Two of the food world’s most prized luxuries ― dry-aged steak and fine cheese ― actually have a lot more in common than you might realize. Even though they’re both totally different foods, obviously, they get their deliciousness from the same process: controlled rot.
If you took a steak or a glass of heavy cream and let them sit out on your kitchen counter for three weeks, you’d end up with a rancid, inedible mess that you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten foot pole. But when you learn to control that spoilage and use it to your advantage, the end result is ten times better than what you started with.
In order to dry-age steak, beef is placed inside a box or room that’s been carefully climate-controlled for a week or more, with temperature, ventilation, and humidity perfectly calibrated to maximize the enzymatic and biochemical processes that result in perfectly dry-aged beef. If it’s too cold, the meat will freeze (stopping the process), and if it’s too warm, the microbial spoilage process will ruin the meat, so the temperature should be held somewhere around 35 degrees. If it’s too humid, spoilage bacteria will grow, and if it’s not humid enough, the meat will dry out, so a relative humidity of about 80 percent is preferable. There’s usually some degree of rot and mold on the outside of a properly dry-aged piece of meat, which is of course carefully trimmed off before it’s cooked.
Cheese, of course, isn’t made by just leaving a bunch of cream in a climate-controlled room; enzymes and cultures are added first, and the curds are separated from the whey. But once those curds are strained and pressed into molds, the aging and ripening (or affinage) process of cheese isn’t too different from dry-aging meat. The temperature, humidity, and ventilation in the rooms where the cheeses age are carefully controlled in order to let bacteria and enzymes work their magic, and the exact specifications for each depend on the type of cheese being made.
It’s pretty interesting to realize that both artisanal cheese and dry-aged meat are so delicious because they’re allowed to spoil!