Aged For Perfection
By John D. Adams
Elite steakhouses are returning to the old-world practices of salt-encrusted dry-aged beef — it’ll cost you a few “Benjamins” — but it’s the best steak you’ll ever eat.
Steakhouses across the country are embracing the latest trend in meat preparation – dry aging. But as the saying goes: Everything old is new again.
Dry aging has been a staple for red meat aging and preservation for centuries. But few restaurateurs have followed the traditional route of utilizing a salt-encrusted, dry environment in favor of simple refrigeration. Big mistake. While the advent of refrigeration has allowed us to greatly extend the shelf life of meats, it is not an environment that lends itself to dry-aging meats. That’s why master in-house butcher Walter Apfelbaum of NYY Steak at the Seminole Casino in Coconut Creek insists on following time-honored, old-world practices to deliver arguably the best meats you have ever tasted.
What is dry aging?
Dry-aging meat once was necessary for preserving a kill before the advent of commercial refrigeration. Explains Apfelbaum: “When guys like me started figuring out how to break animals down into specific cuts of meat, they would often do it in salt mines because it was cool and dry. The meat, in that environment, seals itself up by developing a black crust, which looks and feels like black shoe leather.” Apfelbaum then lets nature take over. “The meat’s natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the beef so it becomes very soft while expelling all the moisture from the meat.” It leaves this unbelievably soft, naturally flavorful meat.
Fifty years ago, most of our beef was dry aged. But in the early 1960s, the process of vacuum packing beef became the norm for most processors. The advantage was that they could “wet age” the beef in the bag and not lose any of the weight. Wet aging was much more cost effective, so a weaning of the consumers’ taste buds began to occur. Slowly, consumers forgot the real taste of steak. “Many butchers who age beef are using coolers,” says Apfelbaum. “But that is basically putting the meat into a wet box, so you are going to develop mold, rot and loss… A lot of butchers believe they need to develop a hairy mold on the meat. You want to taste the meat, not the mold. You avoid that mold by keeping the room very dry.”
Francis Lam, Editor-at-Large for Clarkson Potter and a judge on Top Chef Masters describes the taste of traditionally dry-aged meat: “… the flavor makes me feel a little like I might be going crazy. Does that steak actually taste like popcorn? Jamón Serrano? Bread and butter, or a soft cheese? Am I going bananas? (And no, really, I think I taste a bit of banana in there, too.) They’re insanely delicious, all these flavors that I didn’t get from the wet-aged steak.”
Remarks Apfelbaum: “I’m not selling something because I have to sell it. I want you to experience this, to feel the same way I do. It is a thrill to see the smiles on people’s faces like they have never experienced meat before. And in many ways, they haven’t. Educating people about meat and how to experience it really fuels my fire.”