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Dry Aged Beef

A cut of dry aged steak on a white plate with a drizzle of red-brown sauce and a salad.
Dry aged Tajima Beef. Photo by Nishimuraya Kinosaki Onsen via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A couple weeks ago a few of us guys got together for a Saturday afternoon cookout. Our gracious host had gone through the trouble and expense of laying in three dry aged sirloin steaks. He grilled and seasoned them perfectly, and we had ourselves a feast. And would you be surprised to learn that I am going to switch over to dry aged steak full time?

Since we don't eat steak all that often, it makes sense to splurge and get the best cuts all the time. Dry aged steak is expensive, but the difference in flavor and aroma makes it something of an irresistible choice.

The steaks we see at the supermarket are not aged at all. They are fresh and ready to go and are perfectly fine for ordinary eating. But if you combine the quality of USDA prime steak with the concentration of flavor that comes from aging, you get a different product altogether.

To get an insider's look at the dry aging process, I went out to John Brown General and Butchery in Hunt Valley and spoke with owner Robert Voss, a former chef. Voss uses only 100% grass fed beef, raised on local farms where their commitment to quality is as high as his.

Dry aging and wet aging are the two primary techniques and each has its advocates. The dry aging process is ancient, probably as old as man's first mastodon hunt. Major portions of the slaughtered animal are hung up to dry, preferably in a cool, clean environment with lots of air circulation. After a lengthy period, often up to 5 or 6 weeks, the meat is then carefully butchered, trimmed up and cut into choice steaks and roasts.

Wet aging is quite new. Individual butchered cuts of meat are vacuum packed and refrigerated for a much shorter period of time, usually less than two weeks. The meat stays moist and red in color, and benefits from the aging process.

The secret to aging is what goes on at the cellular level of the meat. Enzymes go to work on the meat fibers and weaken the cellular walls. This allows juices to flow more freely. When they evaporate, what is left is highly concentrated. Furthermore, in the dry aging process, molds and beneficial bacteria in the air settle on the drying meat and ultimately add to the complexity of the flavor and aroma.

When you visit a place like John Brown Butchery, you may be astonished by the appearance of the dry-aged meat. Huge chunks of beef are laying on trays, in a cool well ventilated locker. The beef chunks are gnarly old things, replete with layers of fat and bones framing the dark dried out meat. It's truly impossible to distinguish what is going to become a t-bone and what is going to become a ribeye. This is where the butcher's art comes in. They are able to run the meat through a bone cutting band saw, and trim up excess fat and gristle until a beautiful, familiar cut of, let's say, New York strip emerges.

The color of dry aged beef is darker than the fresh red you find at the grocery store. And it smells a lot different too. Many people swear that the odor of Roquefort cheese is present, and that's understandable. The beneficial bacteria responsible for the blue streaks of Roquefort cheese are present in the beef as well.

When cooking your dry aged steak, the most important thing is to put it on your kitchen counter for four hours. It needs to come to room temperature inside and out. If you try to grill a cold steak, the interior will never get to the proper temperature and your steak will be worthless.

Most grill guides suggest cooking the steak on a hot part of your grill for about 2 minutes per half-inch of thickness, enough to generate a good crispy char. After that finish the meat on a cooler part of the grill, letting it sit for a couple more minutes per side.

Finally, we all know to let the steak rest for about 5 minutes before serving or slicing it up. This allows the juices to return to the center of the meat. And with dry aged beef, the middle is unbelievably juicy, tender and flavorful.

Let's give John Brown's Butchery some credit for using locally raised beef. Their favorite farms include Locust Point Cattle Company, Whistle Pig Hollow, Green Hill Farm and Faithful Friends farm.

John Brown General and Butchery is located at 13501 Falls Road in Cockeysville. You can visit their website at jbgbutchery.com. And they have a new second location at the old Parts and Labor Building in Remington.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.