We have heard the term “hanging beef,” or “aged beef” when we go to the butcher’s counter. What does this mean? Hanging or aging beef is an extensive culinary process, and worth it!
Dry aged beef is more expensive than fresh, but when it’s aged right, you will remember every bite. Throughout history, meat has been hung and dry aged after butchers discovered that this method makes beef more tender and flavorful than meat eaten immediately after its preparation.
Beef, lamb and pork can all be aged, though the length of time each species is hung is different, the processes are the same. We’re highlighting beef today.
Aging beef involves hanging the meat after the hide, head and innards have been removed, and the animal has been split in half, but before each half has been cut into retail cuts. Each side hangs by the hind legs off huge hooks from rails in a large walk-in cooler (giant refrigerator). The meat hanging room is temperature controlled between 33-37 degrees F. This small window in temperature protects the meat from spoilage: Too hot, and the process of dry aging stops. Too cold and the water in the meat freezes.
Because the water in the meat needs to slowly evaporate, the humidity of the room is kept at 85%. To prevent bacteria from developing, the room is kept well ventilated. All this is regulated to ensure that the meat doesn’t spoil, and that the aging process is working properly.
Processes continue in the meat that would normally cease in a dead animal. The muscles in the meat continue to use oxygen that is in the proteins of the blood. This normal biological process creates a chemical by-product known as lactic acid. Since blood is no longer being circulated through the body, lactic acid starts to break down muscle and connective tissue around it. These enzymatic reactions tenderize the meat, concentrating the flavor and create richly complex, minerally flavors.
After hanging a minimum of 11 days, the meat will taste noticably better. The longer the meat is hung, the better the flavor – usually between 20 and 30 days. Of course, all this aging causes the meat to shrink, because much of the water has evaporated – often a shrinkage of 10-15% in weight and size!
The color of the meat will change, too, from bright red to a purply color, and will be much firmer than fresh meat.
As you may imagine, this aging costs money. We may have to go to a specialty butcher to buy aged beef, or buy it by the 1/4 or 1/2 animal right from the rancher. But is it worth it? Every nickel! The result is that when grilled or roasted, the beef releases the most heavenly rich flavor that we all love, whether it’s a hamburger or a ribeye!
EAT MORE BEEF!