Unlike vegetables and seafood – which generally taste best as soon as they are harvested – beef is best when it has been aged to develop tenderness and depth of flavor. Beef is aged one of two ways: wet or dry.
Wet aging is the most common method for aging beef, due in large part to advancements in vacuum packaging and refrigeration which help control costs and bring beef to market faster. Wet aging is done by placing cuts of beef in vacuum sealed bags under refrigeration so the muscle can rest as natural enzymes tenderize it from within and deepen flavor.
Wet aging does not allow the meat to breathe, resulting in greater yield in comparison with the yield loss that occurs during dry aging due to evaporation. Because wet-aging allows meat to retain its weight, wet-aged meat costs less than dry aged meat. Therefore, due to economics, wet aged is the type of meat you will find at your grocery store. If you have gone to your local grocery store and found the beef to be tough, this is most often the case because the beef aging was cut short. It costs money to sit on raw material inventory waiting for the aging process, when instead, cutting aging time short can allow one to more quickly package, sell and convert the beef to cash.
Before the invention of vacuum packaging, dry aging was the sole, time honored tradition for aging beef. This is the nostalgic image many of us have in mind in which the meat is hung and dried with controlled temperature, humidity and air circulation while natural enzymes tenderize and deepen flavor. During dry aging, an appreciable amount of moisture evaporates. The external surface of the meat becomes hard, developing a crust and inside the crust, a rich, concentrated flavor and tender, buttery texture develops as the natural moisture in the muscle is evaporated. When the beef reaches the desired age, the outer crust is removed and the meat is cut into steaks that will have an incredible flavor – which often makes dry aging a chef preference at fine restaurants around the world.
Because dry aging reduces the original weight of the muscle due to humidity/moisture loss – and the fact that the dried out exterior must be trimmed off – dry aged beef is generally 20-50% more expensive than wet aged beef. Therefore, anytime meat says it has been “aged,” without specifying wet or dry, you can be nearly 100% certain it is wet aged – as dry aged is a more laborious and costly method that would certainly be specifically called out as an advantage to a discriminating consumer.
Which Tastes Better?
After all this, which tastes better? It’s really a matter of preference combined with other discriminating characteristics such as cut and marbling. Generally, richly marbled steaks such as T-Bones, Porterhouses, or Bone-In Ribeye steaks are best choices for dry aging, while leaner cuts such as Filet Mignon, Boneless Strip or Flat-Iron steaks are solid choices for wet aging.
At Sterling Pacific Meat Company, we offer both types of aging depending on chef taste and preparation preferences, combined with supply chain and price point needs for restaurant chains.
Because of its ubiquitousness and cost-effectiveness, most of us have come to associate the flavor of steak with wet aging – and many people have not ever tried dry aged steaks. Some may even find dry aged steaks less palatable due to a stronger blue cheese type of flavor and having become so accustomed to wet aging. However, should you have the opportunity, you should definitely give dry aged beef a try. It costs more and is harder to find, but it’s an age old custom that many chefs around the world still prefer before vacuum packaging and a rush of cost-saving measures were introduced.
Sterling Pacific Meat Company is one of North America’s largest full service BRC Certified custom protein processors serving restaurants, theme parks, airlines, food service, and other businesses. A state-of-the-art, fully industrialized 70,000 square foot complex is USDA continuously inspected and offers a full spectrum of raw, fresh and frozen beef, poultry, pork, lamb, seafood and other protein products delivered nationwide.