Beef can’t be eaten straight from slaughter; it needs to hang, allowing it to mature and develop flavour and for the meat to become tender. There are two methods of ageing: dry-ageing and wet ageing.
The reason everyone gets so excited about dry-aged beef is due to the higher quality, texture and taste it acquires, having been allowed to age naturally by hanging.
Wet-aged beef is what most of the population eat. It is slaughtered, butchered and vacuum-packed, all within 24 hours. As the meat sits in a bag of its own blood, it locks in all the moisture, which expands while cooking, splitting the fibres and allowing the juices to run free, leaving the cook with drier beef.
So what is dry-ageing?
Once the animal has been slaughtered, the carcass is cut in half and then hung in a walk-in cold room, allowing cool air to circulate freely. Dry-ageing is a natural process that takes place when the enzymes in the meat react with the fibres in the muscles, making them tender and elastic. While air-hanging, meat will lose a lot of moisture, which means the flavour will intensify and the meat will not dry out while cooking.
Dry-aged meat is a little more expensive, due to the time taken to hang it and the loss of moisture from the carcass (which results in a lower weight, making it less profitable as meat is sold by weight). It also needs to be trimmed after hanging, to remove and discard connective tissue and an outer layer that has a light build up of bloom (safe bacteria, but not to be consumed). Though this is further weight loss, it’s worthwhile for the superior taste and texture.
You can easily spot well hung beef. It will be dry on the outside, cushion soft and will hold a thumb print when pushed in for a few seconds. It is a beautiful dark red, almost mahogany colour, and when it is cut, it will be a brighter cherry red inside, with a lovely gamey smell.
Only good quality beef can be dry-aged. This is due to the all-important marbling of fat through the muscles. The most vital thing to look for in beef is the marbling, which runs around and through the muscle in varying amounts.
So to recap – air circulation, slow maturing, rich, intense flavour and texture.