When Age Improves Flesh
Time and dehydration can be a kind combination, especially when it comes to dry-aged beef
There are despairingly few instances where age and dehydration improve flesh. In fact, we can think of only one: dry-aging. Of beef, that is. The process of leaving hunks of beef out to dry in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room yields meat with such distinctive flavours that over the last couple of years, an increasing number of butchers and chefs have started their own dry-aging facilities in their stores and restaurants.
The technique itself isn’t new. Dry-aging is as time-honoured as pickling and canning, and was exactly the way beef was prepared before modern food hygiene rules and business interests saw to it that most beef is first wet-aged (vacuum-sealed in a bag and left to mature) before sale. Wet-aged beef, after all, ages faster, so meat gets to the market faster. It also retains more water weight, and heavier meat equals bigger profits.
The current hipster landscape of going back to basics, artisanship and nose-to-tail eating can probably be credited for bringing dry-aged beef back into favour. That, and the fact that today’s more affluent and adventurous diners are more willing to fork out for better tasting meat—which is exactly what dry-aging yields. But it is definitely more expensive.
“That’s because dry-aging produces a lesser yield (than wet-aging),” explained Emporium Shokuhin’s meat specialist Ryan Goh. “The moisture loss results in shrinkage as the beef ages, and by the time the meat is fully dry-aged, you’ve lost up to 60 per cent of the meat.”
Dry-aging, says executive director of Huber’s Butchery Andre Huber, is essentially “controlled decomposition. And before a cut of dry-aged beef can be used for cooking, the rotten crust that forms around the surface of the meat must be carved out,” which further lessens the yield.
A Matter Of Chemistry
Emporium Shokuhin’s glass-walled dry-aging refrigerator is the size of a small room and takes pride of place in the centre of the store at Marina Square. Hefty ribs of beef hang from hooks, while row after row of hunky rib eyes and loins sit on metal shelves. Much of the meat is covered in a creamy, yellowish cauliflower-patterned mold, yet the smell in the facility is surprisingly appealing, like a subtle mix of cheese, sage, earth and blood.
All this is proof that some delicious chemistry is at play. Like curing pork for ham, dry-aging beef is as back-to-basics as letting the beef hang out to dry and allowing time and microbes to work their magic. Over time, the meat’s enzymes work themselves free, breaking proteins down into amino acids, which in turn deepens the flavour of the meat. Small amounts of carbohydrates in the meat are slowly turned into sugars, which weaken the connective tissue around the protein strands so that the meat becomes more tender and sweeter. Meanwhile, as the water inside the meat works its way out, the meat begins to shrink and its flavours begin to concentrate. Think of the process as one akin to reducing stock—the more the liquid evaporates, the more intense the flavour of the resulting broth.
“Good airflow (in the dry-aging room) is very important,” added Goh. “You can’t crowd the room. We keep the temperature between two and four degrees Celsius and the humidity at 60 per cent. We also keep the door well sealed so the air doesn’t escape too much and we don’t let too much of the warmer air from the outside in.”
While most restaurants and butchers say they dry-age their meat for between 30 and 45 days, Goh pointed out that there isn’t a precise formula. It all depends on the type and size of the meat, and the flavour you want to achieve. Fattier beef, for example, can require a longer aging before the effects are noticeable.
“You have to observe and touch the meat after the prescribed number of days to see if it needs to be aged some more,” he said. “If the surface of the meat is still moist, then I would give it a few more days in the dry-aging room. You can usually tell when it’s ready from the touch, sight and smell of the beef.”
At Huber’s Butchery’s factory in Pandan Loop, dry-aging is done in a slower and more controlled process. “We take about 60 days to age what others would usually do in 28 days because we think (the slower process) is safer and yields beef with better flavour and texture,” said Huber. His company recently premiered its customised dry-aging programme that allows customers to order various cuts of meat, including a whole prime rib that typically weighs between seven and 12 kilogrammes, and dictate how long they would like it to be dry-aged for.
“Most importantly, you have to start with a good quality product,” said Huber. “You need meat that has a higher fat content in terms of marbling so that it will keep sufficiently moist even after the dry-aging process.”
Naturally, the longer the beef is dry-aged, the more intense and pronounced its flavours. Ask most chefs and they will tell you that dry-aged beef tastes “nuttier”, “musky”, “like mushrooms”, or “like blue cheese”. Most restaurants say they sell beef that is aged up to 45 days because any longer and the flavour becomes too pungent for diners to appreciate.
To demonstrate the distinct difference between dry and wet-aged beef, Goh has his kitchen set up a side-by-side taste test of USDA sirloin. The fresher, wet-aged sirloin is thinner and more metallic in flavour while the dry-aged stuff packs endnotes of mushroom and Bovril, and has a tighter grain (i.e. the muscle fibres are packed tighter together) and leaves less pooling of blood on the plate.
“I had my first taste of dry-aged beef several years ago at Skirt restaurant (at the W Hotel), which had a distinct depth and mushroom-like flavour like I’d never tasted before,” enthused private banker and avid gourmet Irving Tan. “Since then, I’ve been ordering dry-aged beef whenever it is available.”
Chef Luca Perrezza, who included a dry-aging cabinet in his District 10 Bar & Grill at Suntec City when it opened in October last year, added: “When dry-aged, the meat tastes beefier, with a more savoury, umami dimension.
“And that’s the thing,” he continued. “Once you’ve tried dry-aged beef, there is no turning back.”
Who’s Got The Beef?
These restaurants are doing it themselves in-house
Skirt at W Hotel introduced the first salt-lined dry-aging cabinet when it opened over three years ago. It sells dry-aged steaks from Australia and Ireland, with prices starting from $43 for a 250-gram Irish grass-fed tenderloin.
Opus Bar & Grill at Hilton Singapore has its own Himalayan salt-lined aging cabinet, which offers the added benefit of reducing humidity, deterring bacterial growth and infusing the meat with a whisper of salt. The restaurant serves a 30-day dry-aged Australian Rangers Valley Angus OP rib eye for $110.
At District 10 Bar & Restaurant, group executive chef Luca Pezzera stocks his dry-aging cabinet with cuts like grass-fed Black Angus OP Rib, which he dry-ages for 45 days, and Irish grass-fed Black Angus rib eye that is dry-aged for 30 days (both $18 per 100g).
At roast restaurant The Carvery at Park Hotel Alexandra, executive chef Robert Chan dry-ages Australian prime ribs in-house, which he later sears and roasts slowly, before giving the beef a quick blast in the restaurant’s wood-fired oven. This last step gives the meat a good, blistered crust and seals the precious flavours within. It is served as part of the restaurant’s buffet, which starts from $52 for weekday dinner.