For years, dry-aged beef had an image problem. It was expensive. Time consuming. Inefficient. Unattractive. For the uninitiated, who bristled when the words “dry” and “beef” appeared in the same sentence, even the name was problematic.
“When we opened, we had people say, ‘You’ll never make it by dry-aging,’” recalls Michael Buhagiar, chef-partner of San Francisco steak house Harris’ Restaurant. “That was 30 years ago and we’re still dry-aging.”
“Dry-aging was sort of a lost art,” says Rick Gresh, former executive chef at David Burke’s Primehousein Chicago. “But as people have explored pickling, canning and going back to the way things were done years ago, they’ve rediscovered dry-aged meats.”The process, by which butchers age beef carcasses in a low-temperature, high-humidity room for weeks, was hopelessly out of vogue in 1984. But today, despite beef prices at an all-time high, it’s sizzling.
“When we opened, we had people say, ‘You’ll never make it by dry-aging. That was 30 years ago and we’re still dry-aging.”
-Michael Buhagiar of Harris' Restaurant
This dry-aged revival fits in the current food landscape, populated by artisan this and nose-to-tail that. “In today’s food world, guests are more educated than ever,” says David Laxer, president and proprietor of Bern’s Steak House in Tampa, Florida. “And they are willing to spend on the best products and ingredients.” The recent salumi explosion got consumers over a major mental hurdle, proving aged meat will not go bad if you do it right.
THE DRY-AGED REVOLUTION
Until the 1960s, nearly all beef in America was dry-aged. Then the invention of vacuum packaging launched an era of wet-aged beef, embraced by meatpackers because meat aged faster and retained more water weight (hence, more profit). The dry-aged revolution has redefined everything.
“It’s what beef is meant to taste like,” says Larry McGuire, managing partner of McGuire Moorman Hospitality, which runs six Austin, Texas, area restaurants. “And once people eat dry-aged beef, it ruins anything else for them.”
Through the aging process, the beef develops a tangy, earthy scent—somewhat like buttered popcorn—a different sheen and a smooth texture. Flavors become more concentrated, beefier.
In the dry-aged kingdom, rib-eye—the prized cut from the upper ribcage area—currently wears the crown. Any steak house worth its salt lists at least one rib-eye on its menu. David Burke’s Primehouse proffers four ($49 to $79). Bern’s in Tampa calls it a Delmonico and serves cuts anywhere from 8 to 18 ounces ($36.34 to $77.64), describing it as “the sweetest and juiciest” beef in the world. With its substantial fat cap and superior marbling, the rib-eye survives the intense aging process without drying out.
And bone-in or boneless, it looks dramatic on the plate. Most of the top steak houses in America season their beef with little more than salt and pepper, maybe a little garlic, butter or olive oil. Kevin Rathbun Steak in Atlanta makes its own flavored salt daily, blending kosher salt with fresh parsley, sage, thyme, garlic and pepper, then oven drying it. David Burke’s brushes its steaks with dry-aged trimmings cooked down in beef fat with herbs and garlic. The key is not to mess with dry-aged beef too much. It’s good enough on its own.
The Art of the Upsell
Dry-aged beef is not as much of a profit center as it is an attention grabber. It relies on menu maneuvering, such as selling side dishes with a lower food cost (potatoes and vegetables) a la carte, to make it worth serving. For example, at Kevin Rathbun Steak, side dishes from onion rings to creamed spinach cost $7.50, while sauces such as roasted garlic butter and bearnaise are $3. Servers, as a result, can talk up sides for the table as well as suggest steak “accompaniments” (sauces and seasonings).
“We lose a minimum of 40 percent (though the standard is less) to start; the longer we age, the more we lose,” Gresh says. “We price accordingly to keep our food costs in line around 32 percent overall.”
Jon Weber, co-owner and director of operations at Cowboy Star Restaurant and Butcher Shop in San Diego, echoes these sentiments, noting that dry-aged beef typically performs about 8 percent less in terms of profit margin compared to the restaurant’s other beef programs.
So if dry-aged beef is still expensive, why does it stay on menus? Cliff Bramble, co-owner of Kevin Rathbun Steak, says the recognition among guests with roomier wallets plays a big role. “You have to take into account that many guests in steak houses are on business accounts and are entertaining clients,” he says. “So they have a larger discretionary budget.”
Operators agree that diners increasingly know that dry-aged steak doesn’t come cheap. They may balk but still buy. “Oh, dry-aging is definitely gaining in strength,” Buhagiar says. “It just sounds better as a selling point.”
Oh, how things have changed.
Jeff Ruby is the dining critic for Chicago magazine, a freelance writer and author.
Inside the Locker Room
The dry-aging process, which allows naturally occurring bacteria in the meat to flourish, is time consuming and precise. Meat ages in a cool room, often on a wood or metal rack. Any colder than 33 degrees and the biochemical process stops working; any warmer than 38 degrees and it will likely spoil.
Humidity should range between 60 and 80 percent, with air circulating constantly. Many use UV light, and some go to extremes, like David Burke’s Primehouse in Chicago, which tiles its dry-aging room with 800-year-old Himalayan salt to purify the air while seasoning the beef.
The process minimizes external or “bad” bacteria from growing while “good” bacteria breaks down the collagen that connects muscle fibers. The beef’s water will begin to evaporate, intensifying the flavor and tenderizing the meat, which ultimately shrinks up to 30 percent. It develops a dry, dark reddish-brown bark on the exterior that the butcher trims prior to cutting the product into steaks.
Dry-aged beef, which has a food cost up to around 50 percent and typically loses 15 to 30 percent of its original volume, may sound like a dicey proposition. But it can live on the menu without losing money—or gouging customers.
❱ Pick the right cuts. Focus on New York strip, rib-eye, top sirloin and tenderloin. Each has a substantial fat cap that keeps it from drying out during the aging process.
❱ Offer wet-aged beef too. A menu with only dry-age beef would be cost prohibitive to some diners At Barclay Prime in Philadelphia, known for its dry-aged steaks, six of its nine options are wet-aged.
❱ Mix it up. Forty percent of the guests at Kevin Rathbun Steak opt for side items, and more than 50 percent select a dessert, which helps keep overall food costs to a consistent percentage.
❱ Pay attention to butcher yields. If you settle for cheaper beef, you could end up paying more in the end because it produces less usable meat. Buy the right size and quality meat for your price point. Do side-by-side butcher tests to ensure you're getting the right yield.