In this series, the First We Feast crew investigates the truth behind highbrow products saturating the food world. We consult experts to figure out how to navigate all the snobbery and decide whether they’re really worth all the hype.
A $70 côte de boeuf is commitment to begin with, but when you’re asked if you want to splurge for that $130 dry-aged upgrade, things get very real.
Most reputable steakhouses and butchers fill their menus and display cases with dry-aged beef these days, and the prices are nothing to scoff at—the famed Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern (made with prime dry-aged beef) goes for a whopping $26 dollars, while butchered cuts of dry-aged tenderloin are priced at more than $30 at butcher shops like the Meat Hook.
But what’s so special about dry-aged meat? We called up a meat expert to investigate what actually makes dry aged beef so pricey, and to figure out whether it really is worth the nearly 200% price hike on a normal cut.
DeBragga, New York’s Butcher® COO George Faison, a man who sold 1.2 million pounds of beef last year and says his favorite meat is squab.
Dry aging creates marbling from inter-muscular fat. The process of dry aging takes place in an open-air, refrigerated space with good humidity and ventilation. Meat looses moisture and undergoes a restructuring of fat and proteins, in turn producing more complex flavors. Faison says that meat often takes on a nuttier, more mushroomy character: “The ultimate reference is umami, the sixth taste. [It] takes on a flavor unlike any other beef that is not properly dry-aged.” The process takes at least thirty days to occur, with variations in length of time depending on the fat content of a cut and the marbling you wish to achieve.
Dry aging cuts not only takes time, but it also leads to a loss of volume. Meats will loose upwards of 12% of their weight during the aging process, and they need to be trimmed down to remove the inedible, dried exteriors. At least 35–50% of the original weight is lost, effectively doubling the cost of meat per pound. This means that a $10 per pound wet-aged piece of meat—a cut that has undergone only the standard aging process, which is essentially designed to tenderize the meat after rigamortis—will cost somewhere between $17–$20 for the equivalent dry-aged cut.
Middle meats are the best for dry aging. Middle meats include the ribs and the short loin, which encompass all the familiar cuts we know and love (NY strip, T-bone, tenderloin, filet, and prime rib, to name just a few). Faison contends that the best dry aging occurs on bone-in meats, and that leaner selections as well as cuts from shoulders and legs are rarely used.
Tip: ask questions about your meat. According to Faison, asking questions about the aging process, specifically about the length of time a cut has been dry aged, is crucial. Menus and butchers may offer “aged” meat—a misleading description that doesn’t necessarily ensure quality. Ask about both the wet- and dry-aging periods, inquiring how long meat spent in each phase. Large cuts need at least 21 days wet and no less than 30 days dry to warrant the cost. Faison says, “The point is, find out [the facts]. If they are knowledgeable and know their stuff, they are going to give you a good answer.”
Dry-aged beef costs serious loot, but guys like Faison think you will absolutely taste the difference. The key is to do your research so you don’t get played, and go to butchers and restaurants that you know serve the real deal (DeBragga has an app that tells you all the places in NYC that carry its products). If you enjoy the extra funkiness of a dry-aged steak, the additional dollars will be well spent—after all, you are paying for an actual process, not just a designer cut of meat
When you do cop your dry-aged steaks from a butcher, don’t cook the hell out them. If you let your meat get hotter than 125°F, Faison says, “You might as well not even buy it to begin with.” Prepare these steaks simply, then pair them with a glass of red wine or a good beer. Forget the steak sauce, too. You want the flavor of the meat to be the main event.