The age-old question revisited: What’s the beef on dry or wet aging? At Alderspring, we have always considered dry aging an important part of our process because of the flavor and moisture concentrating effects. We dry age the entire carcass. Most dry aged beef is only the high end primals that contain the New York, ribeye and tenderloin.
We like the whole carcass aging because it improved all of the other cuts as well, including improving the taste and texture of the ground beef. We used to dry age 14-21 days—even at times 28 or 35! The interior of cuts and primals was wonderful, but the problem we kept having was that what we call “cooler funk and jerk”. The off flavors we call “funk” in long-aged beef are a result of fungi and bacteria in the aging cooler that colonize hanging carcasses. The moist cool air and many carcasses are the perfect environment for these baddies, and it is impossible to eliminate them. Some of them even colonize on the beef (I have observed other people’s carcasses in the early stages of mold development on 3-4 week ages). Mold is problematic due to the human allergenic issues with the fungi itself, mycotoxins from fungal death and huge allergic or toxic response to them, and simple off flavors or “funk” caused by the mold itself. Like a cross between aged cheese, mushrooms and dirty dishrags, funk has no place on the outside of one of our lovely NY strip steaks, or any other part of our beef. We wanted to fix this. In addition to mold, the dry-aging process creates a layer of blackened inedible beef we call “jerk” because it is similar to beef jerky. Because we dry-age whole carcass, we were losing quality to “jerkification” on flanks and skirt steaks, cuts that are thin and on the outside of the carcass. The biggest problem was that blackened pieces of beef were ending up in our ground beef. Occasionally packages had several specks of black that caused us to pull them from sale. Unusable trim increased dramatically, with all of the jerk beef going into…the garbage can. Such waste is not stewardship, nor does it create an affordable product. We wanted to fix this too.
Enter Dave Asprey of the Bulletproof Executive who has talked extensively about the problems of mycotoxins and human health. Alarm bells starting ringing in my ears when I read about it and spoke to Dave about it. We started to experiment in earnest. After several months of trying different protocols, we hit on one that is a winner. We now we dry age a total of 8-9 days whole carcass (according to USDA, this is still considered “dry aged”). We find 8-9 days to be optimal because excess moisture in the carcass is lost (so you don’t pay for it by the pound in watery beef). The loss of moisture also concentrates flavor. We ran several tests comparing the shorter aging with the long aging we used to do, and found that the flavor was excellent, but the objectionable “funky” off flavors were gone. In addition, the shorter dry aging eliminated the darkened carcass bits, and resulted in beautiful flank and skirt steaks. Our next step is to put the dry-aged primal (big parts of the carcass that have not yet been cut into serving-sized pieces) into a wet age process. Wet aging occurs inside a sealed pack under refrigerated conditions. Our interest was piqued about wet aging when we watched one of our high end restaurant chef customers take our long dry-aged beef, and then keep it in his refrigerator for another 2-3 weeks before serving it. Nearly all the beef available for sale in the grocery case, including many grassfed organic lines, is wet-aged. The standard wet age process bothers us, however.
Typically, primals are vac-packed for wet aging the day after kill- the beef hardly has time to drain. This looked like fetid environment to us, because of the tons of fluid in the bag, sloshing brown fluid across the entire surface of the primal. After the 8-9 day dry age, then 10-12 day wet age, our vacuum packed primal looked dry and clean and ready to cut into serving size pieces, vacuum pack and flash freeze. This protocol is definitely more work and time, but the quality appears to blow our former steak panel results out of the water (no pun intended) in especially tenderness, and more flavor development. So…mycotoxins eliminated, funk ended, jerk terminated, flavor enhanced, and tenderness maximized. An Alderspring no-brainer, although it took years to finally reach the optimal solution.