Dry-aged beef is one of those things that really get our customers excited whenever we give tours of our meat locker. They marvel at the long row of rib and drop loins along the top of the cooler racks, oohing and ahhing at their individual farm tags and even petting the soft snow of mold silently changing the beef from good to great.
Of course, dry aging, far from being the exotic ritual we make it out to be today, is what pretty much all beef that wasn't cured or canned used to be 30 years ago. What happened? Why is properly hung beef such an oddity today if it was the industry standard such a short time ago? Plastic bags, unfortunately, are the anti-climactic answer. Basically, the meatpacking industry figured out that if you stick a piece of meat in a vacuum-sealed bag it not only reduces the amount of money that is lost in water weight and trim but it also "ages" faster. Thus the age-old Wet vs. Dry Aging Controversy began.
Okay, so what is aging and what are the differences between wet and dry aging exactly? Aging is the process during which microbes and enzymes act upon the meat to help break down the connective tissue, for the sake of making the aforementioned meat object more tender. Whether it happens in a bag or out in the air as a big swinging side of beef, that element of the process is the same (okay, almost the same).
During wet aging, the plastic doesn't allow the meat to breathe, so it ages in contact with its own blood, which lends it "a more intense sour note and a more bloody/serumy flavor," according to the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. This sounds a bit negative when you're talking about the flavor of a steak, but the fact that upwards of 90 percent of the beef taken home by American grocery store shoppers in plastic-wrapped foam trays is wet-aged seems to suggest that it can't be all bad.
Dry aging, on the other hand, allows the meat to breathe, lose water (which increases its "beefiness" since there is now less water and but the same amount of muscle fiber), and get acted upon by other microbes beside those of the muscle itself. Those other microbes are the long, threadlike mycelia of various airborne fungi that begin to digest the meat, giving an aged loin its distinctive flavor, aroma, and fuzzy exterior. So dry aging wins, right? It's complicated: while most meat snobs (myself included) prefer dry-aged beef, the American public actually prefers bagged beef according to a number of very expensive meat studies. Certainly you could chalk those results up to Americans preferring what they have become used to and choosing bagged meat over the funkier flavor of dry-aged beef.
Ultimately neither method of aging is the be-all-end-all: it is impossible to properly dry-age steaks like the flat iron, skirt steak, or chuck tenders because they lack the protective fat and bone that cover traditional aged cuts like rib and short loin. Once they are removed from the carcass, they simply begin to degrade and dry out, which is why I think everyone agrees they should go into plastic.
What everything eventually comes down to is personal preference. I prefer meat that has been hung about two weeks because I like to taste the beef, not the age. My customers, however, demand that we dry age their steaks five weeks and beyond. They have come to associate the taste and texture of well-aged meat with having the true steakhouse experience at home. To further complicate matters, one of the best steaks I have ever eaten was off a 100-percent grass-fed animal that was hung for two weeks, then put into vacuum pack for two more weeks.
What does all of this tell us? That the best kind of aged meat is the kind that you, as an individual, like best. Whether it's a wet, bloody T-bone or an eight-week-old New York strip that tastes like bleu cheese, the customer is always right.