My father is a big fan of Westerns. They always seemed a little formulaic to me. White hat wearing good guys who save the day and rides into the western sunset. Just as those cowboys marked the end of their journey, my discussion of beef is also riding into the sunset. Before it ends, just a few more relevant pieces of information for you.
We have covered cuts of steak and their grading system. We also have discussed different breeds of cattle. This week the focus is on those fun adjectives that get thrown around when discussing beef. These terms have become omnipresent in fine steak houses, but rarely do they take the time to explain what they mean. Today we will uncover the mysteries behind these phrases.
“Dry Aged” vs “Wet Aged”
Dry aged beef has long been synonymous with quality. Servers and even guests use the term, but rarely know what it actually means. Dry aging is a process in which beef carcasses are hung in either halves or whole in a humid meat locker kept slightly above freezing. If the locker is wood lined, it becomes “dry wood aged.” It is kept here for at least two weeks (but often twice that length) to allow two actions to occur. First, evaporation of excess water from the meat to create a stronger flavor. Second, the enzymes within the meat will start breaking down tougher areas of muscle. Another less intentional by product of this method is that mold will grow on the outside of the meat \which is shaved off at the end of the process. This is a time consuming and expensive process that results in a loss of 10-15% of the overall carcass.
Wet aged beef is a more modern process. By this process steaks are cut and individually sealed. The steaks are left to age in this package for much shorter lengths of time. This process results in much less loss and is far more commonly used. It is also far less expensive and results in steaks being on a plate in a shorter timeframe than the dry aging process.
“Grass Fed” vs “Corn/Grain Fed”
Grass fed steak is becoming a growing trend. This is actually the traditional way for cattle to be fed. Cows are allowed to wander the pasture seeking out grass to eat. This is what we witness as we drive down rural roads and perhaps how we like to believe all cows are raised. Grass fed beef is often higher in Omega-3 fatty acids while remaining leaner overall. Those that recall the first installment of this series will remember that fatter and lazier cows are the key to USDA Prime ratings. Grass fed beef will almost always lack the marbling to receive this high rating.
Corn or grain fed cattle is still the norm. Cows may be started at pasture and finished at feedlots to be fattened for slaughter. This high calorie diet and lack of ability to roam freely will fatten cows while keeping their muscles tender. This leads to more consistent marbling and higher rated beef. The price of corn and grain has been rising which is leading more producers to turn to grass. The perception also exists that corn and grain fed cattle are mass produced and therefore less environmentally friendly. Corn fed beef advocates argue that far more land would be necessary to grass feed.
There is a distinct flavor difference between created by each of these methods. Which one a guest prefers is a matter of personal taste. Your job as a server is to know the sales pitch for what you are serving. Knowing the details for what you serve will help you justify to the guest the premium price attached to the steak you are serving. This should give you more confidence in what you serve and what you sell.
Next Friday stop in as we turn our focus from Beef to Salmon.