With many foods, fresh is considered best as we buy produce that's been raced to market and carefully check sell-by dates on dairy products. Yet the true royalty of the meat world is aged beef, a food that, like fine cigars, whiskeys and wines, clings to the virtues of time well spent in slow curing. While it may seem a contradiction to anyone who has watched meat spoil in the refrigerator, hanging up cuts for as long as six weeks before selling them is the path to attaining the utmost in flavor and tenderness. But it also is a preparation that adds so much expense to the process that aged beef is rarely available outside of the best steak restaurants and the most select meat purveyors. Furthermore, the uninitiated may need to develop a taste for its richness.
"The connoisseur knows the difference, there's no question about it," says Stanley Lobel, the president of Lobel's of New York, which is now in its fifth generation of providing fine, aged cuts both through its local storefront and (more recently) by order over the Internet. He summarizes the aging process for which his company holds a patent: cuts as large as sides, but mostly in smaller portions like strips and short loins, are hung in large humidity-free rooms that are refrigerated to near freezing. The aging is performed bone-in and with layers of fat covering the meat, otherwise it will rot and become moldy, he explains. The cuts are dated and regularly rotated until they reach six weeks. During that time the marbling in the meat releases its flavor and the fibers break down as a result of natural enzymes. The expense in time is compounded by the necessity to trim the cuts to get to the red meat hidden inside. Moisture loss and trimming account for a weight drop of as much as 30 percent.
Lobel says that only prime meat is worthy of dry aging, which further adds to the cost. "The quality of the meat is incredibly important. The more graining, the more flavor and tenderness." The breed of cattle is less important. "There's a lot of hype [about breeds] but you have to look for the marbling, the color of fat, the color of the bone." All cuts worthy of aging are aged at Lobel's. One notable exception is ground meat for hamburger and steak tartare. The grinding process opens it up to airborne microorganisms.
The service's website also offers recipes and hints for cooking its precious meats. Lobel points out that aged beef cooks quicker than the standard product, which is a money-saving tip for those who like their $120 a pound Wagyu Porterhouse done rare.