The ageing technique is the art of prepping meat, mostly done in commercial kitchens or by butchers, by allowing microbes and enzymes in the meat to break down the connective tissues to make it tender and more flavourful. It has been used for commercial purposes for a long time in the UK.
The process of ageing meat takes anything from a few weeks to a few months depending on the type of meat and the method of ageing employed. Once the animal is slaughtered and the meat cleaned, the meat is stored in near-freezing temperatures and monitored.
There are two major ways of ageing meat. They include:
This involves placing primal cuts on racks in climate-controlled cabinets or in dry bags and allowing the meat to lose its moisture with time. During dry ageing, the meat can lose up to a third of its weight, thanks to a loss of water.
By losing water, the flavours of the meat are more concentrated. Dry ageing also creates room for the growth of certain mould species. This does not necessarily mean that the meat will go bad. Rather the mould forms an outside layer or crust on the meat. This layer will eventually be cut off when the ageing process is complete and the meat is ready for consumption. This mould acts as a complement to the natural flavours developed during this technique.
Wet ageing involves placing the meat in a vacuum-sealed bag and storing it in temperatures ranging from 0°C to 7.2°C. The aim of the vacuum seal is to retain the moisture of the meat, hence the term wet ageing.
By retaining moisture, the weight of the meat is maintained making it a popular option for retailers, producers and meat wholesalers.
Additionally, wet ageing takes a considerably shorter time of 4-10 days, as opposed to dry ageing. Throughout this process, the meat will be provided with enough oxygen concentration in order to retain its colour.
Why is it popular?
Meat ageing is a popular yet expensive undertaking in commercial kitchens. This popularity has grown as more people learn to appreciate good food. Investing in the right equipment for the job not only produces delicious and profitable results for restaurants but can also act as a unique focal point or display for customers.
Some of the reasons why meat ageing is popular include:
The meat is more flavourful and tender
This is especially the case with dry-aged meat. Enzyme activity and the loss of water allows the flavours and nutrients to concentrate within the meat making it more tasteful and nutritious.
The ageing process also leaves the meat more tender. Once the animal dies rigour mortis sets in after a while. This means that the muscles clench up and remain clenched for a considerable amount of time. It is usually what makes the meat hard and 'gamey' when cooked fresh. Ageing allows the enzymes to naturally work on the muscles and tenderise them.
It contains some health benefits
Enzyme activity within the meat does not just allow the nutrients to concentrate, which is good for your health, it also enhances them. Making it more beneficial to your customers.
What results can you expect?
When ageing meat, there are results that tell you whether the process was successful or not. With processes such as wet ageing, one of the most common results you will get to the meat is redder in colour with increased tenderness. Water retention will have no effect on the flavours.
With dry ageing, on the other hand, there are a number of things you should expect. Save for the common results of being more tender and flavourful, your meat will form a darker almost purple colour on the outside crust. The crust is a fungus, and it is a good sign as it improves the tenderisation process. The crust is cut out during cooking though. The meat will also have lost some of its mass due to the loss of water. This, along with the increased time it takes to carry out this process, is what makes aged meat servings more expensive than conventional meat in restaurants.
What should a good meat ageing cabinet do?
Creating the perfect climate for meat ageing is an essential part of the ageing process. To do this, you need a meat ageing cabinet, which ensures that the hygienic and climatic conditions required to mature and ripen the meat are met and maintained. The ageing cabinet should be able to offer the following:
Given that meat is a sensitive food item, maintaining the right temperature will prevent it from going bad. Remember, the meat ageing process takes weeks during which you have to ensure that the temperatures are low enough to support ageing without allowing the growth of bacteria and pathogens on the meat. Make sure to maintain the temperatures at 0°C to 4°C.
Humidity should be maintained at 80-85%. However, it is possible to vary these levels from 60-90%. You should expect the flavour to change with the change in humidity levels.
Ventilation pertains the circulation of air within the cabinet to lower the rate at which microbial cultures multiply. Ventilation also allows a constant supply of oxygen which allows the meat to oxidise and form the outer crust. Ventilation of 0.5-2 m/s will suffice.
A UV lamp is usually used in the ageing cabinet to prevent the growth of microbial cultures and keep the meat fresh for consumption.
The art of meat ageing is a delicate yet interesting process that dramatically improves the quality of meat in a commercial food establishment. Not only does this give restaurants a new branch for menu ideas but also gives the opportunity to develop an eye-catching showcase for customers who can actually witness the process through the glass door of a meat ageing cabinet. Done correctly, it has the potential of creating a great experience for your customers and keep them coming back for more.