I recently received an email from the gent who co-created The SteakAger. He offered to send me a unit to review here on the site. I had no idea what the product was until I clicked over to their website to check it out. It’s an in-fridge box for dry-aging steaks at home!!! Check out their video:
Okay so just what is aged beef and dry-aging? I have a nice article about all that HERE, but the quick and dirty summary is that aging is a way to concentrate and intensify beef flavor and create a more tender steak.
I have had some limited experience dry-aging steaks with dry aging bags in the past, and the results were, surprisingly, very good! Since then, I have been secretly trying to figure out a way to fit a dedicated dry-aging fridge in our small NYC apartment. Needless to say, I was not excited about using more cubic footage for food stuff. In addition to our fridge, we have a drop-freezer, a baking work bench, and extra shelving for all of our cooking dedications. So The SteakAger was perfect for us; it goes right into the fridge! Most days the fridge is pretty empty anyway. We eat out a lot, as you can imagine, since NYC is pretty abundant with awesome restaurants. I do, however, like to cook steaks at home on occasion, to save a little dough here and there.
Anyway, my package arrived and I rushed home to get it before the package room in our building closed for the night. Here are some unboxing photos:
AC power and extension cable, along with other materials:
Keys are in there so you can get an idea of the sizing:
Charcoal pad slips into air passage:
Salt goes into the burlap bag and then gets placed at the bottom of the SteakAger, inside the box:
Sizing in my fridge:
It also fits if I turn it sideways, and it even has a viewing window on the side as well. Awesome! This orientation leaves me with a bit more space in the fridge.
So the way this works, is you connect an extension wire to the back of The SteakAger, which you can see above on the upper left portion of the unit. You then snake that through the door hinge of the fridge and plug it into a socket behind the fridge. I was apprehensive at first, wondering whether the wire coming out of the fridge would mess with my fridge’s efficiency, but it does not. The seal is still tight, and everything in the fridge is still nice and cold.
So after monitoring my local grocery stores and butchers, I found a good sale on beef. I picked up about 7lbs of top sirloin and popped it into The Steak Ager.
I adjusted my fridge setting down a bit to keep the temperature slightly colder than usual, at about 37 degrees. Then came the hard part: waiting… I started this baby on April 11th, 2016. Here’s a peek at it after 34 days in the box:
As you can see, a nice dark bark formed around the outside. I carved that off and portioned the meat into two top sirloin cap filets (aka Culotte), and two top sirloin steaks.
Here’s a time-lapse video of me doing that:
Right away, I cooked up a culotte. I seasoned it with salt, pepper and garlic powder, and seared it in a cast iron skillet with some butter.
I’m really happy with this product. It costs less than $250 with shipping. That’s a great deal for the ability to access dry-aged beef any time you want from your own fridge. I highly recommend this product to all beef aficionados.
Lots of people ask me about aged beef, and whether an aged steak is worth the upcharge at a restaurant or butcher shop. The simple answer is yes. But if you’re like me, you also want to know why it’s worth the money, and how beef aging happens. I’ve got you covered here. This page should serve as your guide to convincing yourself to seek out and eat aged beef more often.
Let’s first start with the fact that there are two major, most common types of aging techniques employed by most meat people: Dry Aging and Wet Aging.
After the animal is slaughtered and cleaned, large format cuts with high, evenly distributed fat content are placed in temperature- and humidity-controlled coolers. The reason I say “large format cuts” is to separate out in your minds the idea that you can just toss a grocery store cut of steak into an aging box and let it go. That would be wasteful, as your steak will shrink during the aging process. So instead, meat purveyors will use something big, like a full standing rib roast, or even an entire side of beef when they dry-age meat.
Dry-aging processes tend to cause the meat to desiccate to the point where you can lose almost a third of the original weight. So if you’re starting with many pounds of meat, typically untrimmed of any fat and still having the bones in, then it doesn’t hurt so much when your beef loses some weight and eventually gets trimmed. The reason I say “high fat content” is because fat equals flavor, and dry-aging increases and concentrates flavor. During the process, that fat content also becomes very tender, and acts like butter when it gets rendered out during cooking.
The coolers or “aging boxes” can vary greatly. They can be large aging rooms or just a mini-fridge sized unit that has been modified to stay at near-freezing temperatures with good air circulation and lowered humidity.
The beef must be stored at near-freezing temperatures, and with a somewhat lowered humidity. Right off the bat, these steps eliminate the prospect of having to combat certain harmful bacteria that can only survive above a certain temperature with certain levels of humidity. Air circulation, air ventilation and even UV lighting are also key in these cold-boxes, as they further help to prevent certain types of harmful bacteria from forming while promoting other, more helpful bacteria and fungi.
“Bacteria? Fungus? Eww!”
Nope. Don’t be an asshole. Here’s how it works: Dry-aging promotes growth of certain fungal mold species on the external surface of the meat. This doesn’t cause spoilage, but actually forms an external “crust” on the meat’s surface, which is trimmed off later, when the meat is prepared for cooking. These fungal species complement the natural enzymes in the beef by helping to tenderize the meat, and enhancing and increasing the flavor of the meat. The natural enzymes in the beef break down the proteins, making everything more soft and tender.
Once the aging is completed, the dark, thick and hardened bark on the outside is trimmed away from the underlying softened meat. This bark will form on any outer portions of the meat that are in contact with the air.
Bark is good. Dry-agers WANT that bark all around the meat. For that reason, meat within the cooling box will almost always be placed on a metal rack – which allows for air flow underneath – rather than a solid, flat surface. This also prevents bad bacteria from forming underneath the meat where it rests on the surface.
“So why even do all of this? I’m still kinda grossed out about the bacteria and fungus.”
Then you should eat a dick instead of a steak. But seriously: The beef’s natural enzymes will break down the fat and connective tissue within the muscle, which increases the meat’s tenderness. And since moisture is evaporated from the muscle as well, you get a greater concentration of beef flavor and taste in the end-product.
“But why would I want a dry steak? Isn’t a great steak supposed to be very juicy?”
Finally a good question. The steak doesn’t get THAT dry, and the majority of the real dryness is on that outside bark that you trim away. The meat still retains about 2/3 of its moisture, and that translates directly to “juiciness” while minimizing bleed-out after cooking. Once you start to cook the steak, tons of juices will begin to flow – trust me. So why do all of this? To sum up: the dry-aging process changes and improves beef in two ways: (1) it increases tenderness, and (2) it concentrates and enhances flavor.
Length of Dry-Aging
Dry-aging is commonly done for 15–28 days, but it is sometimes purposely done for longer periods of time. More time results in more shrinking, but also more flavor. Sometimes aged beef can take on a nutty flavor quality, intense earthiness, or the funk smell of blue cheese. A good number that I frequently see in restaurants is 35-days. At that point you are getting some of those interesting flavors without it being too overwhelming to the average consumer. Then again I have had 62-day steak that had a much more funky flavor quality than other 85-day, 105-day and 120-day steaks that I’ve tried. So I guess it depends on cooking technique too.
One seldom sees dry-aged beef outside of steakhouses, restaurants and upscale butcher shops. It is rare to see it in grocery stores due to the significant loss of weight in the aging process. Grocery stores sell meat by the pound and most average folks won’t understand the appeal of a funky, crusty and rotten looking piece of reddish-brown meat at such a marked-up price point. Most people just want to grab their pre-packaged steaks for the grill, and that’s fine. Only a few of us would be looking for top notch stuff like this. Whole Foods does offer aged beef, and they even age it on-site at their butcher counters. But dry-aged steaks are almost as expensive raw at a supermarket as they are fully cooked by experts in a steakhouse. So for this kind of stuff it makes sense to just go to the restaurant, or man-up and do it at home yourself.
An Important Tip
Home cooks beware: Dry-aged beef cooks very fast because it is more dry than a regular steak. I like to re-hydrate mine with olive oil. I let it soak for a while in an olive oil and garlic bath at room temperature before I cook it. Another option is to sous vide it in a butter-filled vacuum pack to about 120 degrees first, and then finish it off with a hard sear in an iron skillet for a nice crust on the outside.
Wet-aged beef is beef that has typically been aged in a vacuum-sealed bag to retain its moisture. This is the dominant mode of aging beef in the United States today, and you’ve most likely eaten wet-aged beef without even being aware. Wet-aging is popular because it takes less time (typically only a few days to a couple of weeks) and none of the weight is lost in the process (because there is no desiccation). For that reason, one can age individual cuts of steak rather than large format chunks of beef.
With the advent of plastics and vacuum sealing technology, meats can be broken down at the slaughterhouse, packed up, vacuum sealed and shipped out to grocery stores, butcher shops or restaurants. Since the meats are vacuum sealed rather than hung up in a cold dry locker during transport, the wet-aging will happen during the length of time it takes for a truck to deliver the product.
In the wet-aging process, natural enzymes do all the work to break down and tenderize the beef; there is no mold, bacteria or fungal growth aiding in the process or altering flavors.
I’ve only eaten wet-aged beef a few times at steakhouses in all of my steaking days. I don’t notice that much of an improvement, and I generally tend to enjoy dry-aged steaks more because of the concentrated and funky flavors. However, like the choice between a porterhouse and a rib eye, this is largely a matter of personal preference. Some people don’t like the texture or flavors associated with dry-aged beef, so they will stick to the wet-aged stuff.
Alternative Aging Techniques
So that covers the two major methods for aging beef. But there are other ways to achieve the same if not similar flavor characteristics.
Umai Dry and other companies offer special, large semi-vacuum seal-able bags that mimic the dry-aging process pretty closely. I’ve tried these out and really enjoyed the outcome. Simply put, you seal up the meat according to their instructions, and place on a metal rack in your fridge. Then you wait, and once the aging is complete, you carve off all the bark and portion everything out into individual steaks for cooking.
Koji Rice Method
I recently came across an article that lit up my brain synapses like wildfire. As you may know, the Japanese are masters at fermentation. They’ve been fermenting soy, miso and other delicious items for centuries with great success. In fact they’ve been credited for the 5th flavor sensation, “umami,” which I call earthiness or funk. Think aged hard cheese, dashi broth, soy sauce, mushrooms, truffles or fish sauce. These items have distinct and almost dank smells and flavors, but in a good way that invigorate your taste buds. Lots of the flavors in these items, specifically the soy and miso products, are created due to the presence of a live bacterial culture that breaks down proteins, similar to what happens during the beef aging process. The Japanese have harnessed this bacteria and introduced it into sacks of Koji rice grains for their fermentation purposes. This rice is available all over the place.
So basically a guy grabbed a cut of steak and dusted it with some powderized Koji rice, and in two or three days he had a steak with the flavor characteristics of dry-aged beef. Now, he did this on a pre-cut and pre-portioned steak, so he was limited with the time he could age it. If he went any longer, the steak would have started to desiccate too much and he wouldn’t have been left with much meat after having to carve off the outer bark. Rice will absorb moisture, after all, and leech out moisture. In fact, the end result might be more like a cured meat that was packed with salt (like prosciutto) rather than a dry-aged steak.
In any case, I will probably give this a whirl at some point soon, so keep your eyes peeled for updates.
Additional Useful Information
Because I am thorough and anticipating your thoughts and questions, here is some more shit:
Aging Other Types of Meats
Why, yes, you can age other kinds of meats like chicken, pork or lamb. However, since these are smaller animals, you tend to lose a lot of their weight during the dry-aging process. For that reason, anyone doing this with non-beef will likely age the meat for shorter amounts of time than beef counterparts. Furthermore, I would imagine you’d have to be even more careful and mindful of harmful bacteria, as chicken and pork could have a higher occurrence of bad bacteria in their flesh than beef (salmonella, trichinosis, etc) if certain conditions are not sanitary from the outset. As with beef, wet-aging is possible with vacuum sealing.
Difference Between Aging and Curing
Curing is the process of preserving meats with the addition of salt, sugars, nitrites or nitrates. These things are not added to beef in the aging process. The addition of these materials eventually creates a completely inhospitable environment for bacteria, and therefore the meat will not easily spoil, even at room temperatures. This is not the case with aging. Moisture is still retained, even with dry-aging. So if removed from an aging cooler a dry-aged steak will eventually spoil. Examples of cured products include various charcuterie meats that we all know and love, like salami, pepperoni and prosciutto.
UMAi Dry contacted me a few weeks back about their dry aging bags. I was intrigued by some of their promotional materials and video demos, so I told them to send me some samples to try out at home. I already had the sealer for use with my DIY sous vide machine, with which I made some kickass steaks.
Usually when I think about the aging process for steaks, I get overwhelmed and think I could never do it. This is something I should leave to the professionals. I worry about mold, bacteria, rancid meat, wasting money on failed attempts, etc. But with UMAi Dry this otherwise daunting task is boiled down to a super simple procedure. Essentially you just pop a hunk of beef in their special vacuum seal bags, put it in your fridge, and wait 35 days.
So I received my sample bags and ran out to the store to buy a nice rib roast, which I would later parse out into rib eye steaks after the aging is completed. NYC grocery stores don’t really have massive slabs of rib roasts sitting in the fridge section, so I had to ask the butcher what he had. He went to work for me, giving me a section of rib eyes with about four or five bones intact.
I was a bit freaked when I saw the price tag on this fucker. The butcher told me that the beef was prime, but that he only charged me for choice.
I guess that’s a good deal (several dollars per pound cheaper). But still… at $225 it could turn out to be a really fucking expensive mistake if I fuck anything up.
On the other hand, if this nearly 11lb hunk of prime rib eye ages nicely for 35 days, I could end up with several high quality rib eyes that would save me money on steakhouse dinners in the long run.
I took the gamble. I probably should have waited for a sale or something, but I was too excited to get started. About 30 minutes later I was starting the process of bagging and sealing.
I put some wax paper across the bones so that any sharp bits wouldn’t puncture or slice open the bag.
Once sealed properly, it just goes into the fridge on a cookie rack or drying rack, so that air flow goes all around the bag.
Then we just wait 35 days, with an occasional flip here and there. Here’s a pair of shots after 5 days with a flip. As you can see, the meat is already starting to darken and dry where the bag is in contact with the flesh.
Even darker after another week. It’s forming a “bark”-like layer of beneficial mold that helps to tenderize the meat as it develops.
And another week or so. I notice it’s also shrinking. Dry-aging processes tend to cause the meat to desiccate to the point where you can lose almost a third of the original weight.
After 35 days, here is the unwrapping!
The outside bark, which has the texture of really hard beef jerky, needs to be sliced off of the underlying softened meat, and the tough skin membrane over the ribs needs to be peeled and picked off.
It’s an arduous task, but the end product is totally worth the effort. Here are some shots that my wife snapped of the slicing, trimming and portioning process.
The inside is so gorgeous. This shot looks like angel wings:
A great looking fat cap was still intact. I was worried that I would have to carve off too much of that, but we did pretty good.
I’ve saved all the bark slices to use in making another beef stock or broth at a later date.
I ended up with two thinner boneless cuts, so I seasoned them up right away and seared them off in a cast iron skillet with some butter, garlic and onions (I cut one to fit them in the pan better).
The result was awesome. Perfectly cooked, super flavorful and really well worth the wait! The fat was entirely edible. Very soft and buttery, like beef jelly.
Those were just a couple of small boneless cuts. This cowboy chop was pretty incredible:
Now I’m wondering if I should try this again and just leave the shit in the fridge for several months. The flavor was great on this stuff. It had a nice earthy smell; a well-endowed scent of mushroom or truffle, with a slight hint of blue cheese. Like heaven.
If you’re adventurous with home meal prep, I highly recommend this easy-to-use product. I think I still have a few extra bags, so the next time I have a little extra fat in my bank, I might go in for another dry-aging experiment: maybe strip loin next time.
Final note: if your fridge is generally full, but you still want to age beef at home, I suggest getting a mini fridge, or a smaller dedicated separate fridge, just for beef. Put your temperature setting to about 35 degrees, and get a fan in there somehow to circulate the air. Always keep the beef elevated off the surface on a baking rack or something, too. No special aging bags necessary.