Illustration: Mario Rivera
When I was growing up in California, my grandfather owned a meat market. From the abattoir, he would receive huge sides of beef (each side is half a cow) which were hung in a special temperature- and humidity-controlled walk-in fridge. The sides would hang for weeks to dry-age - a type of controlled (and safe) rot-ting process starting on the exterior of the carcass and slowly working its way in. The exterior would first dry out and a greyish crust would form; then, over the weeks, natural enzymes would tenderise the meat by breaking down the connective tissue while the flavour would intensify through the evaporation of liquid. When my grandfather had aged a carcass sufficiently, he'd use large knives to cut off the crust, trimming as far down as he needed to get to the deep red meat.
Unfortunately, it's not easy to find dry-aged beef, although an increasing number of steak restaurants and suppliers in Hong Kong are preparing the meat this way themselves. Dry-aged beef is expensive because producing it is costly to the butcher; the fridge has to be large because the carcass-es need a sufficient amount of space while hanging so the air around them can circu-late. There's also a lot of waste because the butcher has to trim off the discoloured parts of the meat (the trimmings are sold to a rendering plant).
If you buy your meat from supermarkets, it's likely that your beef has been wet-aged. This process, in which large chunks of beef are sealed in plastic bags and refrigerated, tenderises the meat. But it's not the process of sealing it in the bag that causes the meat to soften; it's the naturally occurring tenderisation that comes about when the muscles relax after rigor mortis. (The reason wet-market beef tends to be tough is that it's cooked too soon after the cow is killed, so the meat is still undergoing rigor mortis.) Wet-ageing is far less costly because it takes up less space (the bags of beef can be stacked) and there's little waste: the meat isn't exposed to air for a prolonged time so there's no crust to trim off. But it also has far less flavour than dry-aged beef.
It is possible to dry-age beef at home, up to a point. It works best with larger chunks of beef because the meat shrinks as it dries out. Clear as much space as possible on the top shelf of your fridge, put the unwrapped meat on a rack and refrigerate it for a few days, depending on the size of the piece. Turn the meat over twice a day, so it dries evenly. The beef will change from the bright red colour of fresh meat to a deeper, darker red, but it won't (or shouldn't) smell rotten. Season the beef then cook it as normal.
Truc (tryk): noun, masculine, trick, gimmick, device. A French word for a chef's secret.