Steak seems simple. Tell a group of bystanders that you're going to have a steak, and everyone knows exactly what it will look like: a hulking slab of beef served on a plate with very little else.
But these days picking out a steak requires making just about as many decisions as buying a car. Which cut do you prefer? What grade of beef? How thick? Bone-in or bone-out? Want wagyu beef? Would that be an American wagyu or the far more expensive Japanese A5 wagyu?
Not to intentionally confuse the matter, but I think one of the most important questions you should be asking your butcher is whether the meat has been dry-aged or wet-aged.
All beef is aged, at least for a little bit. "People occasionally come in and ask for the freshest piece of beef, because they think that is best," says Rob Levitt, owner of Butcher & Larder, which is inside Local Foods. But he thinks that beef has to be aged at least five days before it can be eaten. "Beef is mostly made of water. If you take a freshly killed cow and throw it on the grill, it will boil because it would be so wet."
To make it edible, even cheap steak has probably been aged seven to 10 days after slaughter. According to Levitt, most of the beef doesn't arrive at his shop until it's been aged for about 14 days.
Along with losing water, aging has other important functions. According to prominent food scientist Harold McGee's "On Food and Cooking," aging allows enzymes in the meat to turn "large flavorless molecules into small, flavorful fragments." This process also allows "more collagen to dissolve into gelatin during cooking, thus making the meat more succulent."
There are two ways to get this done, dry-aging and wet-aging. The difference between them comes down to how the meat is treated during this resting period. Dry-aged beef hangs out uncovered in a temperature- and humidity-controlled room. Because it's exposed to oxygen, the exterior of the meat develops mold, which helps to protect the meat within. Still, chefs need to cut off these moldy parts, resulting in a 20 to 30 percent loss of the original product. Conversely, wet-aged beef is sealed in plastic and then stuck in a fridge. Because it's not exposed to oxygen, none of the meat needs to be removed before cooking.
Sounds like wet-aged beef is the clear winner, right? Unfortunately, while wet-aging the beef does help to tenderize it somewhat, there are some serious drawbacks. The meat is in full contact with its serum, the liquid that the raw meat gives off, while wrapped up. I find this lends the meat an unmistakable sour flavor and mushy, waterlogged texture. Plus, the meat never develops the intense beefiness that dry-aged beef can attain.
"It's a marketing term," says Brian Ahern, the executive chef and co-owner of Boeufhaus, referring to wet-aged meat. "It's not really getting any age, because it's in a sealed environment." He notes that it's also much cheaper for a steakhouse to throw plastic-wrapped meat into a cooler and call it aged, instead of doing the hard work required to properly dry-age beef. Levitt was slightly more diplomatic, saying, "I'm not a huge fan of wet-aged beef. I'm not going to say it's wrong; it's just not my preference."
Dry-aged beef also can be aged for much longer than wet-aged beef. According to Levitt, steak dry-aged for 21 days will be tender, "But you won't have anything really super special unless it's aged further." At Butcher & Larder, Levitt usually ages steak for 45 days or more. "That 45- to 50-day range is best," says Levitt. "You'll get a great texture and just the right amount of funkiness."
Ahern goes just slightly longer at Boeufhaus, with 50 to 60 days being the norm. "The meat has a really nice nuttiness to it," says Ahern. "There's some funk, but not too much. And the fat develops this depth of flavor. That's the best part."
A few caveats. While I'm a huge fan of aggressively aged steak, if you're trying dry-aged beef for the first time, I'd suggest going for one that's been aged for only 28 days. This will allow you to appreciate the incredible tenderness and depth of flavor, without any funkiness. Also, only steaks with a lot of marbling benefit from aging, so don't worry about buying dry-aged lean cuts like tenderloin.
As you might guess, dry-aged beef can be very expensive, with some cuts costing more than $30 a pound at retail. But if you consider steak the ultimate celebratory meal, one that you only splurge on occasionally, it's worth trying at least once.
Here are a few places in the Chicago area keeping the honorable and labor-intensive practice alive.
Boeufhaus: Any of the steaks on the menu of this acclaimed restaurant are also available to purchase raw at the front counter. Currently, you can pick up rib-eyes and New York strips that have been aged for 55 days. 1012 N. Western Ave., 773-661-2116, boeufhaus.com.
Butcher & Larder: Because Rob Levitt's butcher shop purchases whole sides of beef, instead of just getting specific cuts, you should call ahead to see if he has any dry-aged steaks in stock. If he does, they will typically be aged for 45 to 55 days. If you plan ahead, the shop will be happy to age steak for as long as you desire. 1427 W. Willow St., 312-432-6575, localfoods.com/butcher.
Eataly Chicago: This wonderland of Italian food purchases steaks that have been dry-aged for 28 days by a local beef distributor, and then dry-ages them on-site for an additional 12 to 18 days. 43 E. Ohio St., 312-521-8700, eataly.com.
Gene's Sausage Shop: This Lincoln Square shop offers steak that has been dry-aged on-site for at least 30 days. 4750 N. Lincoln Ave., 773-728-7243, genessausage.com.
Joseph's Finest Meats: This family business in Dunning offers prime beef that has been dry-aged for at least 21 days, though you can occasionally find offerings that have been aged for 30 or 40 days. 7101 W. Addison St., 773-736-3766.
Publican Quality Meats: If you're ready to jump in to the deep end of dry-aging, Publican Quality Meats is your place. Paul Kahan's butcher shop in Fulton Market offers a couple of aggressively aged steaks. When I dropped by, I picked up a 75-day dry-aged rib-eye. 825 W. Fulton Market, 312-445-8977, publicanqualitymeats.com.
Treasure Island: Each outlet of this Chicago-based grocery chain offers porterhouses and rib-eyes dry-aged for at least 30 days. 1639 N. Wells St., 312-642-1105, tifoods.com.
Whole Foods: The national grocer offers dry-aged beef at a number of its local stores, though not all. The Lincoln Park and River North locations age beef on-site, while the South Loop gets dry-aged meat from a distributor. Usually, the meat has been aged 21 to 28 days. Call your local Whole Foods to double check. 1550 N. Kingsbury St., 312-587-0648; 255 E. Grand Ave., 312-379-7900; 1101 S. Canal St., 312-435-4600.