Meat is aged to develop its flavor and improve its texture. This process depends on certain enzymes, whose function while the animal is alive is to digest proteins. After the animal is slaughtered, the cells that contain these enzymes start too break down, releasing the enzymes into the meat, where they attack the cell proteins and break down into amino acids, which have more flavor. The enzymes also break down the muscles, so the tissue becomes softer. This process can take a few days or a few weeks. For the sake of safety, meat should not be aged for more than four days at home, beyond that time it must be done under carefully controlled conditions.
Traditionally, butchers have hung carcasses in the meat locker t o age their beef. Today, some beef is still aged on hooks (this process is called dry aging), but for the most part beef is wet-aged in vacuum-sealed packets. I wondered if it was worth the extra mile for dry-aged beef, so I ordered both a dry-aged and a wet-aged prime rib roast from a local restaurant supplier. The difference between the two roasts were clear-cut.
Like a good, young red wine, wet-aged beef tasted pleasant and fresh on its own. When compared with the dry-aged beef, though, I realized its flavor was less concentrated. The meat tasted washed-out. The dry-aged beef, on the other had, engaged the mouth. It was stronger, richer, and gamier-tasting, with a pleasant tang. The dry-aged and wet-aged beef were equally tender, but the dry-aged had an added buttery texture.
Unfortunately, most butchers don’t dry-age beef anymore because hanging the quarter of beef eats-up valuable refrigerator space. Dry-aged beef also dehydrates (lose weight) and requires trimming (lose more weight). That weight loss means that less beef costs more money. Wet-aged beef loses virtually no weight during the aging process, and it comes prebutchered, packaged, and ready to sell. Because beef is expensive to begin with, most customers opt for the less expensive wet-aged beef. Why does dry-aging work better than wet-aging? The answer is simple: air. Encased in plastic, wet-aged beef is shut off from oxygen - the key to flavor development and concentration.
Because availability and price pose problems, you may simply want to age beef yourself. It’s just a matter of making room in the refrigerator and remembering to buy the roast ahead of time, up to four days before you plan on roasting it. When you get the roast home, pat it dry and place it on a wire rack set over a paper towel-lined cake pan or plate. Set the racked roast in the refrigerator and let it age until you are ready to roast it, up to four days. Aging begins to have a dramatic effect on the roast after three days, but I also detected some improvements in flavor and texture after just one day of aging. Before roasting, shave off any exterior meat that has completely dehydrated. Between the trimming and dehydration, count on a 7 pound roast losing at least half a pound during aging.