Aged beef is more tender and flavorful than beef that has not undergone the aging process. Without the aging process, beef would not taste right to most people. Some have even described beef that has not been aged as tasting like metal. Generally, beef is aged commercially with tightly controlled and monitored temperatures and humidity levels. The aging process is defined and regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Although beef can be aged at home, it is not recommended.
Aged beef takes about 11 days to develop the beef flavor most people are accustomed to; however, in some cases the aging process can take anywhere from 10 to 45 days. The longer the beef ages, the greater the beef flavor is for those consuming it. In addition, as mentioned above, aged beef has increased tenderness because the muscle and collagen in the meat begins to change due to the work of certain enzymes. Maximum tenderness can be reached at around 11 days after the cow is slaughtered.
Interestingly, aged beef has a shorter shelf life. Ground beef that is comprised of aged beef will not last long in a home refrigerator because of an increase in bacteria due to the aging process. Consequently, aged beef should either be eaten shortly after purchase or frozen.
Beef can either be dry aged or wet aged. Dry aged beef is usually hung in a cooler for several weeks to dry. It is used in fine restaurants and gourmet butcher shops and is preferred by some people because moisture levels are reduced to give the piece of meat a “beefier” taste and increased tenderness. Some people prefer the rich taste of dry aging; however, others consider the beef to be musty in flavor.
In the alternative, wet aged beef is aged in a vacuum packed and sealed bag. It is a quicker method of aging and it keeps the moisture levels of the meat high. Since the weight of the beef is retained, it is more cost effective than dry aging. Wet aging has only been available to consumers since the 1960s. Consequently, it is yet to be considered the traditional aging process; in fact, many people consider the flavor of wet aged beef to be bland at best.
The USDA has strict regulations on the aging process. They also require information on the aging process of each cut of meat to be known to consumers. Consequently, consumers can easily see how long their beef was aged and by what process – wet or dry.