The priciest of steakhouses and the most obsessive of foodies often sing the praises of dry-aged beef. Beef permitted to age this way is typically more tender and flavorful than mainstream supermarket beef, but it's expensive and often hard to find. Many hobbyists now dry-age their own beef at home, a relatively straightforward process. Prime rib is a common choice, but if you'd like to experiment on a less-expensive cut, top sirloin is a good option.
Wet vs. Dry Aging
Freshly slaughtered beef is relatively tough and bland, so the cuts in your supermarket are typically aged. Until the 1970s, "aged" meant hanging the carcasses in a cooler for a week or two before cutting them, which is referred to as "dry aging," because the air circulates around the carcasses and dries them slightly. The invention of airtight cryogenic packaging changed things, making it more cost-effective to cut the carcasses immediately and vacuum-pack whole cuts such as the top sirloin or rib roast. They would "wet-age" in the cyrogenic packaging, but without drying and losing weight in the process. This process makes wet-aging more profitable, and almost all beef is now wet-aged.
The Benefits of Dry-Aging
Dry-aging beef the traditional way, although it's time consuming and more costly, has definite advantages. The natural enzymes in the beef slowly soften its muscle fibers, making it more tender. They also create new and more complex flavor molecules from the amino acids that make up the beef's proteins. The loss of moisture to evaporation, while it reduces the saleable quantity of beef from a carcass, also serves to concentrate its flavors. In short, while wet-aged beef is more profitable, dry-aged beef is much better on the plate. Fortunately, it's easy to do at home.
Dry-Aging at Home
Dry-aging is best suited to relatively large cuts, such as a whole top sirloin. Carefully wipe the roast dry with clean paper towels, and wrap it loosely in cheesecloth. Place a rack in a foodsafe plastic container or a roasting pan and center the roast on that rack. Put it in a refrigerator, uncovered, for at least three days or up to a week. Unwrap and re-wrap it daily to keep the cheesecloth from sticking. The dry air in your refrigerator evaporates moisture from the surface of the beef, slowly reducing its weight.
Using Your Top Sirloin
At the end of your aging period, remove the top sirloin from your refrigerator and unwrap it a final time. The outside will have a hard, dry, dark-red appearance from the drying process. Trim off that outside edge with a sharp knife until you've removed the discolored layer from the entire surface of your top sirloin. At this point you can roast the top sirloin whole, cut it into smaller roasts, or slice it for steaks. The cut portions should be packaged and frozen if they're not going to be cooked immediately.
Commercial meat cutters age beef for up to five weeks, but they have the luxury of much better temperature control. At home, limiting your aging to one week is safest. If you have a spare refrigerator in your basement or garage, use it rather than your main fridge. This minimizes the risk of contaminating your roast with spills, or finding that it's absorbed unpleasant odors in your fridge. Since the spare refrigerator probably isn't used as much, it also ensures a more consistently food-safe temperature.
- On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen; Harold McGee
- Fine Cooking: How to Dry-Age Beef at Home
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