Wet Aged vs Dry Aged Beef

Beef: The red meat we're all so familiar with. Across cultures, diets, and culinary styles, beef has been a staple meat practically since the dawn of domesticated livestock. Looking back with all the technology we have at our disposal today, it seems almost unbelievable that people used to store meat for long periods of time.

It can be very tough to imagine how the process of beef processing might've looked before the advent of modern technology and industrialized agriculture. How can the meat be kept without climate-controlled areas? One common way that has a great deal of historical precedent is the practice of dry and wet aging your meat.

So, in this article, I am going to show you everything you need to know regarding Wet aging and Dry aging beef, what are the differences and which method is best for you to use.

Note: If you are in a hurry and can't read the full article, you can jump into our 'How is Better - Wet Aging or Dry Aging' section by clicking here.

What is Aging Meat & How It Works

Dry-Aging-Beef-Room

The process of aging beef has been around for thousands of years. Aging (Wiki) is the process following slaughter in which the meat's flavor and texture are enhanced through one of two aging processes. As the meat ages, connective tissues break down, leading to more tender beef with a fuller flavor.

The two methods of aging beef are wet aging and dry aging. Each has its own specific purpose for which it is best suited, and both are equally valuable in terms of culinary potential. 

What is Dry Aging?

The process of dry-aging beef goes back thousands of years, having served as the primary method of aging beef all the way until relatively recently. It derives from the practice of hanging meat after slaughter, but applies it in a more uniform, directed way.

What Dry Aging Does to Meat?

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In dry aging, the beef is hung in the open air in temperatures just above freezing, which allows enzymes in the meat to begin breaking down connective tissue. The process of dry-aging takes several weeks and must be done in carefully monitored conditions to ensure food safety.

When beef is dry-aged, it loses a great deal of its moisture content, and also must have the outer pieces trimmed off in order to obtain the highest quality meat. As such, consumer costs are much higher for dry-aged beef.

In the process of dry-aging, the beef becomes extremely tender and acquires a much more intense flavor due to the loss of water content over time. This concentration of flavor in combination with the tenderness of the beef is the reason dry-aging continues even to this day.

Science of Dry Aging Beef (Video by George Motz)


What is Wet Aging?

Wet aging is a much newer method of aging beef which is both faster and less expensive than dry aging. It exploded in popularity in the 1960s when plastics and vacuum sealing were becoming more commonplace in meat processing plants.

What Wet Aging Does to Meat?

Wet-Aged-Steak-Vaccum-Sealed

Wet aging (Wiki) begins when the beef is vacuum packed into its container. Once the beef is in its vacuum-sealed environment, moisture loss is prevented. This in turn means no meat is wasted due to trimming, resulting in larger, heavier cuts of meat.

As beef travels from the production site to the stores, the beef is able to age inside the packaging, thus eliminating long periods of aging before sale. Almost all beef typically available, especially in the United States, is wet-aged.

The wet aging process allows the beef to tenderize without driving up cost due to lost weight and trimming. This, in tandem with the faster, more productive aging timeline has caused it to skyrocket in popularity. The flavor most people associate with beef is specifically that of wet-aged beef.

Wet Aging vs Dry Aging - Which is Better?

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While neither aging style is particularly bad, it is commonly accepted that dry-aging beef is a higher-end process that yields a more refined end product. Because of the costs and limitations imposed by the dry-aging process, it tends to be more expensive than standard wet-aged beef and is therefore typically available only in specialty butcher shops, groceries, or steak houses. The unique flavor of dry-aged beef also makes it a favorite amongst professional chefs in high-end boutique restaurants.

All of that being said, there is nothing wrong with wet-aged beef. In fact, one could argue that for most people, it is the preferred variety of beef. Because of the relative rarity of dry-aged beef, especially in comparison to the relatively high amounts of wet-aged beef consumption, it should come as no surprise that wet-aged beef tends to be the norm amongst the average beef consumer.

Nevertheless, trying dry-aged beef is something you should absolutely do if you have the chance. It is a fantastic opportunity to expand your palate and introduce new flavors into your cuisine.

Shifting to the logistical side of beef aging, wet aging is much more cost-effective, faster, and easier to do on a mass scale. Because the beef is aging as it is en route to its distribution outlet, the whole process can move much faster than the dry-aging process. From a productivity standpoint, wet aging could likely be considered better.

Dry Aging Disadvantages & Limitations

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Because of the moisture loss and trimming associated with dry aging, the method is limited to large cuts of meat called primal cuts. These large chunks have enough mass to be dry-aged and remain worthwhile, as smaller cuts would likely have little to no usable meat remaining after dry-aging.

Primal cuts are also ideal for dry aging for another reason: fat marbling. In these large cuts of meat, the fat is evenly distributed throughout the meat (also called marbled). This allows for consistent drying throughout the cut and helps produce more usable meat. One fine example of this is the Wagyu Beef, which is primarly stored as dry aged.

Dry aging is also limited by supply capacity. Due to the space, cooling, and sanitary requirements of dry-aging, it is much more costly to dry-age meat, and that cost is passed on to the customer in the form of higher prices.

Why You Should Choose Between Dry & Wet Aged Beef?

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Dry Aged Beef

Wet-Aged-Beef-Packaging

Wet Aged Beef

There is a great deal of information surrounding wet and dry-aged beef, the processes involved, and all other details of the practice. But why should you care? The end result is beef, so why split hairs about how it was aged?

First, if you enjoy a great steak, you may find a delicious new flavor in dry-aged steaks, typically served at higher-end steakhouses. Adding a whole new variety of beef, which many describe as having a very different taste than plain wet-aged beef, unlocks a whole host of unique, exclusive, and exciting dining options.

Another reason it's helpful to know is so that you can better make sense of the products available on the market. Those who dry-age meats take great pride in it, and as such like to advertise it openly. But if you don't know what dry-aged beef even means, it can be hard to understand why some cuts of meat or menu items are significantly more expensive.

Conclusion

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There's a lot that goes into a perfectly aged cut of beef, regardless of which method is used. The time, effort, and skill that goes into the process of dry-aging and the sheer manufacturing scalability of wet aging make them both valuable and interesting tools of the meat production trade.

If dry-aged beef sounds interesting to you, look around your locality for establishments that serve dry-aged beef dishes. Local butcher shops may even sell raw dry-aged cuts that you can then cook at home. 

No matter where you try it, dry-aged beef represents the time and dedication of skilled beef producers all across the map.

About Kendrick

Kendrick is an outdoor cooking enthusiast, currently living in Kansas. He loves to share his knowledge and passion about cooking with everyone online (Read More)

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