Dry-Aged Beef: Worth the Wait
Like cheese and fine wine, beef becomes better with age.
That might seem counter-intuitive. After all, anyone who’s left a T-bone in the fridge a week too long knows that the results are, um, let’s say, less than pleasant. On the other hand, anyone who’s tasted a steakhouse-grade, dry-aged cut of USDA Prime ribeye knows the bold intermingling of savory, umami flavors that comes with skilled dry-aging.
The difference can be so stark that for some steak lovers, the idea of eating unaged steak is akin to eating microwaved brisket. Of course, not all dry-aged proponents are that die-hard. But for those who’ve had the chance to appreciate dry-aged beef, there’s simply no comparison.
At Chicago Steak Company, we carry on the Windy City’s proud tradition of delivering the world’s finest beef. This includes a full range of USDA Prime dry-aged ribeyes, strips, porterhouses, and filets, which we age and hand-trim using centuries old techniques.
In our time, we’ve learned a thing or two about dry-aging. From how dry-aging works, to how long to dry-age beef, to what you need to do to dry-age steaks at home, we could write a PhD on the subject. We haven’t (yet!), but we’ve done the next best thing: putting together this comprehensive primer on dry-aged steak.
What Is Dry-Aged Beef? (And Why You Should Eat It)
Simply put, dry-aged beef is beef that has been left to age in a dry, climate-controlled environment. But it’s also so much more.
First, dry-aged beef is buttery smooth, with muscle fibers and tough tissues tenderized via the aging process. Second, dry-aged beef has a greater complexity of flavor. Over time, dry-aging develops a mix of sweet, salty, savory, and nutty aromas, much like fine cheese. Third, dry-aged beef has a greater concentration of flavor, with a beefy boldness and intensity not found in unaged or wet-aged beef. These three key features have turned dry-aged steaks into a prized gourmet item.
If you’ve had a ribeye, strip, or porterhouse from a high-end steakhouse (think Ruth’s Chris or your local white tablecloth, candlelit restaurant), you’ve likely tasted dry-aged beef. For most steakhouses, dry-aged, USDA-rated Prime beef is the standard by which all steaks are measured.
Dry-aging produces a wide range of flavor profiles. Steaks aged for short spans of time—two weeks, for instance—tend to be tender, but more subtly flavored. Meanwhile, steaks aged for longer spans of time—eight or more weeks, say—can develop seriously sharp, funky flavors. It’s that sweet spot in the middle—typically four to six weeks—where the magic really happens: a marriage of tenderness, beefy boldness, and a palette of sinfully savory flavors.
While professional dry-aging achieves the best results, it’s possible for a dedicated hobbyist to dry-age beef at home, so long as they have the right equipment, expertise, and patience. Meanwhile, for those who simply wish to taste a superior steak, it’s important to know what makes a great dry-aged steak great and what to look for when buying dry-aged beef.
How Dry-Aging Happens
Drying-aging typically happens in professionally built, custom aging lockers. These lockers are essentially large fridges, built specifically to house aging beef. Many of the very best steakhouses and restaurants have their very own aging lockers.
There are four essential factors to proper dry-aging:
- Temperature. Temperature is essential to control the rate of chemical change in dry-aging beef. Proper dry-aging occurs between 32 F and 40 F.
- Airflow. Most aging lockers use commercial-grade ventilation systems and special racks or hooks to ensure that beef is properly exposed to air.
- Moisture. Moisture levels have a direct effect on bacterial growth, which affects the flavor of dry-aged beef.
- Time. Proper dry-aging takes upward of two weeks. Flavors become more complex and intense over time.
While temperature, airflow, and moisture levels can all be tweaked to different effect, time is by far the biggest variable in dry-aging. How long you dry-age beef for impacts the tenderness, weight, and taste of your steaks. As a result, a 14-day dry-aged steak is a far different steak from one aged 60 days or more.
The following timeline charts the changes that occur during dry-aging:
- Day 1 to 14. During the first two weeks, evaporation is the most important change. Loss of water mass causes the beef to lose weight but intensify in flavor. Enzymatic changes start to occur after the first week, breaking down tough tissues and fibers. The beef’s flavor profile remains largely unchanged.
- Day 14 to 28. Evaporation continues, but at a slower rate. Enzymes now begin to break down proteins, fats, and glycogens, transforming them into new, savory components like sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids. Beef starts to take on a nuttier, more savory profile.
- Day 28 to 42. Weeks four to six are usually the sweet spot for dry-aged beef. Beef by this point has reached maximal tenderness and flavor concentration. The beef’s flavor profile, meanwhile, is well-balanced, with a depth and complexity of flavor that is robust without being overwhelming.
- Day 42+. After week six, new flavors begin to overtake the original taste of the steak. Sharp, pungent aromas and flavors develop. Many compare the taste of steak aged eight weeks or longer to blue cheese. For some, these steaks are the height of luxury, but for others, the intensity and sharpness of flavor is off-putting.
Different vendors age their steaks for different lengths of time. Some butchers will dry-age for as low as 7 to 14 days, which produces no significant change in flavor. Others specialize in aging for up to (or over!) 100 days, producing a steak more funky and intense than a James Brown album.
That’s why it’s important you always ask how long a particular piece of beef has been dry-aged for. At Chicago Steak Company, all of our steaks are aged in the four-to-six-week sweet spot, which is the typical range used by high-end steakhouses.
Once a rack of beef has finished aging, its exterior needs to be trimmed. Dry-aging spoils the surface of beef, and can sometimes cause (non-toxic) mold to develop on the surface. This is why butchers never dry-age individual steaks. Instead, they dry-age large, primal cuts, usually with as much fat still on the steak as possible. This way, they lose far less product to trimming. After all spoiled meat and exterior fat has been trimmed, cuts are broken down into individual steaks for sale or consumption.