Dry aged meat: What’s the beef?

The  Staff Canteen

As part of National Butchers Week, we take a look at dry aged meat - what is it and what makes it so expensive?

It is the order of the day for many chefs around the world, from Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Square in New York, to Mark Hix’s Tramshed in London. But what exactly is dry aged meat? How is it different to other meat products?

Dry aged meat

Dry aged vs wet aged meat

Dry ageing meat is a process that was most popular until vacuum packing became available in the 1960s. The vacuum packing method allowed butchers and producers to age and distribute their meat in a more cost effective way and this overtook the dry ageing process. When wet aged, no moisture or weight is lost and the timescale for ageing is a lot shorter. Beef is wet aged between seven and 21 days. It looks distinctively different to dry aged beef and according to some chefs, the flavour and feel is distinctively different too.

How do you age meat?

The dry ageing process requires a whole or half carcasse and selected cuts to be hung or placed on a rack in a temperature controlled room, for a long period of time. As the meat is left over time, enzymes and “good bacteria” are active in breaking down connective tissue as well as large protein molecules into smaller, more flavourful ones. This process happens in the first 14 days, tenderising the meat and enhancing the flavour, so why do some chefs and artisan butchers boast about meat aged for days, weeks or even months longer?

Is dry aged meat really better?

The Hannan Meat manufacturing site in Northern Ireland is home to Europe’s first Himalayan salt chambers for dry ageing meat. Their beef ageing period ranges from 28 to 45 days. Peter Hannan, founder of Hannan Meats, revealed that to have good quality meat after a long dry ageing process, there has to be control. He said: “Most people hang a piece of meat in a cold room and say it’s dry aged, and technically it is, but they’re not in control of exactly what is happening.” In the salt chambers, there is complete control. After a six year long study into the best way to prolong the ageing process, their regime for dry ageing has a number of factors that ensure good quality meat is produced.

Peter said: “You have various ways of extracting moisture, things with light, air-speed and temperature. It’s part of the bacteria control regime that we use the salt.” Peter and his team found that the Himalayan salt, which is the purest salt in the world at 98.5% Sodium Chloride, was the key in combatting the deterioration of the meat. But what is the importance of extracting moisture in the dry ageing process?

Peter Hannan and pigs, founder of Hannan Meats
Peter Hannan,
Hannan Meats

How do you dry age meat without it going bad?

Peter said: “Just think of making a jeux or a reduction, as you displace water, you concentrate flavour. And that’s exactly what you’re trying to achieve - its a concentration of flavour.” So the longer the meat is aged, the more concentrated the flavour. However, after the initial hanging fortnight, good bacteria are combating bad bacteria, and over time are outnumbered. The bad bacteria takes over, leaving a slimy consistency on the product and the strong flavour synonymous with dry aged meat.

Peter said: “It’s very, very common, and what most people perceive to be dry ageing but it is something that you want to avoid. As time goes on a kind of blue cheese taste and slightly rancid flavour will happen and that’s not what you want.”

The Hannan Meat team have trialled the meat ageing process up to 72 days. Peter said: “We’re not marketing it as the grand cru, because our taste panel cannot consistently and discernibly say it’s better. And the remaining benefit is hardly recognisable going past 42 days.” However, this has not stopped the team from trying new things. They are on track to test a 100 day aged piece of beef. Peter said: “We could be surprised. It could become a little more funky, you never know.”

What the chefs say about dry aged meat

James Golding, group chef director, The Pig Hotel
James Golding

From chef James Golding’s point of view, dry aged meat is a premium product. As group chef director of The Pig Hotel, he is no stranger to using dry aged meat at the restaurant.

He said: “We don’t use meat that hasn’t been hung, and usually we hang for 32 days. This intensifies the flavour and relaxes the muscle fibres, which means you get a better quality and flavour when cooked.”

The restaurant prides itself on producing its own charcuterie products and dry ageing beef. Working with local butchers and producers in the Hampshire area, The Pig offer a number of cured pork products, from 12-18 month dry aired hams to Bresaola and Red wine salami. With limited space at The Pig, James decided to team up with New Milton third generation butcher, Alan Bartlett.

James said: “[Alan] Helps develop the range and now produces our cured meats under the company name A Pinch Of Salt. He also dry ages all our meat in his 80 year old meat fridge.”

The oldest piece of dry aged beef they have produced was 52 days old. James said: “It was interesting shall we say, it had a very musty taste and smell. Because it was so dry it was a bit tricky to cook. Speaking from my own preference 32-38 days is the magic number.”

Would James recommend dry aged, hung beef over wet aged beef?

He said: “Every day of the week, it’s a superior product, flavour and produces the best quality cooked product.”

Andy McLeish, executive chef at Michelin star restaurant Chapter One in Locksbottom, appreciates the fine quality that dry ageing brings to meat.

He said:  “With English beef I feel it gives it a real earthy flavour. Obviously the beef has to be good in the first place.  It is pointless to consider ageing a poor quality piece of beef.” However, he believes that longer aged meat doesn’t live up to the hype. 

Andy McLeish, executive chef, Chapter One
Andy McLeish

He said: “The oldest uncured piece of meat I have had is around 42 days. It was good but not to the extent of me making a decision to have all of our meat aged in this way.” Andy points out that the commercial aspect to dry aged beef is a problem. He said: “I feel it becomes uncommercial due to the loss of weight the joint is subject to and also the amount of dry trim you have to remove before cooking.”

Most meat used at Chapter One is vacuum aged USDA imported beef. Andy said: “It has very good results. The product has a shelf life of up to three months.” Over time, the meat shrinks as moisture is lost however the price stays the same.

The argument is a 'quality over quantity' one: although it costs more for less, the taste and texture apparently make it worth the price. Dry ageing – culinary genius or just chef vanity? It seems that the process makes a better tasting product, but at a cost. With the right controls in place, good quality beef can be produced from this traditional method.

Like many things, however, it may boil down to personal preference. Peter Hannan said: “I consider it an advantage to dry age rather than a disadvantage because although you are increasing the price of something you are ending up with a far, far better product.”

By Ashley Chalmers

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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 26th March 2015

Dry aged meat: What’s the beef?