Have you ever wondered what it means when steak is dry-aged or wet-aged? If your knowledge of beef doesn't go beyond the grocery store variety, then you likely don't know the difference—and that's OK. But if you're interested in learning about aged beef and how it affects the texture and flavor, read on.
“An unsexy way to explain it is that dry-aging, in a nutshell, is a controlled decay process,” says Katie Flannery, butcher and COO at Flannery Beef. “You’re exposing the subprimals to oxygen, which allows natural enzymes within the meat work,” she says. “They’re aerobic bacteria, so they need oxygen to survive. They come alive and start breaking down the molecular bonds of meat.” This, in turn, alters the flavor and texture of the cut.
READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know About Dry-Aged Steak
Historically, people have been dry-aging beef forever. Literally. When beef is dry-aged, cuts are exposed to air in a controlled environment. This exposure breaks down fat and muscle fibers making them more tender. In addition, much of the moisture in the beef dissipates during the process. Dry-aged beef is described to have a more robust and intense beefy flavor because of the reduction of moisture in combination with the breakdown of fat and muscle. The longer the beef is dry-aged, the more tender and bold the flavor will be.
READ MORE: Wet-Aged vs. Dry-Aged Beef. What Tastes Better?
During the dry-aging process, moisture is drawn out of the meat. This causes the beef flavor to become even beefier and more flavorful. What’s more, the aging process causes the beef’s natural enzymes to break down the connective tissue in the meat, making it more tender. A crust of fungus which grows on the outside of the meat while it ages furthers this tenderization process, while adding a nice, corn-like flavor to your beef (you scrape this fungal crust off before cooking).
READ MORE: A Guide to Dry-Aged Beef
Wet-aging is a relatively recent technique that developed along with advances in plastics and refrigeration. In this process, cuts of beef are vacuum-sealed in plastic and shipped to the market. The aging takes place in the 4-10 days between slaughter and sale while the meat is in transit. The enzymes still have time to tenderize the meat enough to make it acceptable, and the biggest plus is that there’s no weight-loss in the meat due to dehydration. Wet-aging also costs less for the manufacturer since the meat doesn’t need to be stored or monitored, ultimately resulting in a lower consumer cost.
READ MORE: What's the Difference? Dry-Aging vs. Wet-Aging Beef
Wet-aged steaks produce a vibrant “fresh, metallic” flavor, a bonus to steak lovers who prefer their meat newly harvested. Wet-aging steak tastes better in a lean cut of beef like a flat-iron steak, where the steak is less marbled with fat. Beef cut for dry aging starts out much thicker than wet aged beef but will lose considerable mass during the aging process. In the end, they both produce an excellent tender and juicy steak.
READ MORE: Wet-Aged vs. Dry-Aged Beef: What's the Difference?
The more common aging method used today is wet-aging, a process in which meat is vacuum-sealed in plastic and allowed to age for 4-10 days, or sometimes longer. Similar to dry-aging, the process allows enzymes in the trapped juices to break down collagen between muscle fibers, increasing tenderness. Unlike with dry-aging, there is no moisture loss, resulting in less concentration but making it more affordable and juicier with a higher yield. Wet-aged meat has a fresher, slightly metallic taste, which we’ve become accustomed to as dry-aging becomes a rarity.
READ MORE: Intro to Wet-Aged vs. Dry-Aged Beef