Meat Aging | Wild + full
There is a phenomenon that occurs frequently in the world of gastronomy where food that was once considered mediocre, raw or simple is turned into precious fare for the rich and wealthy. What was once referred to as “peasant” food often finds itself, after several centuries, on the tasting menus of the world’s best restaurants. Aged meat is one of those ancient wild foods that has seen a sharp rise in demand and price in the last century.
Aging is the controlled decomposition of meat that was first used as a form of preservation. Without refrigeration, hunters and farmers would store cuts of animal meat in cold, dark basements or caves where mold, microbes, and enzymes would do the work of preserving the meat. The advantage of the preservation process was the tendency of meat to become more tender and flavorful with age. Like cheese, this early meat was inoculated with strains of Penicillium molds and other microbes that create the funky umami flavor so popular today. It speaks to the deep memory of human genetics that what we crave most are flavors of subtle decadence, something our ancestors knew all too well.
The aging process begins the moment the animal dies. Enzymes in muscle tissue begin to digest long chains of glucose molecules called glycogen. Enzymatic digestion produces lactic acid within the muscles, which maintains a low pH level inhospitable to harmful bacteria and microbes. However, when an animal experiences stress just before death, its body uses up the excess glycogen stored in the muscles. It leaves nothing for enzymes to digest, creating an environment within the tissues that can allow bacteria to grow. Livestock slaughterhouses will bleed animals immediately after they are shocked to remove as much blood as possible from the carcass to ensure proper aging. Lifespan for game animals may be made more difficult due to the inevitable stress that can occur after the animal has been shot and the fact that it is not possible to bleed the animal.
Honest death begins between one and four hours after death, depending on the size of the animal. Rigidity occurs when calcium enters muscle cells as they begin to fail, and muscle strands contract and lock in place. Suspending an animal before a strain allows the muscles to remain taut instead of coalescing into a tight ball that is difficult to cut and unpleasant to eat. About 48 hours after the onset of the stiffness, enzymes called calpain and cathepsin begin to break down the proteins that bind muscle filaments and break up the connective tissue, causing the stiffness to stop.
The science of flavor and tenderness
As the aging process progresses, enzymes within the muscles create molecules that increase the flavor and tenderness of the meat. Proteins are broken down into amino acids, such as glutamate (also found in MSG), which we consider salty or umami. Glycogen is broken down into glucose molecules and it’s the sugars that create the caramel brown color on grilled meat, also known as the Maillard reaction. The fats are converted into aromatic fatty acids.
The length of time you can age a piece of meat depends on the type and amount of fat in the animal. More fat will allow for longer aging due to slower moisture loss and a more important protective barrier around the meat. The rancidity occurs as a result of the breakdown of fats with oxygen and exposure to light. Minimizing these two components is the key to aging any meat. Unsaturated fats progress less gracefully than saturated fats, which means that animals such as pigs, poultry, game birds, and fish are highly susceptible to fat rancidity.
During the aging process, enzymes act on the muscles first and then the connective tissue. During the action of enzymes, proteins are broken down and connective tissue fibers are broken down. This process occurs above 32° and increases in activity up to about 120°. This is why slow cooking of a tough piece of meat causes the bones to become tender. Enzymes become overheated to a point of 120 degrees, which speeds up the aging process within hours in the crock pot.
Most failed meat tenderization attempts result from poor temperature regulation, especially after extreme stress. During the dry aging process, moisture, temperature, and air circulation can either make or break the final product. The temperature should be between 34 and 40 degrees, with humidity between 70%-90%. Making sure the meat stays above freezing but below 40 degrees allows maximum enzyme action while keeping harmful bacteria at bay.
Bacteria need water to survive, but low humidity will cause moisture to be lost quickly, creating a thick film on the surface of the meat, which can trap unwanted bacteria inside the muscle. Ideally, meat should have a thin outer shell that protects the meat and allows enzymatic activity to continue while allowing water to escape. This, in turn, concentrates the flavors in the meat and reduces the chance of bacterial overgrowth. Correct aging pulls moisture out of the meat and allows molds such as Penicillium to grow. Penicillium molds are antibiotics, which means that the layer of germs on the meat will not only add flavor (the same molds that grow on blue cheese) but also protect against harmful bacteria (the same molds that Alexander Fleming used to make penicillin).
Wet aging is a modern method made possible thanks to the advent of vacuum seal bags. Although some meat processing facilities may dry the carcass only until the rigors of death have passed, wet aging can occur once the piece of meat has been vacuum sealed and displayed in the grocery store. Similar enzymatic processes occur within wet-aged meats, but they do not result in the same concentration of flavor, moisture loss, or tenderness as dry meats.
To age or not to age
So why pay so much for one of the oldest foods known to mankind? Dry meat is a labor of love for those who do it well and time is money. Perfectly opaque steaks begin with the correct cutting and refrigeration, beginning with the animal dying on the slaughterhouse floor. A poorly split carcass or poorly managed chiller can ruin the aging potential of even the most marbled beef.
Aged meat also loses weight with age, which results in this costly steak being concentrated into a smaller and smaller package the longer it stays in the cooler. These labor-intensive and cost-intensive processes create something more flavorful, delicious, and valuable than non-aged meat.
Home aging steak startup costs may be the same as the most expensive dry steak. However, with time, a bold pallet, and an appetite to experiment, it is possible to do this at home with just about any type of meat you have on hand.
Your best bet is to convert your refrigerator into an old cooler. Refrigerator aging will avoid absorbing flavor from other foods and discourage unwanted bacteria growth. Wet aging is also an option after the carcass has been butchered and turned into steaks and roasts. Vacuum seals are essential for proper wet aging because they allow moisture to be retained while protecting against oxygen and bacteria. If all else fails, a few days of hanging out in a semi-cooled, airy garage (or cave) will still do wonders for any game animal.
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