In the simplest terms, dry-ageing of beef is the refrigerated, open-air storage of beef and is typically reserved for the rib and loin sections. Alternatively, wet-ageing is the refrigerated storage of beef in vacuum-sealed plastic bags and is generally applied to a broader variety of beef cuts. In both systems, meat tenderizes as it is stored (due to proteolysis). The primary difference between dry- and wet-ageing is beef flavor. Dry-ageing results in evaporative losses, and as such results in a more “concentrated” beef flavor.
The evaporative loss coupled with the trimming of “dried” or “darkened” exposed surfaces results in retail yield as low as ~50% when aged for up to 35 days for beef sirloin butts (NCBA Dry-Aging Executive Summary), compared with ~75% yield for the same cut when wet-aged and therefore, dry-aged beef costs more. It makes sense to dry-age beef cuts that will have an optimal response, yet dry-ageing an entire carcass does not.
I hear reports from butchers around Pennsylvania whose customers have requested their beef (the entire side) “hangs” for up to 5 weeks! That equates to much lost moisture, which directly translates to fewer pounds of salable beef. In a 2006 study from Colorado State University, a 3-way interaction between USDA quality grade, individual muscle, and postmortem ageing period was observed. What does that mean? Different muscles age (in this case, tenderize) differently over time. Thus, there are much more efficient ways to age beef than just “hanging” intact beef sides for weeks upon weeks – such as:
- Break down the carcass into primals (or subprimals)
- Assign them to the best suited ageing period
How can this apply to the small butcher compared with the major packer? Most small butchers don’t have the capacious coolers required to hang entire sides for many customers at once for several weeks. Perhaps better use of refrigerated space would be to let the carcass hang for one week, select the cuts the client wants aged and age only those cuts – perhaps in a designated dry-aging cooler. The “other” cuts, including many round-cut roasts, may be cut, packaged (preferably in a vacuum bag), and frozen. At this point ground beef, stew meat, and other cuts can be made. This is also more energy efficient (energy per pound of stored beef) because less beef is “hanging” longer in the refrigerated room, and less weight is being lost due to drying.