At Featherblade we pride ourselves on our in-house dry-aging procedures, which enable us to produce and provide amazing lamb and pork, but our main specialty is beef cuts like steak, roasts and even burgers. So, what is dry-aging actually all about?
To start, we select the meat. We hand-pick whole animals with an even fat distribution or covering which helps protect the meat during the aging process. The easiest way to achieve this is to have great relationships with our ranchers who know what we like and how we like it. In the shop we can do a fair bit to develop the flavours of what we produce, but really, most of the work is done before we receive it, on the farms. Climate, breeding, diet, field rotation and even what bedtime stories the farmer reads them when tucking them in at night all contribute to the quality of the meat. I’ve heard tales of the original Wagyu breed in Japan being massaged, drinking beer and getting bedtime stories so I’m not messing about. If they care, it shows.
Farmer or Rancher? A man of many hats
Back to aging gracefully. The dry-aging process affects meat in two ways. First, moisture is drawn out of the meat, concentrating the flavour of the meat, in the same way you would reduce a stock or gravy. Second, natural enzymes within the meat start to break down the muscle fibres, causing it to be more tender. This all has to be done at a controlled temperature in a well-ventilated environment; too warm and the meat will spoil, too cold and it will freeze, halting the process. The ideal humidity we aim for is about 65%. This isn’t the same as when you see it on weather apps though, as the humidity saturation point (the maximum water vapour in the air) gets lower the colder you go. Importantly, we use de-humidifiers to draw moisture out of the air, controlling the level of bacteria and contributing to the name of the dry-aging process. You may have noticed the black crust which forms on the surface of the meat during aging. This is not spoilage but in fact a mould which complements the natural enzymes in breaking down the meat fibres.
When the meat is ready, we simply trim the crust away and discard. Most meat (not poultry) needs a minimum of at least 5-7 days after slaughter before it becomes anywhere near edible. During this time most supermarkets pack it and sell it. It also affords the time to de-bone, process and vacuum seal to ‘wet-age’ for a week or two, before distribution to be sold. Although wet aging can eventually slightly soften the meat, in my experience I’ve never found vacuum-packed meat to be anywhere near as good to something found on a cooler’s dry rack.
Never judge a book by its cover
Dry-aging can typically take between 3-4 weeks to produce optimum results, and the brilliant meat scientists out there have shown that the benefit from aging plateaus after 21-25 days (I regularly like to hang meat for longer, producing even more ridiculous and funky results). Back in England we regularly aged beef rumps for 70 days (nutty and tender), striploin for about 2 months (super soft and rich), and even lamb legs for 6 weeks (strong lamby-mutton style flavour). I’m looking forward to introducing wacky things like these to my new friends in Las Vegas. That also means that if any of you out there fancy something especially naughty and ridiculous, we’ll be happy to let you choose your cut, then we’ll age it for you for as long as you want (or as long as is safe to do so!).
Since I’ve been in the US, I’ve noticed that beef is the big kid of the aging playground (in those few establishments that have a playground), but I’m excited to show everyone how amazing pork and even lamb can be after a couple of weeks of the rack. For me, growing up in England with Irish parents meant that a pork chop dinner meant a slice of dry meat begging for some sort of liquid on the plate, gravy or beans, just to stop your face caving in on itself through dehydration (Sorry! Love you Mum x). Don’t get me wrong, my parents supported me on my culinary journey but bless ‘em that’s what they knew, and I’m glad to say they concede today that they’re surprised how different the pork is when sourced well and cooked a little lighter. So when it comes to meat, even if you employ a few wizard tactics in the kitchen, the final quality more often than not comes from the source, the breed, and honestly, the aging.
Feel free to ask any questions about this, and I hope to see some willing candidates for some funky aging experiments in the near future.