Emmet Barrata shows a freshly cut, bone-in New York strip steak that has been dry aged at Fairway Packing Co. in Detroit. - MCT photo

Older and better

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, says Emmet Baratta, vice president of national sales and marketing for Fairway Packing in Detroit.

"It's trendy in New York City and Chicago," he says.

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 says. "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 says. "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 says, "and if it's too warm, the meat will spoil."

Some of the best cuts for aging, Baratta says, 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 says, 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 says. New York strips range from $15 to $22 a pound, depending on the cut. Before grilling, the obvious difference is in the color. Aged steaks are a deeper red, almost purple.

Cafi 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 says. "It costs more, but it just melts on your tongue."

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