t2d54d_kt6lgcywxfw00000gn/T/com.microsoft.Word/WebArchiveCopyPasteTempFiles/ir?t=amazingribs--20&l=ur2&o=1 and dedicate it to this purpose.

The fridge should be kept at 34 to 38°F. Below 32°F the enzymes go on strike. Above 40°F spoilage microbes can grow. Even if you aren't aging meat, your fridge should be set to 38°F max. It significantly reduces spoilage, even in comparison with 40°F. You need a reliable thermometer. Normally I recommend digital thermometers, but a liquid bulb thermometer { LINK } is accurate enough for refrigerator temps. A dial thermometer is not reliable.

Many experts believe humidity is critical with the ideal being 80 to 85%. Recent research says don't sweat it. According to a 2008 technical paper on Aging Beef by Professor Jeff W. Savell, PhD, of Texas A&M "There are no published studies that have compared the effects of different relative humidity levels on dry-aged beef, and it appears the studies in this area have used a relative humidity of approximately 80% with a considerable range around that number."

Wash the outside of the plastic bag with soap and water before opening it. Drain off the liquid and rinse the slime off and, wearing gloves so you don't contaminate it, pat it very dry. Leave the fat and bones in place, they will reduce evaporation. You will want to remove them later. Weigh it. 

Take a large pan wider and longer than the meat, and fill it with about 1/2" of salt. It doesn't matter what kind of salt. Because salt is caustic, you do not want to use an aluminum pan, but stainless steel, glass, or porcelain pans are OK. The salt will absorb drips, moisture, and odors.

Put the meat on a wire rack, preferably stainless steel, or coated with nickel or plastic, and place the rack on top of the pan above the salt. Don't use a roasting rack which holds the meat below the walls of the pan. You want airflow all around the meat. You can put the meat on the top rack of the fridge and the salt pan on the rack below.

You also want airflow to move the moisture away from the meat's surface. The AmazingRibs.com science advisor, Prof. Greg Blonder, uses a fan from a dead computer and runs the cord between the door gasket and the jamb. I use this 5" battery powered fan with an AC adapter/var/folders/gt/gvfp7t2d54d_kt6lgcywxfw00000gn/T/com.microsoft.Word/WebArchiveCopyPasteTempFiles/ir?t=amazingribs--20&l=as2&o=1&a=B001VI98N0. I thread the cord through the fridge door gasket on the hinge side and it does a fine job of keeping the air flowing and moving moisture off the meat. Put a few gallon jugs of water in fridge to chill and stabilize the temp. This will help the fridge recover its temp after it has been opened and closed.

Some recipes call for wrapping the meat in cheesecloth, kitchen towels, or paper towels, and replacing them every day. The idea is that the wrapping pulls moisture to the surface and helps wick it away. Don't bother with these shrouds. You want the meat fully exposed to dry air, not in contact with wet cloth.

Taste tests show minimal flavor changes in meat aged less than two weeks, but most people can taste subtle changes after three weeks. At about 28 days flavor changes become more obvious. You can go longer, and you might want to push the envelope to see what age is your fave.

When you are ready to eat, there are two ways to go.

1) You can trim about 1/4” of the black crust and the bones off the entire slab. You'll need a sharp stiff bladed knife for this because the meat has dehydrated and will feel hard. An electric knife works fine. Throw out the trim, and cut what’s left into steaks and roasts. Wrap them in plastic the pieces you plan to eat within a day or three and freeze the rest.

2) You can cut off the amount you want to eat, trim it, and leave the slab to continue aging.

Now tuck in for a treat!

Drybag aging

In recent years a clever new product has come on the market, the UMAi Dry system. They make transparent bags in which you place meat and, with a vacuum sealer, draw out the air and seal the bag. The UMAi material is not a conventional plastic as you can see here in a photo by Jaden Hair of SteamyKitchen.com. Moisture will not drip out, but it will evaporate out. Research by a Kansas State University and a Swedish team published in Meat Science have shown that the permeability does not create an anaerobic environment so botulism bacteria cannot grow. Other microbes are too large to enter. For this reason the manufacturer claims "If you want to dry age clean and safely in any refrigerator or cooler, excellent air flow and the application of UMAi material is the combination most likely to give you excellent results." As you can see, the process differs by some degree from the old fashioned system where air and bacteria can contact the meat. Alas, not every vacuum sealer will work with the bags. The company sells their own sealers, and they are expensive. So is the bag material.  I have not tested it yet.

The SteakAger

The SteakAger is a small plastic box that fits inside your fridge. On top it has temperature, humidity displays, and a day counter. There is a clear plastic front, a fan, and a UV light to kill bacteria. It is small, with a capacity of only ???? Best of all, it is only $150. I have not tested it yet.

The Beef Box

The Beef Box is another plastic box in which you put the meat and then place the box in your fridge. It regulates airflow, humidity, and temperature. I have not tested it yet.

The SteakLocker

If you want, you can buy a small fridge just for the task, or invest $1,449 in the Steak Locker. It is temperature and humidity controlled, with a carbon filter, a UV light to kill bacteria, and a glass door so you can watch your meat age. It even talks to your smartphone telling it temp, humidity, and elapsed time. I have not tested it yet.

 

Faux dry aging

In his book Modernist Cuisine at Home/var/folders/gt/gvfp7t2d54d_kt6lgcywxfw00000gn/T/com.microsoft.Word/WebArchiveCopyPasteTempFiles/ir?t=amazi0a8-20&l=as2&o=1&a=0982761015, food scientist Nathan Myhrvold simulates the taste of dry-aged beef by marinating steaks in fish sauce for three days and then air drying them for three more days.

Ingredients

2 boneless ribeye steaks about 1" thick

1 1/2 tablespoons Asian fish sauce

Morton’s kosher salt

Ground black pepper

Method

1) Place the steaks in a large zipper bag in a single layer. Add the fish sauce and squeeze out as much air as possible and zip it up. Roll it around until the meat is coated and make sure the steaks are not overlapping. Place on a plate in the refrigerator for three days. Once a day, squish things around to make sure everybody is well coated and turn them over.

2) Remove the meat and tightly wrap with a double layer of cheese cloth. Place a wire rack over a plate and place the steaks on the rack and return to the fridge for three more days.

3) Remove the plate and rack, unwrap the steaks, salt and pepper them, and place back on the rack at room temp for 30 minutes.

4) Preheat a hot grill and cook until 125F in the center and serve immediately.


Koji-rubbed beef

Brad Leone of Bon Appetit has written about a technique he learned from Chef Jonathon Sawyer of Trentina in Cleveland.

Sawyer uses koji, a rice that has been fermented with Aspergillus oryzae, a fungus used to make miso and soy sauce. He took some koji and powdered it in a blender and rubbed it all over a steak. "Rub all sides of the meat (like sirloin or something thin and grainy like skirt or flank steak) generously and then let it sit uncovered on a wire rack in the fridge for 2 to 3 days. Don’t go too long or the meat starts to get too tough and begins to almost cure. After 12 hours, the meat starts to look like a moist, snow-covered slab of steak. The scent is just as rich, nutty, and acorn-like as a steak that’s been dry-aging for over a month, with a touch of sweetness. Before cooking, rinse the meat thoroughly in cold water to remove all the koji rub that has become a paste, then pat dry. Next, season the meat with salt and sear it in a cast-iron pan. I often will sear the steak quickly and finish it in the oven—basting the steak with melted butter never hurts. You will notice that the steak will caramelize and pick up color much faster than a normal steak."

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