In A Nutshell
Beef from freshly killed cattle is far too tough for human consumption. It must first be aged, a nice euphemism for carefully controlled rotting that breaks down the connective tissue in the muscle. Dry-aged beef usually hangs for between one and four weeks, and has to be monitored, as mold and bacteria tend to proliferate on outer surfaces.
The Whole Bushel
Those who grew up on a farm or rural area where there are few steps between the barnyard and the dinner plate will attest that fresh meat tastes worlds better than anything you can procure at the grocery store. This applies to most animals, chicken and pork being the most obvious examples. Beef, however, is the exception to the rule. The meat from a newly slaughtered cattle must be aged to allow the tough connective tissue of the muscle to be broken down by enzymes and microbes.
For centuries, beef was dry-aged, hung in an area where temperature and humidity could be controlled. Typically, the flesh hangs anywhere from a week to a month. Its outer surface dries out into a kind of crust similar in texture to jerky. Mold furs on the crust, the fungus giving the beef its signature “nutty” flavor profile. The humidity must be watched—if it climbs too high, the meat is liable to begin crawling with dangerous bacteria. Too low, and it will dry out. As the process wears on, bits of the crust are trimmed away until the cuts beneath are deliciously tender.
While most would agree that dry aging produces a superior taste, it has its downside. The process is both time- and labor-intensive, and trimming and evaporation of the meat leads to significant waste. To that end, toward the late ’60s and early ’70s, methods were devised to vacuum-seal the meat in plastic, thus quickening the process and ensuring that none of the product will be lost. Outside of fancy steakhouses, you can be all but assured that the beef you’re eating has been wet-aged. Because wet aging leaves the meat to marinate in its own juices, it is said to have a more bloody, sour taste.