An education on aging beef

April 24, 2009 (CHICAGO) Aging is another important element to making great steak.

Steakhouse menus have become awfully wordy.

How about: Nebraska corn-fed, prime, dry-aged? Or Kansas grass-fed, choice, wet-aged? After the cattle is fed, processed and graded, it has to be aged a bit, to break down enzymes and make it more palatable. The industry has two methods for doing this. We spent some time in a few meat lockers to see for ourselves.

At the century-old Allen Brothers in Bridgeport, there's a lot of investment - or rather, corn-fed beef - just sitting on racks, aging. The beef industry typically has two methods for doing this: wet-aging and dry-aging.

"Dry aging is very old-school and it leaves a very pungent, can be tangy, but wet aging is very sweet and it passes through your taste buds much easier," said Todd Hatoff, President of Allen Brothers.

The difference is pretty simple. In wet-aging, the beef is sealed in plastic, so no air can get at it. This ages the beef from the inside-out, breaking down enzymes, while improving flavor. Restaurants like Morton's get their steaks from Allen Brothers, store them in a cooler for a few more days, then simply open them up, grill 'em, and serve.

There's enzymes that are created there that break down the tissues in the meat to make it more tender," said Morton's chef Chris Rook.

The other method is dry-aging, which involves more time and money. The beef must rest in temperature and humidity-controlled aging rooms for at least four weeks. The beef ages from the outside-in, losing moisture - thus shrinking - and forming a nasty exterior crust. There are just a handful of dry-aging rooms in Chicago, like David Burke's Primehouse in River North, where the aging room is lined with salt blocks to absorb ambient moisture. After anywhere from 28 to 45 days, the staff cuts away that tough, outer layer, revealing a marbled steak that has intensified in flavor.

"It makes it more tender, and depending on the length of the aging, it intensifies the flavor. Wet aging you'll have a little more chewiness in the fat, dry aging will be a lot more like spreadable fat," said Primehouse Executive Chef Rick Gresh.

"I remember when I first came to Chicago in 1970, everybody pretty much did dry age," said Smith & Wollensky Chef Hans Aeschbacher. He says there's plenty of investment tied-up in the aging room at Smith & Wollensky, which carries on its East Coast heritage by dry-aging all of its beef.

"Dry age is almost like a fine wine, and you have to be very careful that you don't overage it either," said Aeschbacher.

Some restaurants, like Harry Caray's Steakhouse, try to anticipate diner's preferences by offering some of each.

"We do wet age and dry age; some people like to try both," said Harry Caray's President, Grant DePorter.

Most wet-aging is brief, just a week or so. Dry-aging lasts almost a month, although the Primehouse also offers 45 and 75-day aged ribeyes. Their dry-aged burger at lunch, by the way, is terrific.

Allen Brothers Steaks

David Burke's Primehouse
616 N Rush Street

Smith & Wollensky
318 N. State Street

65 East Wacker Place

Harry Caray's
33 W. Kinzie

10233 W. Higgins, Rosemont

70 Yorktown Ctr., Lombard

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