When you buy beef from a local farmer, the beef is usually dry aged and comes frozen to ensure you are receiving beef of the highest quality. Because most people enjoy the convenience of buying thawed beef at the grocery store, they might not understand why frozen may be better. To fully appreciate the differences, you have to understand how beef is aged, processed and stored prior to purchase. More and more grocery stores have started using a process called gas packing which is designed to make beef appear fresher longer while it sits on their shelves. As Alton Brown would say, this is NOT "good eats".
The aging of beef is normally thought of as the storage time, in days, from slaughter until processing. Processing is breaking down the carcass into retail cuts (individually sized portions that consumers buy). All beef is aged prior to processing, even beef bought in your grocery store, because unaged beef is tough and has a metallic flavor. But one ageing process is considered superior to all others and it's called dry ageing. Chances are you won't find dry aged beef in your grocery store. If your lucky, your grocery store still sells wet aged beef, but more than likely, they have switched over to selling case ready beef that has been gas packed. But before we get to the nasty details of gas packing, lets take a step back and talk about two traditional processes for aging beef.
Dry Aged vs Wet Aged Beef
The traditional process for ageing beef is called Dry Aging and it is generally favored among beef connoisseurs. Quality dry aging makes the beef you buy not only more tender, but concentrates flavor and produces meat that is superb in taste and texture.
Dry Aging occurs when beef is processed and stored in a 30 - 35 degree cooler. During this time, enzymes in the meat work to break down the fibers and tenderize the beef. Most beef is aged a minimum of 72 hours; however, it's better if the beef is aged longer. Maximum tenderness occurs at 10 - 11 days of aging, but superior flavor occurs when the beef is aged longer. The longer you dry age beef, the more you increase the density of the beef (due to water loss) which concentrates the flavor.
During the dry aging process, mold and bacteria forms on the outermost layers of the beef which must be cut off and thrown away. Once the dry aging process is complete, the beef is broken down into retail cuts where it is either cooked, put on store shelves for immediate consumption or frozen. Remember, beef is a perishable product that will spoil at temperatures above 40 degrees. The only way to stop the aging process is to freeze the beef.
Dry aged beef is highly prized, but it commands a premium price for several reasons. First, the aging process takes time which means longer storage time in special meat coolers. Secondly, there is significant weight loss during the aging process due to water loss and trimming (~18% weight loss). Finally, labor costs are higher because the darkened outer layer of the aged beef must be skillfully cut away. For these reasons, truly dry aged beef will be labeled as such. These days, you typically only find dry aged beef in gourmet grocery stores and high end steak houses.
Up until recent times, up to 90% of beef sold in the US was wet aged. Wet aging, also known as aging-in-the-bag, involves vacuum packing beef in plastic. The typical process for wet aged beef goes something like this. The beef is processed into wholesale cuts, vacuum packed, boxed and shipped. The retailer then stores the boxed beef in its "coolers" until the meat is needed for display and sale. When the bags are opened the meat is cut into retail cuts, packaged and put in the refrigerated section of the store where they immediately start spoiling.
Inside the plastic, the meat does age and it does become more tender, but there is no concentrating of flavor because there is no moisture loss. So why is Wet Aging so prevalent? Because wet aging is cheaper and more profitable to produce.
Gas Packing - Case Ready Meat
In recent years, a new disturbing trend has emerged which is called gas packing. According to the video below, up to 75% of meat found on grocery store shelves are now gas packed with carbon monoxide to make the meat appear fresh even if it has gone bad.
Gas packing does nothing for tenderness or flavor. It is a process designed to decrease costs and increase profits while ultimately fooling the customer into thinking they are buying a "fresher" piece of meat.
Watch This News Clip On Gas Packing
Long gone are the days of the local butcher who aged his own beef with pride. The local butcher has been replaced by the convenience of mega grocery store chains who thrive by selling the cheapest food possible. To reduce their meat storage and labor costs, many retailers rely on large, industrial sized meat processing plants to process case ready meat for them. In other words, an indistrial scale processing facility processes all the meat, packs it with Carbon Monoxide gas to preserve the color and ships it directly to retailers where they can put it directly on their shelves for sale.
Many retailers have embraced the gas packing of meat because it lowers their operating costs. Retailers save money through gas packing because they don't have to store the meat in expensive coolers, they don't have to employ skilled butchers and they can keep meat on the shelf longer while providing an illusion of freshness. As the video clearly shows, non-gas packed ground beef turns brown and then black over a short period of time if left out. But the gas packed beef still looks fresh even after it's spoiled.
Gas packing with carbon monoxide extends the shelf life of beef up to 14 days. Real beef is not bright red once it is packaged. It turns a dull brown color. But Retailers know consumers shop with their eyes. With gas packing, beef maintains a bright red color. To most consumers, this bright red color signifies freshness. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth.
When you buy beef from grocery stores like Walmart, you are usually buying gas packed meat. Even though the meat has a bright red color, there's no telling how long the beef has been sitting on their refrigerated shelves, thawed and slowly spoiling.
Some of the better grocery stores such as Whole Foods still sell wet aged beef as well as dry aged beef at a premium price. But retailers like Walmart don't put any type of labeling on their beef which might indicate the beef has been gas packed. So if you don't ask, you may never really know. If the beef sitting on your grocery store's shelves is gas packed, you probably won't be able to tell whether the beef you are about to buy has started to spoil.
Knowledge Is Power
Unfortunately, most people don't appreciate the art of pasture farming, artisan beef processing nor dry aging. The average consumer has been conditioned to accept gas packing, grain feeding and industrial farming as the norm. Consumers have become accustomed to buying cheap, mass produced beef that is incredibly unhealthy. And as long as consumers keep buying cheap beef, nothing is going to change. But thanks to people like Michael Pollen (Food Inc, Omnivores Dilemma), people are starting to wake up and take notice.
We hope that you will continue to educate yourself about these practices and come to the same conclusion we did. Pasture raised beef that is properly aged and stored is superior to the current status quo. Raising animals in pasture from beginning to end is a more natural process which is better for the animal, the environment and the consumer. Make your voice heard, vote with your wallet, choose local, pasture raised grass fed beef.