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WHAT IS AGED BEEF

Why is beef aged, and how can I tell if the beef 1'm buying is aged?
Anne Strauss, New York, NY



Jack Ubaldi replies:
Aged beef (or hung beef) refers to top-quality beef that has undergone a process to enhance its flavor and increase its tenderness in a natural way. Beef is the meat that we usually associate with aging, but lamb is also aged. Poultry, veal, and pork are not aged because they're high in unsaturated fat, which quickly becomes rancid. The fat in beef is mostly saturated and doesn't spoil as quickly.

The best method for aging meat is known as dry aging, which is done by keeping large pieces of meat on the bone (such as whole prime rib, a whole shell with the bone in, or a short loin) in constant dry refrigeration at 34° to 36° F. Beef is dry-aged for two to three weeks, and lamb for one week. Only top-quality whole pieces of meat that are well covered with fat may be aged. Because the surface of aged meat must be discarded, it would be too wasteful to use smaller cuts, such as steaks.

Aged meat is tender because natural enzymes in the meat break down the meat fibers over time. The enhanced flavor of aged meat is due to two factors. One is that the proteins in the meat break down into amino acids, which have a strong flavor. The other is that meat loses one percent of its water weight per day, making the flavor of the meat more intense. To tell if beef has been aged, look at the color. Fresh beef is a bright cherryred color, and the fat is a creamy white.

When aged, the surface of the meat becomes dark and dry and shows wisps of mold. When sliced, as it would be when on display in a butcher shop, the meat is deep red. You'll also see a gray line in the fat bordering the meat. The surface fat will have lost its look of freshness and will be dried out. These are signs of properly aged beef. Because aged beef is quite expensive, you'll seldom find it in supermarkets. Look for it in specialty butcher shops.



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