Aged with tender loving care

If you love beef, then you would be more than familiar with what the numbers 14, 21, 28, 39 and even 90 stand for. No, they're not the new marbling ratings but the number of days a piece of beef has been dry aged. For beef connoisseurs, A5 wagyu is passe - dry aged beef is the way to go now.

To put it in simple terms, dry aged beef is beef that is ready to be served, but instead, left to age in purpose-built cabinets, under low temperatures and controlled humidity conditions, for a period of time, from 14 days to as long as 90 days.

"The key effect of dry ageing is the concentration and saturation of the natural flavour, as well as the tenderisation of the meat texture," says Andre Huber, executive director at Huber's Butchery.

Dry ageing changes beef in two ways: firstly, moisture is evaporated from the muscle, creating a greater concentration of beef flavour and taste. Secondly, the beef's natural enzymes break down the connective tissue in the muscle, resulting in more tender beef.

The process of dry ageing usually also promotes growth of fungal species or mould on the outside of the meat. This forms an external "crust" on the meat's surface, making it look somewhat greyish in colour. This "crust" is trimmed off when the meat is prepared for cooking.

While dry aged beef is a fairly new trend in Singapore, the process has always been done in Europe and the United States.

"In Italy, no butcher will sell a freshly slaughtered cow. Instead, the carcass will be hung up for about 30 days for the muscles to soften," says chef/owner Luca Pezzera of District 10, who serves dry aged steaks using Australian and Irish beef at his newest restaurant at Suntec City. The beef is dry aged in a S$22,000 purpose-built cabinet, which is in full view of diners.

"The Italians call the process follare, meaning to hang and to mature the meat. Today, dry ageing is the same process, but done in more hygienic conditions," says chef Pezzera.

And no longer do you need to head out to restaurants such as Skirt, Bedrock Bar and Grill or Bistecca to get it. Consumers now can get dry aged beef customised to their desired number of days at butcheries too.

The newly opened gourmet grocer, Emporium Shokuhin at Marina Square, has a 200 sq ft glass room with beef carcasses hung up to dry and age, in front of customers. CEO Lim Li Wei says: "We noticed that dry aged beef has gained awareness and popularity among Singaporean consumers due to its enhanced flavour and tenderness. Hence, we have invested in this specialised facility to cater to the growing demand."

The S$250,000 glass room, which is kept at a cool two to four degrees Celsius, and at 60 per cent humidity, holds three types of beef: grass-fed beef from Australia, USDA prime graded beef and Japanese A5 Miyazaki beef.

The beef here is aged for 14, 21 and 28 days. "These are the ideal days for ageing," says Ryan Goh, the grocer's meat specialist. "Anything less than 14 days, and you won't see or taste any difference." The longer the beef has been aged, the more tender it is. "You can feel the difference. Beef that has been aged for longer feels softer to the touch," says Mr Goh.

But that is not to say that dry ageing should go on for unlimited periods of time. "The ageing period is very much dependent on you - it's an acquired taste. The longer the beef is aged, the funkier would be the end results. What's acceptable is generally between 21 and 45 days," says Meat Collective's founder Simon Chee.

The butchery located at Tanjong Katong Road does not do its own dry ageing, but instead retails dry aged beef from a local supplier. But customers can choose how long they want the beef to be dry aged. "If you want to purchase some 45-day dry aged ribeye, let us know, and we'll let our supplier know, and it will be dry aged accordingly," says Mr Chee. The lead time is two weeks and the number of days for the dry aged beef can be 30, 46 or 60 days. Depending on the cut, the price of dry aged beef ranges from S$90 to S$150 per kg. Mr Chee adds that there are plans to do their own dry ageing in the future.

Mr Goh says that over the past two weeks, while the beef is still being dry aged, "some customers have already placed orders".

"Singaporeans are well travelled, and they know about dry aged beef." The dry aged beef is now available for retail.

Dry aged beef tends to be at least 30 per cent more expensive than regular beef, to factor in extra costs, such as trimming away the surface of the beef, and also for the time and effort it takes for dry ageing.

At Emporium Shokuhin, the prices of dry aged beef range from S$8 per 100 grams to S$12 per 100 grams for the Australian grass fed beef, and from S$18 per 100 grams to S$45 per 100 grams for the A5 Miyazaki beef. "The longer the beef is aged, the more expensive it is," says Mr Goh.

Huber's Butchery, which currently supplies dry aged beef to restaurants, will have its own dry ageing facility at its new outlet at 22 Dempsey Road from Oct 14, making it easier for consumers to get their hands on dry aged beef.

The dry ageing of the beef will start at Huber's factory and then finish at the shop. Customers can choose between grass fed or grain fed beef in either prime rib or short loin. They then choose the length of time they want to dry age the beef, such as 30, 45, or 60 days. "We will put their name on the dry age card, and they can watch their own piece of meat lovingly dry aged in the cabinet which will be in full view of consumers," says Andre Huber. "We can then arrange to trim and portion it for them to bring home or have it cooked at our bistro."

Mr Huber says dry ageing is not rocket science but experience is definitely needed as every space is different, so to get the best out of the meat involves some trial and error.

"You will need some food science knowledge and a good amount of food safety knowledge as things can go horribly wrong if a piece of spoilt beef is consumed by a customer," he says, which explains why the dry ageing is strictly done by its managing director Ryan Huber, who handles all the dry aged beef personally.

Bedrock Bar and Grill was one of the earliest restaurants to introduce dry aged beef to Singapore in 2008. Its head chef, Isaac Tan, says: "It was very popular in USA back then, and we wanted to give diners here more variety and access to this flavourful cut." The restaurant sells USDA prime dry aged ribeye.

Just how different does dry aged beef taste compared to regular beef?

Chef Frank Koppelkamm, W Singapore's director of culinary, says: "Dry aged beef is richer in pure natural beef flavour and not diluted with moisture. It has a clean and more beefy taste." SKIRT, located in W Singapore, serves dry aged beef from Australia.

Christopher Lim, managing director of Hidden Door Concepts which manages Sear restaurant, says dry aged beef offers a complexity of flavours - savouriness, sweetness, and some bitterness. "The dry aged beef is more succulent and has a mellower yet beefier flavour. This is especially pronounced with the steak tartare where the bitter-sweet juices come through," he says. Sear serves dry aged beef from New Zealand.

Over at Opus Bar and Grill, head chef Rene Knudsen dry ages Australian Angus OP rib eye in a bespoke Himalayan salt-tiled ageing cabinet for 14 to 36 days. "The meat gains more nutty or even blue cheese characteristic flavours in the process, which only intensifies according to the length of period the beef is dry aged," says chef Knudsen.

While steaks are usually the most popular way to enjoy dry aged beef, there is the option of chopping them into patties.

The Butchers Club Burger, a newly opened burger joint at Clarke Quay, uses a mix of minced chuck, rump, and brisket from Australian Black Angus beef for its patties. The beef is dry aged for 30 days before they are minced daily to form the 160 gram patties.

"We want to make having dry aged beef a more fun and informal experience as compared to having steak," says its managing director Jonathan Glover. A burger costs S$20, and the patty is flavourful, juicy and not fatty. Each patty is lightly dusted with an in-house seasoning mix, seared for five to 10 minutes, and served with cheese, bacon, tomatoes and pickles in between an artisanal bun.

The Butchers Club in Hong Kong has enjoyed much success since it started two-and-a-half years ago, and Mr Glover is confident that it will do just as well in Singapore. In Hong Kong, a majority of its customers are Chinese who have been educated or lived abroad.

Just like in Hong Kong, Mr Glover will offer a private dining option soon. This is where customers can buy a 10kg piece of beef, have it dry aged at a facility in MacPherson, and a month later, invite friends over for a private dinner at the facility.

Gourmet food and wine distributor Culina has not only been supplying restaurants with dry aged beef, but also offers dry aged OP ribs at its Dempsey store, which customers can buy home.

Its assistant general manager Aldo Molinaro says demand for dry aged OP ribs has been popular, and sometimes it does get sold out. "Once you try dry aged beef, you cannot go back to regular beef," he quips.

This article was first published on October 10, 2015. Get The Business Times for more stories.