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Steaking a claim

(article, Matthew Amster-Burton)

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As my wife and I were cutting into our third rib-eye steaks of the night, we had a bit of a debate over whether the longissimus or spinalis muscle had the better flavor. (The longissimus is the large muscle in the middle of the rib eye; the spinalis is the one that curves around the edge.) In the end, we both preferred the longissimus.

It's easy to geek out on steak even if you don't know your longissimus from your gluteus maximus. (I didn't until I looked up rib-eye steak.) Which is the best steakhouse in town? Are you in the tough-but-flavorful camp (flank, skirt, and hanger) or the rich-and-tender brigade (rib eye, strip, and tenderloin)? Grass-fed or grain-fed? Choice or prime?

I'm going to duck most of those questions in favor of this one: What is dry-aged beef, and is it worth seeking out?

[%image steak float=right width=400 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/toddtaulman" caption="Is your T-bone aged wet or dry?"]

One of Seattle's most respected butcher shops is A&J Meats, atop Queen Anne Hill. Every time I've been into A&J, I've thought the beef looked a little strange: slightly pale and dry. It turns out that I’m a dope: A&J's meat looks dry because it is dry. It's dry-aged for 30 days. This is (spoiler alert!) a good thing.

Dry aging is a weird idea. You'd expect fresh meat to taste best. But beef, in particular, is improved by taking a large piece of the carcass (in professional terms, a side or primal) and hanging it in a cold, humid, drafty place for one to eight weeks. In the process, the meat loses weight due to evaporation, acquires a moldy, leathery crust, and basically takes on the appearance of Keith Richards. At the end of the aging period, the crust is cut away and the meat sliced into steaks or roasts. You can't dry-age an individual steak; the result would be jerky.

Two factors account for the superiority of dry-aged beef. First, there's that water loss. As the water goes, the flavor of the beef is concentrated. Second, the meat's own enzymes spill out of the cells and go on a biochemical rampage, tenderizing the muscle fiber and leaving new and various flavor compounds behind. You can think of this as digestion, decay, or, if you're a romantic, ripening.

What about wet aging? Wet aging means putting the meat in a vacuum-sealed bag and letting it sit around in the fridge for a few weeks. As you might expect, wet aging is very popular among beef vendors, because it allows them to sell water for the price of beef.

Okay, that's not entirely fair. Dry aging is expensive and risky. It requires the producer to pay for a temperature-controlled facility and then watch its beef lose 25 percent or more of its weight. And it requires a leap of faith: Will customers like me pay a minimum of an extra $5 per pound for it?

To find out, I withdrew some cash from my steak fund and went shopping. I bought rib eyes from A&J and from my local supermarket, QFC. The supermarket steaks were especially instructive because my local QFC offers dry-aged steaks, aged for a minimum of four weeks, so I was able to purchase the same brand of meat (Certified Angus Beef Natural) in dry-aged and wet-aged versions. The dry-aged steak was $20 a pound at QFC and $17 a pound at A&J (this is a bit misleading, because the QFC steak was trimmed and tied into medallions, meaning more meat and less fat for the money). The wet-aged QFC beef was $15 a pound.

Steak is not cheap these days. There is currently a shortage of quality beef. The meat I bought at QFC and A&J was USDA Choice grade. If I'd wanted dry-aged USDA Prime beef, I would have had to order online from a top butcher like Lobel's or Peter Luger. A 1-pound rib eye from Lobel's, with shipping, is $61. Two porterhouses from Peter Luger (serving four to six) will run you $197. My steak fund does not have that kind of money.

I also went to the farmers’ market and bought a rib eye ($19.50 per pound) from Skagit River Ranch, Washington state's premier producer of organic, grass-fed beef. Skagit dry-ages its beef for two weeks. I asked proprietor Eiko Vojkovich whether they would hang a special batch for me for six weeks. She explained that I would essentially have to order several cows. Two weeks is better than nothing, though, and it's certainly better than wet aging.


h1. Steak suggestions

Saveur’s big July article on steak isn’t available online, but the magazine’s website has a handy list of steak cuts. 

Gourmet also wrote about steak in July; a list on their website explains what all the beef labels mean. 

And last fall, Slate did its own steak taste test. The winner? Beef that had been both grass-fed and dry-aged.


Dry aging is particularly beneficial for meat that, like Skagit's, will be frozen. "Well-hung meat will emerge from a spell in the freezer with far greater credit than immature, wet meat," writes Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, author of The River Cottage Meat Book. His commitment to dry aging (known, morbidly enough, as "hanging" in the U.K.) is total. Dry-aged beef, according to Fearnley-Whittingstall, is "more tender and juicy, more rounded and full in flavor, and altogether more exciting to eat."

At this point I was tired of reading and shopping and ready for dinner. I seasoned the steaks with salt, pan-seared them to medium-rare, and let them rest five minutes before eating.

To put it bluntly, the dry-aged beef tasted like beef and, next to it, the wet-aged beef tasted like nothing. The dry-aged steak from the butcher shop was more competently cut than the dry-aged steak from the supermarket, but they tasted the same: a rich, mineral flavor with a long finish. The grass-fed beef from Skagit was a little chewier than the grain-fed beef and had a slightly gamy flavor near the fattier portions, but it was a superb steak overall.

I was pleased with the performance of the Skagit steak, because I want a steak that is, to paraphrase the Lucky Charms leprechaun, ethically delicious. The Certified Angus Natural brand is pretty good in this regard: no antibiotics or hormones, no animal byproducts in feed, and one of the brand partners is Niman Ranch. That said, the other brand partner is Tyson, so the meat I bought from QFC might be intensively farmed feedlot beef. With Skagit, there's no mystery: it's organic and pastured all the way. A&J told me that their beef is mostly from the Charolais breed of cattle, raised with no antibiotics, hormones, or animal byproducts in its feed; A&J didn't identify it as coming from a particular region or corporate brand.

Dry-aged beef is like high-quality chocolate. A wet-aged steak, like a Snickers bar, is certainly not bad, and in the right context it can be completely satisfying. Chewier steaks like flank and skirt have more flavor than the tender cuts, and while they benefit from dry aging, it's not as critical. Dry-aged is the Scharffen Berger 70 percent bar of steaks: more expensive and hard to find, but once you taste it, it's tough to go back.

My three-person family eats steak about once a month, and a pound is plenty for one meal for all of us. For an extra five bucks, I'm going to spring for the dry-aged from now on. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall would approve. As would Keith Richards.

p(bio). [ "Matthew Amster-Burton"] writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

Also on Culinate: An article about grass-fed beef, and a review of a book about cooking meat.

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