When the two ways differ for real
In an adventurous (and perhaps a little provocative) definition that I found once on the net, the maturation process was defined as a “carefully controlled decomposition”. However unpleasant this description may be, it has the merit of summarizing in a nutshell how it is essentially about evolving the meat by controlling and managing the environmental values of the place in which it is located, so that its maturation does not lead to rotting. I will not dwell at this stage on how the maturation was a normal practice in our grandparents times and why it is limited now to the role of niche phenomenology to be recovered, as we had already mentioned this speech during the post on the test of a magnificent standing rib aged 100 days.
In this phase I am more interested in delving into the two main techniques through which a maturation can be carried out, namely Dry Aging and Wet Aging. The first is the traditional one: exposure of meat to air, usually hung in macro sections shape on the hooks of a cell with suitable temperature, circulation and humidity values. The second is more typical of modern times, where the cuts are aged under vacuum with a considerable lower weight loss (and therefore greater profit for the operator) and an easier management. Purists of the genre usually credit the dry age with greater value but since there is the possibility of choice, it has always been a debated topic, what is the actual extent of this difference. I then tried to have fun answering this question and I identified a valid supporting base on the excellent research of Dr. Jeff W. Savell, of Texas University, realized for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, crossed then with further specific evaluations to support. In turn, Savell based his analysis on the results of numerous other studies, carried out between 1988 and 2007 by other researchers. Among these the mechanism was rather similar: they started from the same raw material subjecting it to different maturation periods and techniques, in particular dry aging and wet aging, then comparing the results obtained through objective and sensory measurements through a panel of professional tasters. Some of these researchers even introduced a differentiation in their analyzes based on the cut, determining which are more sensitive to the action of aging. Others have even gone so far as to compare meats with different USDA grades and the corresponding perception of value according to the adopted method of maturation.
Let’s start by specifying that the maturation of the meat is carried out to obtain three basic types of benefits:
- Tenderness – therefore a lower resistance to the bite and the cut due to the action of the enzymes involved in the process which act by partially demolishing the fibers
- Juiciness – not to be read as quantity of water not lost through the maturation process (which could be summarized by a simple measurement of weight) but as the ability of the steak to retain the juices once cooked. Someone would call it “less presence of free water”.
- Nose and Platal sensations – that is, taste and aroma. There are very strong currents aimed at supporting an action of concentration of taste by maturation following weight loss. In truth there are blind tests that show how, in the cooking phase, steaks with different percentages of residual moisture in the face of different maturation, tend to rebalance. In other words, steaks of similar mass but different starting weight as a result of different weight loss, tend then to have a very similar weight once cooked on the same device under the same conditions. It would therefore not be appropriate to speak of “concentration” as simply as a more likely “modification” of the flavor. But this is another matter, we will discuss about again in the future.
Through the crossover of the above mentioned data, in relation to these aspects specific evaluations emerge that are worth analyzing together:
The tests do not tackle “extreme” or even “gourmet” stockings, but they have the sole purpose of determining the minimum term to optimize the results according to the storage cost. The period examined therefore did not go beyond the thirty-fifth day. Among the parameters mentioned above, the one chosen to measure the effectiveness and on which to make a comparison was tenderness. From the analysis it emerges that there is no step that defines a real minimum threshold but all the researchers agree that the second 15 days of maturation are the most effective. In other words, although it is not possible to identify a specific post mortem day, it is advisable to wait at least 14 days to be able to feel tangible results and, if possible, look for the best result during a 30 days posting. They also agree that there is no tangible difference between dry aging and wet aging in terms of increased tenderness, while both are evident from the same test followed on a 7-day steak.
The tests with the panel showed a greater juiciness starting from the twenty-first day. The researchers motivated the phenomenon by citing other external research that linked an increase in juiciness to a progressive loss of water retention capacity with the progress of maturation, thus releasing more free water during the bite. It is interesting to note how this phenomenon was detected only on dry aged meat and not on wet aged. Then making the point: to optimize juiciness and tenderness it would seem that the best maturation period is between 21 and 30 days, but only on dry aged meat both results are obtained.
By yield we do not mean simply the residual mass consequently the weight loss but materially the mass actually sold, therefore net of all the waste resulting from the maturation process. This is an appearance that may seem insignificant to us that we are the final customers of the supply chain, but the fact that the research has been detailed on different cuts and in particular Ribeye and Sirloins cut from different loin positions. I think it is not needed to specify that the superiority of the wet aging performance is overwhelming, being the main advantage on which it bases its commercial success. Less obvious and more interesting is to note the different extent to which the individual dry aging cuts are less effective in terms of a very standardized yield by wet aging, especially if the comparison is dynamic, observing it during the maturation days. .
It emerges that the difference in percentage yield between a sirloin and a ribeye in wet aging is practically non-existent, as well as its fluctuation during the 35 days of maturation analyzed. On the contrary, and as expected, in dry aging there is a substantial collapse of the values, in particular starting from the twenty-eighth day for the Ribeye. It is interesting to note how, instead, for the section of sirloin we call Roastbeef, the collapse is from the twenty-first day but to a much smaller extent and as after that threshold it remains unaltered for a long time. At a theoretical level then the strip loin would be the type of steak that should reflect less an increase in price as a result of dry aging and on which then maximize the result according to the money spent
Another extremely interesting factor is the aforementioned comparison of the USDA grade according to the type of maturation adopted. From a panel fed blind tasting would emerge quite clearly as the competitive advantage of dry aging at the sensory level, which we will discuss in the next point, goes down as the quality of the raw material increases. That is: the perception of the various quality levels in wet aging is clear, while as it is intuitive, dry aging tends to enrich the level of quality perceived by the panel as the days of maturation increase, confusing the boundaries between select and choice and between choice and first. Starting from a high level, the Prime is the USDA level on which the Dry Aging finds it more difficult to emerge on the comparison and in some cases the wet aging was even preferred, always in blind tasting. We could probably define wet aging as more “sincere” than dry aging.
It is known as a counterpoint to the yield, the sensorial aspect is the main element supporting the dry aging fans. Interaction with air and related oxidations during maturation involve the development of esters, aromatic compounds and other complex volatile components which naturally grow with each passing day. This is of course the point that interests us most to fully evaluate the differential delta between the two systems.
The analysis of such a complex and determining factor required in this case the adoption of a panel of tasters with a highly specific training for this type of food and with a wealth of sustained experience. The evaluation took place in relation to five predefined elements:
- The flavors and primary aromas of the meat, distinct in turn in the “beefy” character of the meat and in the more “serumy” one, therefore referable to the most “bloody” notes
- The intensity of the toasted, burnished, roasted and caramelized characters, so exquisitely traceable to the Maillard following cooking
- The metallic and mineral sensations perceived
- The freshness intended as the presence of notes and agri
In this case the comparison was also extended to absolutely uncontrolled meat to evaluate the real contribution of the two methods to the final result.
The trend drawn by the 5 factors over time in relation to the method of maturation has different lines. Some results fully reflect expectations, others are small or big surprises. The most awaited is of course the one related to the aromatic characteristics linked to the Maillard. Let’s start from the evolution of results over time: The panel was very homogeneous in detecting an almost total absence of perceptive differences below 14 days and even a slight decline in the values of wet aging when the ninth day was exceeded. So it happens that for absurd on the test of maturation at 30 days the meat in wet aging is even less intense on this factor of a meat with only 7 days of maturation while naturally the dry age wins easily. Same results, even if less evident, you have related to the “beefy” characters in taste and aroma. Then there are some characteristics usually attributed as distinctive of wet aging, also confirmed but only partially. I refer to the more accentuated metallic and sour notes that are higher but certainly less significant than one would expect. It is interesting to note instead how the dry age goes exactly to the opposite direction, mitigating these aspects compared to fresh meat. The serumy, bloody sensations are more impacting, even in this case mitigated instead by dry aging.
Dry Aging and Wet Aging each in its own way are able to make the magic of turning a steak into a work of art, adding only time as an ingredient. Whichever your favorite type of maturation is, demand only meat with a suitable degree of aging at your table.