Ask Dr. Marsden: A brilliant scientist explains why dry-aged steaks are so delicious
If Julia Child couldn’t get enough of the dry-aged steaks from Allen Brothers, they must be pretty special (but we already knew that!). How exactly does Allen Brothers create that distinctive, dry-aged flavor?
I asked Dr. James Marsden, who helps Allen Brothers implement and innovate state-of-the-art aging and processing facilities at the Chicago headquarters. Marsden knows what he’s talking about when it comes to beef: He’s the Regents Distinguished Professor in Food Safety and Security at Kansas State University, and he’s also a science advisor for North American Meat Processors. (Incidentally, he’s also the father of heartthrob actor James Marsden, who played Cyclops in all three “X-Men” movies—and whose voice you can hear as the German shepherd in the just-released animated film “Cats and Dogs.”)
So, what’s all the fuss about dry-aging?
First, Dr. Marsden explained why steaks go through an aging process in the first place, and why there’s a big difference between wet-aging and dry-aging:
“With aging, you’re taking meat and putting it in a refrigerated environment so it gets some age on it. The fibers break down and the meat becomes more tender and flavorful, whether it’s wet-aged or dry-aged,” Marsden told me.
“With wet-aging, you put it in a vacuum-sealed bag for 3 to 4 weeks. With dry-aging, there’s no bag. The meat is hanging in a dry-aging room. It’s developing distinct flavor notes associated with oxidation, which occurs naturally. The oxidation process is very much like aging wine. It produces those complex flavors.”
Besides the extra-nuanced taste, there’s a reason why dry-aged meat tends to be pricier: “Dry-aging is an expensive process,” Marsden explained. “So it tends to be limited to high-value cuts like T-bone steaks or rib steaks. With dry-aging, you’re losing yield because you’re losing moisture.”
With Marsden’s help, Allen Brothers has developed its own patented technology for perfecting the dry-aging process. “If dry-aging is done right,” Marsden said, “there’s nothing better. If it’s not done perfectly, you get a bit of a spoiled flavor, and that’s why Allen Brothers put this technology in place, so that never happens anymore.”
Still, no matter how incredible dry-aged steaks may taste to some of us, they’re not necessarily everyone’s cup of tea:
“Some people like the wet-aged flavor, and some people prefer the oxidized flavors associated with dry-aged beef. It’s kind of like wine: people prefer different flavors. The dry-aged beef has complex flavors that you have to develop a taste for.”
Needless to say, Allen Brothers steaks, both dry-aged and wet-aged, are a big hit in the Marsden family: Young Hollywood star James Marsden, according to his dad, loves the shipments of beef tenderloin that Dr. Marsden sends him on a regular basis. After all, he’s got to fuel up for those long, grueling film shoots. Next up: a role in the remake of “Straw Dogs,” a Dustin Hoffman movie first released in 1971. You heard it here first!