Whether dry-aged or wet-aged beef is better is often a conundrum many diners ponder when faced with a selection of steak cuts. Dry-aging has centuries of tradition on its side, while the latter is still wet behind the ears. Is one method superior to the other? You decide.
The Wet vs. Dry Aging controversy only began after the meatpacking industry figured out that a piece of meat in a vacuum-sealed plastic bag not only reduces the amount of money that is lost in water weight and trim, but it also ages faster.
Because dry aging reduces the original weight of the muscle due to moisture loss (and the dried out exterior must be trimmed off) dry-aged beef is generally 20-50% more expensive than wet-aged beef.
So what is Aging?
Aging is the process during which microbes and enzymes act upon the meat to help break down the connective tissue, in order to make meat object more tender. Whether it happens in a bag or out in the air as a big swinging side of beef, that element of the process is the (basically) same.
Wet-aging is a relatively new technique where cuts of beef are vacuum-sealed in plastic and shipped to market. The aging takes place in the 4-10 days between slaughter and sale while the meat is in transit. During wet aging, the plastic doesn't allow the meat to breathe, so it ages in contact with its own blood, which creates more intense, sour notes and a more bloody flavour.
So, driven by economics, wet-aged is the type of meat you will normally find at your local supermarket. The beef may be a bit tough, often the case because the beef aging was cut short. It costs money to sit aging on a shelf; better to cut time short - sell and convert the beef to cash.
What to choose: Lean cuts of beef like a flat-iron steak, or Filet Mignon.
Taste Notes: Fresh, metallic flavour.
The meat is hung and dried with controlled temperature, humidity and air circulation while natural enzymes tenderize and enhance flavours. A substantial amount of moisture evaporates, hardening the external surface and developing a crust. When the beef reaches the desired age, the crust is removed and the meat is cut into steaks that will have a rich buttery texture, and incredible flavour.
Dry aging allows the meat to breathe, lose water (therefore more "beefiness"), and get acted upon by external microbes beside those of the muscle itself. These various airborne fungi begin to digest the meat, imparting distinctive flavours and aromas.
What to choose: Best to pick a richly marbled steak like Porterhouse, Bone-In Ribeye, and Strip Steaks.
Taste Notes: Earthy and nutty.
So Which Tastes Better?
It’s really a matter of preference, which can be influenced by characteristics such as cut and marbling. The ubiquitousness of wet-aged steaks (due to cost-effectiveness), means the masses have come to associate the flavour of steak with wet aging, to the point that many find dry-aged beef might not taste as palatable anymore.
Sources: Dry-Aging of Beef, Jeff W. Savell, Ph.D. Texas A&M University