What is dry aged beef?
When you see a side of beef hanging dry-aging, let's face it: it's not looking delicious. You wonder: "is it safe? Why won't it rot?" And lastly: "should I pay more for that beef?"
Almost all beef used to be dry-aged. In the past, beef was slaughtered in a central area with good proximity to roads or ports and then it was shipped, whole and hanging, around the country to skilled butchers closer to the final point of sale. By the time it arrived it was "aged".
Two technologies changed all this: "Cryovacing" - the process of removing all air from a plastic bag and sealing it - and refrigeration. Centralized slaughter became centralized meat packing. Now beef is packed in plastic bags and boxed very soon after slaughter (2-4 days) then shipped in trucks and "aged" in the bag, aka "wet-aging".
Very fresh meat is actually very tough and stringy. This is the reason that beef is aged. This is a process that tenderizes the meat and helps enhance the flavor. It used to be that beef would be hung in a cold room allowing enzymes that occur naturally to break down the fibrous muscle tissue and therefore tenderizing the meat. For a more expensive by very tasty steak, the dry aging process is used. For mass beef production it seems that meat processors opt now for wet aging. This isn't a process that improves the flavor or texture, but rather a money saving option.
In the dry-aging process, approximately 20-30% of water weight is lost as the meat hangs in a cold room. This creates a densely flavored (less water to dilute flavor) extremely beefy and tender piece of meat. The outer layer of fat and meat, which has acted as a barrier to bacteria, is carefully cut off before the meat is placed in the case.
It carries a high price tag for a few reasons. First, the market paid for a wet carcass, and now have less meat to sell. Next, it has to be handled, stored, rotated, and processed by an expert. That takes money. And lastly, it tastes better than other beef. To many customers, it is worth the price.
The way that beef is treated and maintained before it ends up on your plate really does affect the overall taste.