Most of you are know the difference between grass fed, grass finished beef and the grain fed beef sold in supermarkets. What you might not be as familiar with is the difference in how the beef is treated after it is harvested which is just as important.
Our beef - and that of most local farmers and ranchers - is dry aged. Dry aging is the gold standard for beef, it is the traditional process for aging beef and it is favored among beef connoisseurs. Quality dry aging makes the beef you buy not only more tender, but concentrates flavor and produces meat that is superb in taste and texture. Dry Aging occurs when beef is processed and stored in a 30 - 35 degree cooler. Our dry aging is in the cooler at our local Farmer's Co-Op. During this time, enzymes in the meat work to break down the fibers and tenderize the beef. Most beef is aged a minimum of 72 hours; however, it's better if the beef is aged longer. Maximum tenderness occurs at 10 - 11 days of aging, but superior flavor occurs when the beef is aged longer. Our beef is aged 18 to 21 days for maximum tenderness and flavor. The longer you dry age beef, the more you increase the density of the beef (due to water loss) which concentrates the flavor. You can see the sides of beef hanging in the cooler to dry age in the photo below.
Once the dry aging process is complete, our beef is individually hand cut to our specifications, vacuum sealed and deep frozen. Remember, beef is a perishable product that will spoil at temperatures above 40 degrees. The only way to stop the aging process is to freeze the beef. Dry aged beef is highly prized, but it commands a premium price for several reasons. First, the aging process takes time which means longer storage time in special meat coolers. Secondly, there is significant weight loss during the aging process due to water loss and trimming (~18% weight loss). Finally, labor costs are higher because the darkened outer layer of the aged beef must be skillfully cut away. For these reasons, you typically only find dry aged beef in gourmet grocery stores and high end steak houses - or right here on our ranch!
Up until recent times, up to 90% of beef sold in the US was wet aged. Wet aging, also known as aging-in-the-bag, involves packing beef in plastic. The typical process for wet aged beef goes something like this. The beef is processed into wholesale cuts, vacuum packed, boxed and shipped. The retailer then stores the boxed beef in its "coolers" until the meat is needed for display and sale. When the bags are opened the meat is cut into retail cuts, packaged and put in the refrigerated section of the store where they immediately start spoiling.
Inside the plastic, the meat does age and it does become more tender, but there is no concentrating of flavor because there is no moisture loss. So why is Wet Aging so prevalent? Because wet aging is cheaper, easier and more profitable to produce.
Gas Packing - Case Ready Meat
In recent years, a new disturbing trend has emerged which is called gas packing. Up to 75% of meat found on grocery store shelves are now gas packed with carbon monoxide to make the meat appear fresh even if it has gone bad.
Gas packing does nothing for tenderness or flavor. It is a process designed to decrease costs and increase profits while ultimately fooling the customer into thinking they are buying a "fresher" piece of meat. Long gone are the days of the local butcher who aged his own beef with pride. The local butcher has been replaced by the convenience of mega grocery store chains who thrive by selling the cheapest food possible. To reduce their meat storage and labor costs, many retailers rely on large, industrial sized meat processing plants to process case ready meat for them. In other words, an industrial scale processing facility processes all the meat, packs it with Carbon Monoxide gas to preserve the color and ships it directly to retailers where they can put it directly on their shelves for sale.
Many retailers have embraced the gas packing of meat because it lowers their operating costs. Retailers save money through gas packing because they don't have to store the meat in expensive coolers, they don't have to employ skilled butchers and they can keep meat on the shelf longer while providing an illusion of freshness. Non-gas packed ground beef turns brown and then black over a short period of time if left out. But the gas packed beef still looks fresh even after it's spoiled. Gas packing with carbon monoxide extends the shelf life of beef up to 14 days. Real beef is not bright red once it is packaged. It turns a dull brown color. But Retailers know consumers shop with their eyes. With gas packing, beef maintains a bright red color. To most consumers, this bright red color signifies freshness. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.
Some of the better grocery stores such as Whole Foods still sell wet aged beef as well as dry aged beef at a premium price. But retailers like Walmart don't put any type of labeling on their beef which might indicate the beef has been gas packed. So if you don't ask, you may never really know. If the beef sitting on your grocery store's shelves is gas packed, you probably won't be able to tell whether the beef you are about to buy has started to spoil.
Knowledge Is Power
Unfortunately, most people don't appreciate the art of pasture farming, artisan beef processing nor dry aging. The average consumer has been conditioned to accept gas packing, grain feeding and industrial farming as the norm. Consumers have become accustomed to buying cheap, mass produced beef that is incredibly unhealthy. And as long as consumers keep buying cheap beef, nothing is going to change. But thanks to people like Michael Pollen (Food Inc, Omnivores Dilemma), people are starting to wake up and take notice.
We hope that you will continue to educate yourself about these practices and come to the same conclusion we did. Pasture raised beef that is properly aged and stored is superior to the current status quo. Raising animals in pasture from beginning to end is a more natural process which is better for the animal, the environment and the consumer. Want to learn more about gas packing? Check out this video from Only Grass Fed.