Can You Age Beef at Home?

Posted by Eric Troy on 27 Feb 2014 15:54

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The first thing that we need to get into, before I answer the question of whether you can age beef at home, is the difference between aged beef and spoiled beef. That is, if you think that aging beef means to let beef grow old, you will probably end up with spoiled beef rather than nicely aged beef. The primary method of aging cuts of beef is dry-aging.

During this aging process, enzymes present in the muscle tissue act to help soften the connective tissue between the muscles, thus tenderizing the meat. Also, a good deal of the moisture in the beef evaporates, resulting in a more concentrated "beefy" taste, but also a more mellow flavor. In other words, dry-aged beef is the bomb. However, the beef we buy in the supermarket, well, there are some things we need to get into before we can talk about aging at home.

First Things First: We Don't Want Green Meat

Green meat? Yikes! Of course we don't want that! Well, we certainly do not want green colored meat but in terms of beef age, "green meat" doesn't have anything to do with color. Instead, it means "young meat." The term is used much like we use the term green to describe a person who lacks experience at their chosen occupation, such as when we call someone a greenhorn. Now, you would think that young meat would be a good thing. Why wouldn't we want our beef to be as fresh as possible? Well, beef is not like fish.

When cattle is slaughtered (sorry, but this is a no-euphemism zone), just like with humans or any animal, the muscles undergo a change called rigor mortis. They stiffen, due to chemical processes. This stiffness, in beef, can take three or four days to disappear, after which the muscles have softened again, due to enzymes in the muscle (as mentioned above). If you were to try to cook and eat the meat while it was still green, it would be tough, and it would also be less flavorful. So, we always need to age beef at least for a few days. But we can't let it start spoiling (due to bacterial contamination) in that time. No problem, since by the time meats move from the slaughterhouse to our home, it's been at least three or four days, maybe longer. Maybe a lot longer. While we don't want spoiled beef, we certainly do want aged beef. At least, that is, aged enough not to be green.

Can You Dry-Age Beef at Home?

Yes, you can dry-age beef at home. It is possible if you care to look, to find sources that explain how you can dry age beef at home in your refrigerator. If you wanted to attempt this, I would absolutely implore you to buy said beef from a very good butcher. Ask around for a trusted butcher. Do NOT bother buying beef from a supermarket meat department and then trying to dry-age it. There's no telling how old it is already. However, I would also advise you not to try dry-aging at home. Dry-aging requires very careful control of temperature and humidity. It is usually a very expensive and exacting process, where larger cuts of beef (not cut into smaller portions like steaks) are left to hang in a refrigerated room between 32°F to 36°F, a humidity of 80%, and carefully controlled air circulation. This may go on anywhere from 10 days to four weeks. Your home refrigerator just cannot provide these controlled conditions; they fluctuate too much. Every time you open the fridge door, you're messing everything up. Beef dry-aged in a home fridge is quite likely to be spoiled, rather than aged. Also, even if the beef were to age properly, you may be appalled at its appearance. Dark spots or even mold may be present. This can be removed but you will be losing all those portions, plus you'll be grossed out by the process.

When beef is properly dry-aged, it is more tender with a more intense (some say nutty) flavor. But, as mentioned above, a lot of the moisture evaporates, and some portions are lost to trimming. In other words, the weight of the meat at the start is much greater than the weight of the meat at the end. Combined with the expense of the process itself, this loss means dry-aged beef is very expensive. That is why it is hardly ever done, except by some specialty businesses, maybe a few butchers, and some fancy steak houses that either order dry-aged beef or age it themselves. There is another type of aging that you will hear about, however, called wet-aging. Before we get to that, below is a video tour of the dry-aging process used by DeBragga & Spitler , the New Jersey based (used to be New York) meat butchers/purveyors who supply fine dry-aged beef to many top restaurants. I do not know why they mistake the word humidity for moisture, but, still…

When they say it "smells like money in here" they are not kidding. Four dry aged steaks can run you $150 or more.

Home Products for Dry Aging Beef

There are, of course, products on the market designed to let you properly dry age beef at home. One product, the Artisan Dry Aged Steak Starter Kit by UMAi Dry, is nothing more than a vacuum sealer with special "breathable" plastic membranes. As home vacuum sealers go, this is expensive, at $160.00, and it is still nothing more than vacuum sealing cuts of beef in supposedly breathable containers and dry aging it in your refrigerator.

There are articles on the internet, as well, which explain to you, in mind-numbingly long-winded articles (even worse than this one), how you can properly dry age beef at home. Is is possible? Yes. Is it practical and is there any reason to go through all the trouble other than to say "I did this?" Not unless you just like the science of it and you have nothing else to do. In other words, it may be a fun experiment, but it's a lot of trouble to go through to end up with a couple of steaks (depending on the size of the cut you start with) which will be down your gullet and in your stomach in half an hour, at best.

Wet-Aging Beef

I already explained that all beef is aged to some extent. When beef is aged longer than a few days (by the time we buy it) it is almost always wet-aged. Most of us buy our beef from the supermarket. Well, do you imagine big chunks or sides of beef (called primal cuts) hanging from the refrigerator ceiling of the supermarket meat department? If so, you imagine wrong. When I was young, I worked in a grocery store where you would find (at least some of the time) just this kind of thing. But that was over 30 years ago. Those days have long since passed. Supermarket meat departments do not get big sides of beef and butcher them down into all the various cuts. Instead, they receive boxed beef. This beef is already cut down into various levels of butchery, some of it even into individual retail cuts. Often, the meat portions are packed into vacuum sealed packages. The meat that is sealed in these oxygen-free packages has been wet-aging.

Meat packed in these vacuum sealed packages (known by the name Cryovac®), are protected from mold and bacteria (well, not all bacteria). While the meat is being stored, it is subject to the same enzymatic processes that would happen during dry-aging. Therefore, it still becomes more tender. But moisture loss does not occur, so the flavor is not affected very much, if at all. Although humidity does not have to be controlled during wet-aging, you still have to keep the temperature above freezing but below 36 or 34°F (depends who you ask, ahem). That sounds a bit more doable than dry-aging, doesn't it? It does, and that is why many people will tell you that if you purchase beef in a vacuum sealed package, you can leave it in your refrigerator for up to, say two weeks (some will tell you a month!). Preferably, they will say, shove it far in the back where the temperature is colder and a bit more consistent.

All that is true. Wet-aging is more doable at home than dry-aging. You could leave beef in its package and store it in your fridge for a few weeks, allowing it to tenderize. Not as good as dry-aging, but maybe better than no-aging. So, why shouldn't you do it?

I can think of a reason why not to do it. Of course, a lot of the beef that a meat department receives in vacuum sealed packages is removed and cut into smaller portions, etc. and offered for sale in the traditional meat tray wrapped in plastic wrap. Nevertheless, you can often buy, for instance, a tenderloin, still in the package. While this meat has not been deliberately aged, it still has been aged. How long? Do you know? I don't know. Ask the meat department manager? Does he know? Nope, probably not. He may know if beef is getting close to its end of life and he needs to reduce down the price and get rid of it, but he will not know the precise age of the beef and probably wouldn't tell you if he knew it was quite old (don't by reduced beef, unless you are going to use it the same day or freeze it the same day). For all you know, by the time the supermarket received it, it had already been sitting around in boxes for up to three weeks. Also, you don't know all the interim steps. Was this piece of beef once removed from a vacuum package by a middleman, cut into a smaller portion, and then resealed? Was the previous package intact? Could it have sprung a leak? What if…you're getting me, I'm sure. You just don't have a clue how old the beef already is, or what has happened to it by the time you buy the package.

You probably already know that meat sealed in a vacuum package eventually spoils. It doesn't have a use-by date for nothing. While the sealed oxygen-free environment protects the beef from bacteria and mold, it can't stop any anaerobic bacteria from doing their thing. Anaerobic bacteria are bacteria that can live and metabolize in an oxygen free environment. They work a lot slower than oxygen loving bacteria but they do work.

Even when beef is wet-aged appropriately, there will have been some anaerobic action going on. This is why, when you first open a package, you will sometimes get a little bit of an off odor and even some off-gassing. However, when all is well, this odor will disappear in around 20 minutes, and the meat will be fine. But when things have been left too long, that odor will stick around. A rule of thumb given by author Cole Ward in the book The Gourmet Butcher's Guide to Meat: How to Source it Ethically, Cut it Professionally, and Prepare it Properly, gives a rule-of-thumb for this odor dissipation: if the odor is still present after 45 minutes, it may taste bad (have an off taste) and you might even get sick. To learn much, much more about the meat industry, and how meat gets from the slaughterhouse to your grocery store, buy that book - it even comes with a CD. But, for now, what does all this mean? It means that if you try to wet-age a vacuum sealed package of meat in the back of your fridge, you are taking a gamble. You may end up with good, more tender "wet aged" beef, or you may end up with off-tasting spoiled beef that gives you a tummy ache (unless you overcook it, after which it will be dry and off-tasting).

So, Should I Age Beef at Home?

In my opinion, no. Not unless you are a true gourmet foodie who has a trusting relationship with a true gourmet butcher. And in that case, you might just be able to get your butcher to dry-age some beef for you and that will be so much better than wet-aging it in your fridge. More expensive, of course, but you're a true gourmet foodie!

Nevertheless, I cannot tell you what you should do! Do what makes you happy. Dry aging some beef at home will probably be fun and you will undoubtedly enjoy the anticipation of trying your beef once it is aged.

Update: The SteakAger

Since this article was published, a practical home dry-aging appliance called the SteakAger appeared on the TV show Make Me a Millionaire. According to the informal taste test conducted the results were comparable to traditional dry-aged beef. However, while the inventors received an offer from Pat Lafrieda for $1.5 million, the offer was later withdrawn.

However, the SteakAger is being sold online. Thus is a box with racks which is meant to be placed in the refrigerator. That is, to me, completely impractical for most people, taking up over a foot of space. You also need to plug it in, requiring you to thread the power cord through the gasket of your refrigerator door. A spare mini-fridge would probably be a much better solution for this product, as most of us need all the space in our fridge.

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