(MCT) -- Summer is prime time for beef. And if that beef is dry-aged, some say, all the better.
Dry-aging beef is not new. Years ago, it was standard in the meat industry. But today, most beef is simply aged briefly in its packaging.
But dry-aging is gaining popularity, said Emmet Baratta, vice president of national sales and marketing for Fairway Packing in Detroit.
"It's trendy in New York City and Chicago," he said.
That led Baratta to build a 1,000-square-foot meat aging room primarily to serve restaurant clients - the main thrust of his family-owned business.
"I've always asked myself, 'How can I make beef better?'" Baratta said. "How can I put a spin on it, age it to perfection and make sure the chef is 100 percent satisfied?"
In the temperature- and humidity-controlled aging room, large prime cuts of beef - most earmarked for local restaurants - sit on stainless-steel racks. First they are wet-aged in their packaging for 28 days. Then the packaging is removed and they are dry-aged for another 28 days.
The process is helped along by a 4-foot-by-6-foot wall consisting of about 250 blocks of pink Himalayan salt. The salt mildly seasons the cool air, helping to draw out moisture from the meat and flavor it.
"To begin the dry-aging process, it takes 11 days minimum after the packaging has been opened," Baratta said. "It's after those 11 days that the beef starts to decompose, break down and start changing."
Temperature is crucial. The room is kept between 34 degrees and 36 degrees, with humidity under 65 percent.
"When meat freezes, the aging process stops," Baratta said, "and if it's too warm, the meat will spoil."
Some of the best cuts for aging, Baratta said, are bone-in beef ribs and short loins. Off the short loins come porterhouse, T-bone and New York strip steaks and bone-in filets.
The public can buy dry-aged beef and other products directly from Fairway. You can even order a certain cut to be aged, Baratta said, and Fairway will keep you updated with weekly emails and photos.
Aged meat comes with a premium price because of the time involved and to make up for shrinkage of the meat. Once aged, there's additional weight loss because the outer, darkest layer is trimmed - "faced off," in meat-cutting terminology. The thick fat cap also is trimmed, and any bones are squared off.
In the end, a long-bone rib-eye steak, called a cowboy cut, retails for about $26 a pound, Baratta said. New York strips range from $15 to $22 a pound, depending on the cut.
Cafe Cortina in Farmington Hills buys aged beef from Fairway. Owner Rina Tonon loves the intense flavor.
"Once you eat a piece of dry-aged, there's no other," Tonon said. "It costs more, but it just melts on your tongue."
HOW BEEF IS AGED
Beef is aged to make it more flavorful and tender. It can be dry- or wet-aged.
Most grocery store beef is aged just a short time - typically the time it takes to get from processing plant to store. Many upscale markets wet-age their beef for several weeks.
Dry-aging: Beef is set on racks to air-dry at a humidity-controlled 34-36 degrees. After about 11 days, enzymes begin to break down. Moisture is lost, and the meat shrinks and turns dark. Flavors become more concentrated, and the beef becomes very tender.
Wet-aging: Beef is stored in its vacuum packaging. Moisture isn't lost, but the meat is tenderized. The flavor is not as intense as dry-aged beef.
The Free Press Test Kitchen grilled a 56-day-aged (wet- and then dry-aged) bone-in beef rib steak called a cowboy cut from Fairway Packing and a bone-in rib eye from a meat store. Both were about the same thickness and had good marbling.
Before grilling, the obvious difference was in the color. The aged steak was a deeper red, almost purple.
We seasoned both steaks with just a little olive oil, kosher salt and fresh-cracked black pepper.
Both were grilled about the same amount of time to medium-rare.
Tasters loved the aged steak's deep beefy flavor and melt-in-your- mouth tenderness.
The store-bought steak wasn't as tender and its flavor wasn't as pronounced, but in all fairness, it was still darn tasty.