Many of the top steak houses in America are in Chicago and New York. Most of them, like the top-rated Peter Luger Steak House in my hometown of Brooklyn, practice the mysterious alchemy of dry aging beef. It may seem counter-intuitive to think that something less than the freshest food could be the best of the best, but there’s a steady stream of pilgrims laying down big bucks to savor the superb steaks these temples of excellence offer. To the uninitiated, this may seem strange — even scary. Why would anyone want to eat an old steak, they might ask.
It turns out that dry aging beef, actually meat of any kind, is an old practice going back to the earliest culinary school — the prehistoric cave. It was a standard practice in fine old-European and colonial kitchens to hang fowl, game and other cuts of meat in a cool barn or basement (read: cave) for days or weeks “until they ripened.”
For the most part, dry aging faded with the advent of refrigeration. But carefully monitored dry aging, enhanced by refrigeration and science, is used today by Peter Luger’s and other classic steak houses around the world to develop safely the tenderness and flavor of steaks to sublime effect. What Todd and Suzy discovered quite organically can now be verified, explained and controlled by modern science.
Natural enzymes in the meat start to brake down the protein fibers making the meat more tender. They also alter the flavor profile, rounding out some acid notes and dissolving metallic notes that often accompany today’s standard meat processing practice of “wet aging.” Wet aging is sealing the meat in plastic and aging it anywhere from five to 15 days. Wet aging is essentially a great marketing term the meat packing industry uses to describe what it does to make wholesale, nationwide distribution possible. While it does help some, dry aging does a way better job of improving flavor and tenderness.
The exposure to air “dries” the meat. In other words, some moisture is removed. The loss of moisture concentrates the flavors. One might think that removing moisture would make for a less juicy steak, but the opposite is actually true. And that juice tastes much better.
So why doesn’t every restaurant dry age its beef? There are several reasons. One is that most restaurants aren’t oriented to pursue persnickety specialties like this. It’s more convenient and cost effective to get pre-processed items off the truck and cook them quickly with minimal skilled preparation — less hassle, less labor.
It also takes the right kind of controlled environment. The temperature must be consistently held close to freezing, about 39 degrees Fahrenheit. Fans in the cooler keep the air moving, facilitating the process. The humidity must also be tightly controlled at about 75 percent.
Then there are the costs. Studies have shown that it’s not worth dry aging the usual cuts of meat that most restaurants carry. At The Old 5Mile House, we only use Black Angus Choice beef. This is a very good place to start, but it does cost more than the regular fare.
And there is a significant loss of product. The drying process that removes the moisture diminishes the weight. We buy these beautiful whole prime ribs by the pound, dry age them, cut them into steaks and sell them by the pound. But by the time we sell the meat, part of it has evaporated — literally. Plus, some of the exterior of the meat gets discolored and a bit crusty, and this has to be trimmed away before grilling. But oh, that buttery interior!
Back to the hassle factor, there is time spent nurturing the alchemy: turning, monitoring and trimming. These are all things that keep most restauranteurs from attempting the age old art of dry aging. Some have called me fearless, most call me crazy. But if you were to ask me why I would go to all the trouble of dry aging beef, I would say because it’s beautiful. It’s artful. It’s excellent. It’s absolutely the best steak one can eat. That gets me excited. With a fine glass of mead — uh, I mean red wine — there’s nothing like it.
This November, The Old 5Mile House is featuring the beautiful food of Greece. While Greece is not huge on beef, I did have one of the best steaks of my life there. We will offer a Greek-style, dry-aged, thick-cut, grilled rib eye steak at a price way more affordable than at the Peter Luger Steakhouse. Maybe you can’t make it to NY or Greece anytime soon, but if you’re a beef lover, you owe it to yourself to try the real thing at least once in your life. And who knows? If people here respond, we may just keep a dry-aged steak on the menu. Let me know what you think! Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, we’ll also have a solid selection of authentic Greek dishes to share with our friends in November.
Robert Smith is the chef owner of the Old 5Mile House where they serve roadhouse food from around the world.
“It’s artful. It’s excellent. It’s absolutely the best steak one can eat.