Beef must be allowed to age between slaughter and cooking, to disperse some of the bloody taste and allow the flavor of the beef to mature. There are two techniques used for aging beef: wet aging, and dry aging, and they result in very different flavors and textures. Most authorities on meat agree that dry aged beef has a superior flavor, and it is often found at fine dining establishments. Wet aged beef tends to be cheaper, and dominates the meat market: almost 90% of the beef sold commercially is wet aged.
Both aging techniques are also designed to make meat more tender. During the aging process, enzymes in the meat work to break down the muscle tissue, making it softer. Wet aged beef is vacuum packed in plastic within 24 hours of slaughter, and allowed to sit under refrigeration for approximately one week. The vacuum packed meat is then cut into more manageable sizes, like steaks and roasts, and sent to market.
Dry aged beef is allowed to hang in a refrigerated cooler for a minimum of two weeks. The beef may be loosely covered in muslin, but it is not sealed, which means that moisture in the meat is allowed to escape. Consequently, the beef shrinks, concentrating its flavor, but the dry aging also softens the meat, resulting in a rich flavor and buttery texture. A gray and moldy layer appears on the outside of the beef, and must be trimmed away before the meat is cut and sold.
Because dry aged beef shrinks and must be trimmed, it represents a loss to the company. Sometimes the meat loses almost one fifth of its volume during the dry aging and trimming process, and as a result the remaining meat costs more than wet aged beef. Dry aged beef also takes up much more room in the coolers of a processing plant, because of the much longer aging period. Until the 1970s, when the wet aging process was developed, dry aged beef was the only type of beef available commercially.
Because dry aging is more expensive and time consuming, it is reserved for particularly high quality cuts of meat. Some consumers prefer the flavor of high quality beef which has been dry aged, as it is much more complex and aggressive than wet aged beef. Wet aged beef, which is what most consumers today are familiar with, has a much more mild flavor and a texture which tends towards the mushy, rather than tender. High quality restaurants seem to prefer dry aged beef, and usually make it available on the menu to those who are willing to pay the premium.