Aging gracefully 

And we like to have our options open. New York strips, rib-eyes, fillets, flanks or T-bones — there’s dozens of cuts and something for everyone.

A decades-old debate about whether dry-aged steaks or wet-aged steaks are better is being fueled by the recent increase in availability of dry-aged steaks, which have been primarily served in a small handful of upscale restaurants and gourmet butcher shops. But increasingly, dry-aged beef is found for sale in select local grocery stores.

Homeland carries Red River Ranch Dry-aged Beef in six of the chain’s stores, and this month’s opening of Whole Foods in Oklahoma City adds another source for dry-aged steaks.

“The acceptance has been good,” said Park Riddle, Homeland’s director of perishable marketing. “Cooking shows have increased the demand for high-quality, perishable products, especially beef. Customers can cook a restaurant-quality steak at home.”

Dry-aging was once the way butchers achieved the maximum tenderness of a steak. The steaks are intensely flavored, often described as buttery and earthy. It’s been called “more art than science.”

right, David Egan at Cattleman's Steakhouse

Then came the 1960s and wet-aging of steaks: The meat is kept in vacuum-sealed plastic bags and refrigerated.

Wet-aging keeps the steaks from losing any of their volume, and could make a difference of 5 to 20 percent of the product weight. By the 1980s, about 90 percent of the beef was wet-aged, producing an economic benefit to the packer-processors and retail and food service sectors.

“Both types of aging have the same effect on tenderness, since the natural enzymes in the muscle continue to break down the connective tissue and enhance meat tenderness in either case,” said Heather Buckmaster, executive director of the Oklahoma Beef Council.

Aging doesn’t make anything great. You have to have the characteristics of the beef already.
—Kurt Fleischfresser

Now dry-aged steaks are again growing in popularity and availability in Central Oklahoma grocery stores and restaurants.

“I think it’s more of an audience who is very food-involved,” Buckmaster said.

Dry-aging is done in carefully controlled refrigeration between 32 and 34 degrees with 80 to 85 percent humidity. During the process, a crust of beneficial fungal species forms on the outside of the carcass or cut, making some people believe the beef is spoiled.

“(Customers) look at the color,” Buckmaster said. “They think it’s bad meat, and it’s not.”

Butchers trim off the crust of the dry-aged steaks when they are ready to be served.

The Coach House executive chef Kurt Fleischfresser said his restaurant serves dry-aged beef from No Name Ranch. The beef carcasses are originally hung and dry-aged for 14 days, then aged over rock salt for another nine to 12 days, depending on the cut.

“Dry-aging was originally for grass-fed beef to help it gain character,” Fleischfresser said. “A lot of beef that’s fed on corn is already tender. The potential is not as great as grass-fed.”

There are other benefits of grass-fed beef, which is typically dry-aged.

Studies published in the Journal of Animal Science have found grass-fed beef also tends to be lower in fat and higher in beta carotene, vitamin E, B vitamins, some minerals, omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients.

Fleischfresser said the one thing to remember is you have to start with a high quality of beef.

“(Aging) doesn’t make anything great,” he said. “You have to have the characteristics of the beef already.”

Most of the dry-aged beef served at The Coach House is on its specials, because the small, fine-dining restaurant does not do high-volume.

“It’s kind of a timing deal,” he said. There are many aficionados of wetaged steaks, also.

“(Dry-aged steaks) are heavy and rich. The enzymatic breakdown of meat is more dramatic in dry-aged steaks,” said David Egan, director of operations and head meat buyer for Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, one of Oklahoma City’s most popular restaurants, serving 9,000 customers a week. Cattlemen’s serves only wet-aged steaks from vacuum-sealed bags. “(Dry-aging) has a niche, but the general public does not prefer it.”

Egan said he’s toyed with including dry-aged steaks on Cattlemen’s menu but doesn’t want to imply they are better than the wet-aged steaks.

“It’s just different,” he said. Cost is also a consideration with dryaged beef. It’s more expensive to produce and requires a large inventory. That translates into a higher cost per pound, generally running about 60 percent higher than the regular wet-aged cuts of steak.

Photo by Mark Hancock

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