Ageing Gracefully: Dry-Aged Beef, Mature Cattle

At Gallagher's Steakhouse in New York huge amounts of raw steak are displayed. 

© Daniel Krieger

At Gallagher's in New York huge amounts of raw meat are displayed; a vast selection of steaks with different maturation times.

At Gallagher's Steakhouse in New York huge amounts of raw steak are displayed. 

© Daniel Krieger Ageing Gracefully: Dry-Aged Beef, Mature Cattle Dry-aged beef was relatively unknown until a few years ago but is now all the rage. Here's how the maturation of beef affects the taste.

Mail order meat companies are more common and larger than ever as the foodies amongst us search out high quality ingredients. Some butchers seem to have more diverse meat ranges than Ikea furniture lines.

One description comes up more and more: dry-aged. What was not a marketing term ten years ago has long since become part of the standard vocabulary of every gourmet. But what actually distinguishes dry-aged beef from normal meat? 

The Slaughtered Ox

Dry-aged meat is nothing new. Rembrandt's famous painting 'The Slaughtered Ox' dates from 1655 – meat has always been hung to mature. However, at the end of the Second World War, meat was expensive and rationing was still in place in some countries, neither butchers nor consumers could afford to age beef for long periods of time.

These days people are far more affluent and technical advances in cold rooms and humidifiers mean it is now possible to dry-age meat all year round, indeed legendary steakhouses such as Smith & Wollensky and Gallagher's in New York make a feature of this with huge amounts of meat maturing in displays - the selection of steaks with different maturation times is mind-boggling.

Vacuum technology

Wider use of vacuum technology in the 1970s coupled with the steady rise of the supermarket and decline of the local butcher meant that a lot of beef went from being hung in cold stores to mass marketed fairly soon after slaughter.

Local butchers, with their cold rooms big enough to hang carcasses for weeks, were quietly priced out of the market. Dry-aged meat loses around 30% of its water content and since it is sold by weight, it was more profitable to sell it soon after slaughter than it was to hang it for weeks, and vacuum packing technology allowed this meat to reach the consumer in good condition.  

But too little hang time results in meat that is not really tender or particularly tasty. However, dry-aged meat matured after slaughter in specially designed cold rooms under controlled air conditions and at 85% humidity usually for three to four weeks has far more flavour in part because the evaporation of water concentrates the flavours. In the US, there are steakhouses that age meat this way for up to eight weeks. 

Dry-aged pioneer Manfred Höllerschmid: maturation under controlled air conditions.

Photo provided

The science

Strictly speaking, dry-aged meat has not just lost around a third of its water. The contact with air means that enzymes within the meat along with airborne bacteria begin to break down the protein and muscle structure of the meat during drying, making the meat more tender, whilst the natural evaporation of water intensifies the flavours.

It is vital that the temperature, air circulation and humidity are finely tuned, so this tenderisation process can only be achieved in specially constructed cold rooms. As pioneering Austrian butcher Manfred Höllerschmid notes, "otherwise, the meat only matures on the outside and on the inside it's back the way you don't want it. Or worse: it simply spoils".

Age is beauty

Beef does not only have to be matured after slaughter - it is even better if it has already been allowed to mature on the animal. Old cattle taste much very much better than young ones - at least if they have been kept properly. An old, exhausted high-performance dairy cow will not make a very tasty roast.

But a cow that has spent a good life grazing on a pasture and hay, slowly growing and putting on muscle and fat, tastes incomparably more delicious after eight, ten or twelve years than a young animal. There are two main reasons for this;

Muscle versus fat

Firstly, muscles that have been used are more flavoursome than those that have hardly been used. The substances in the muscle that equip it for long, enduring activities are at the same time those that turn into flavour during maturation and cooking. A chicken hardly flies and runs around a lot, which is why its breast meat is subtle but its leg meat is tasty. And so it is with cattle, the meat with the most intense flavour is probably the hanger steak, which is the muscle that supports the hard working diaphragm.

Secondly, cattle (like all animals) owe their depth of flavour to their intramuscular fat; this is where numerous flavours are released from the animal's food, so the more time the animal has had to store fat, the more intense the taste. Sometimes this is undesirable (try tasting an old goat), but in cattle it produces great results. Bovine intramuscular fat storage doesn't start until cattle are around 18 months old.

On the continent, in France and Spain, this has been known for a long time. In Paris, steaks from cows that have calved at least three times and are therefore about six or seven years old, are considered best.

And the world-famous Basque butcher Txogitxu only sells meat from old cattle. He buys suitably old and beautifully fat animals for meat from all over Europe, often from countries where their meat is less appreciated.

Fortunately, for meat lovers, the technology to dry-age and mature meat, along with our appetite for fine dining, means we can now enjoy outstanding steaks in the comfort of our own home, or have the pleasure and luxury of dining in a world class steakhouse.

Aus dem Falstaff Magazin Nr. 03/2017