What makes good meat? Lots and lots of factors… how and where the animal was raised, what it ate, how it was treated, how it was slaughtered (which is very important), and – post-slaughter – how it was aged.
Many folks assume that the fresher the meat, the better. Not so. I guarantee you that if you cook and eat a steak from a freshly-slaughtered animal, you won’t be happy. Why? Because as muscle becomes meat, all sorts of internal chemical and physical processes begin. Much of the taste, tenderness and “mouth-feel” of meat depends on proper pre- and post-slaughter practices. In fact, they’re critical in ensuring that meat tastes like meat.
One of the first things processing facilities do after slaughtering an animal is to chill it in a temperature controlled environment. This is done to bring the carcass temperature quickly down – which reduces bleeding - as well as to “firm up” the carcass for cutting. During this first phase of “becoming meat”, each carcass will shrink (through loss of moisture) about 1-2%.
Beef carcasses are generally chilled for about two days; pig carcasses for less than one day. The profitability of a slaughtering facility is determined by its its through-put, so since chill rooms can only hold a set number of carcasses at any one time, the facility needs to move those carcasses out.
This takes us to the next step – aging. And (at least for beef), a choice – between wet aging or dry aging. There’s a big difference. No matter which, aging is VERY important. Meat is not ready to be eaten right after slaughter. It needs time to become tender, which happens as connective tissues within the muscle break down. Aging is that breakdown process. The ideal aging period is 21 to 24 days.
Almost all beef you buy in stores today has been “wet-aged” (usually for about 14 days); cut into portions by the processing plant, then vacuum-packed in sealed plastic bags for shipment to distribution or supermarket warehouses where the meat packages are held for a specified period of time as the meat ages in its own juices. Wet-aging is popular because it takes less time and no further weight is lost in the process.
You may have heard the term “dry aged”. This is a different process, in which the carcass is stored in a temperature and humidity controlled environment for up to 24 (or more) days. Since this requires a near-freezing hanging room and takes so long, it’s really only used for the very highest quality grades of meat and is rarely done outside certain butcher shops and high-end steakhouses. It's extremely unlikely you'll find dry-aged meat in your supermarket.
Each process produces a slightly different flavor. Dry-aged beef is often described as having a nuttier, more “roasted” taste, while wet-aged beef is described as milder.
By the way, pork is generally not aged as beef is, although there’s a trend evolving for dry-aged heritage pork. Heritage pork is pork from older, traditional breeds like the Tamworth or Duroc pig. Modern commercial pork is a very different animal, as I’ll explain in future blogs.
Cole Ward (AKA “The Gourmet Butcher”) is a teaching butcher who lives in Vermont. His 2-DVD butchery course is available online at www.TheGourmetButcher.com and his book “The Gourmet Butcher’s Guide to Meat” will be released by Chelsea Green Publishing in late 2013, and is available for pre-order here.
Photo by Karen Coshof
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