'Hands down, Irish beef is the best in the world' - Kai restaurant's award-winning chef Jess Murphy
How do you like your steak - well done, rare or 100 days old? Here, Alex Meehan examines the growing trend for aged beef in Ireland, and finds out why matured meat has more flavour
By now, most of us have become used to seeing the words '21-day aged' or 'aged for 28 days' on pre-packed beef in our supermarkets and butchers shops. What was once seen as a niche product only really required by restaurateurs has now gone mainstream.
But how exactly is beef aged? Are some methods better than others, and is there a perfect age we should be seeking out in order to get the best flavour?
The godfather of Irish aged beef is undoubtedly Peter Hannan. Based in Moira in Northern Ireland, the Kildare native's company, Hannan Meats, ages its beef in chambers lined with Himalayan pink salt. Its products are served in top restaurants in Ireland and Britain, and sold in shops like Fortnum & Mason in London.
At this stage there isn't a significant award for beef production or flavour that Hannan hasn't won. But that's not to say that things took off quickly for him when it came to finding a market for his aged beef.
"We've dry-aged beef for years, but it took us seven years of trial and error to arrive at the method we use now. We didn't build our first salt chamber until we were pretty sure that it would make a real impact, and what we learned along the way is that there is no blueprint or recipe to follow," he says.
According to Hannan, no two ageing processes are the same for the simple reason that there are so many variables at work. "It depends on the beef you're starting out with, and whether you have light, salt, humidity - they all play a role. Thousands of people around the world age beef, but each of them produces a different product. It's like a fingerprint; each one is unique," he says.
That said, there are some common parameters. All meat benefits from some ageing after an animal is killed and before it is sold and eaten. After an animal is slaughtered, enzymes go to work, breaking down the tissue and making the meat more tender and easier to digest. Chicken needs a few days, while pork and lamb generally take a little longer.
However, beef is where the technique of ageing meat is most important, which explains why it's celebrated on the label when you see it in the shops.
There are two predominant ways of ageing meat - wet and dry. Wet age\ing is the new kid on the block, a technique that appeared with the development of plastics and refrigeration. Using this method, the meat is portioned up, vacuum-packed straight away, and shipped to the supermarket. The ageing it goes through happens in transit, as it sits in fridges and lorries, and eventually in the supermarket's storage area. During this time, the meat sits in its own blood and can end up with a slightly liver-ish flavour that most people now consider normal. This is the cheaper way of getting meat to market, with the result that it's the method used for most meat that is purchased and consumed in Ireland.
With dry ageing, after slaughter the meat is hung in a cold room and left for between 21 and 28 days before being portioned up and shipped out for sale.
"The reason you see these specific numbers - 21 and 28 days - on labels is that this is about as far as you can take a piece of meat in a cold room without any other controls. There's no nice way of saying it: what happens after that 28 day period is that if the environment the meat is in isn't further controlled, it starts to rot," says Peter Hannan. "In the 28 day period, the enzymes in the meat have done their job and it has become about as tender as it's going to get."
But 28 days isn't as far as meat can go. Hannan ages meat for far longer, and 30 days is the minimum age he provides. As to the upper limit, there basically isn't one.
"The whole point of taking beef beyond a period of time is not about tenderness, it's about concentrating flavour. When meat is properly dry-aged in the right environment past this 21 to 28-day window, it loses moisture and starts to dehydrate, leaving a more concentrated beefy flavour behind," he says.
To further control the process, Hannan uses light and humidity controls, and manages the air speed inside his ageing chamber. "Dry-aged meat is generally more expensive than wet-aged, but there's a good reason for this. The process of dry-ageing is about displacing moisture, so the meat loses weight. In addition, when it's finished it also needs to be trimmed to cut away waste," he says. "If you put a 20kg rib and loin together in a dry ageing room for a month, when it comes out it will weigh around 16kg - you basically lose 18 to 20pc of the weight."
Hannan has around 5,500 beef loins and ribs in circulation on his site at any one time, and among them are a couple of ribs in the salt chamber that are 1,200 days old. "We use them to do tests and make sure that everything we're doing is safe," he says.
And while the minimum amount of time Hannan Meats ages beef for is 30 days, restaurants and other customers often ask for ages far in excess of this. "The average age that meats come out is 35 to 38 days, and then we do some extra aged for the London chef Mark Hix, and for Fortnum & Mason. We've provided 75-day aged beef, and even gone to 100 days for some customers," he says.
Hannan's own preferred age of beef is 45 days - after this point, he personally feels that things get a little funky.
"We believe that 45 days gives you the perfect balance between tenderness, flavour and succulence - all the qualities that make a really fantastic piece of beef. Once you go beyond that, you're not changing the tenderness but what you get is more and more concentrated flavour and a certain nuttiness. Go too far and you end up with a slightly funky blue cheese flavour - which is lovely in cheese, but not for everyone in beef," he says.
Reuven Diaz is half Japanese and half Filipino, and was raised in a variety of countries including South Africa, Thailand, Japan, the Philippines and the US, as his father worked with Unicef. Today, along with his partner Jeni Glasgow, he runs the Eastern Seaboard restaurant in Drogheda, Co Louth. He's a customer of Peter Hannan's, and offers a 65-day aged steak on his menu.
"After 28 days you can have a perfectly fine piece of meat, but people are far more receptive now to what's out there and to pushing the boundaries. People absolutely love the aged steak we offer," Diaz says. "The easiest way to describe it is that it gives you a little more of an intense umami flavour that you just can't get with younger beef. Some people say it's nutty or earthy, and I guess that's true, but it's also just richer in flavour."
When he first put it on the menu three or four years ago, Diaz had to tell customers what to expect when they ordered it. "We had to watch people send back steaks saying 'that's gone off'. It broke my heart, and the reality was that the people sending the steaks back just hadn't tasted anything like them before. We were spending a lot of money on very good beef and people didn't get it," he says.
That's no longer an issue, and today the 65-day aged steak on the Eastern Seaboard menu is a popular item that people travel for. "You guys are so lucky here in Ireland that all your beef is grass-fed - that's basically a luxury in most countries. You pay extra for it in the US, for example, because most of the cattle there is grain-fed," he says.
The difference, according to Diaz, is that grass-fed beef has actual flavour in its meat as well as in its fat, whereas grain-fed beef in the US tends not to have as much natural flavour.
"Grain-fed beef is seductive because it's very fatty, but it doesn't satisfy in quite the same way. There are quite a few places offering properly dry-aged beef now, which is very encourageing," says Diaz.
Jess Murphy runs Kai restaurant in Galway along with her partner David, and was recently named best chef in Ireland at the Restaurants Association of Ireland awards. A native of New Zealand, she is also a fan of Irish dry-aged beef.
"For me it's important to know exactly where our beef comes from. We work with Brady's Family Butchers in Athenry because they have their own abattoir, which means I have complete oversight of the chain of production from cow to plate," she says.
"I go out to them every six months and see the whole process from killing, to breaking down, to ageing, to us. We currently have a striploin on the menu, but we also have an ox-tongue terrine that's popular and that uses the whole head of the animal. In winter, we have an oxtail soup that is really fantastic," she says.
Murphy says it's difficult to overstate just how good Irish beef is. "It's 100pc, hands down, the best in the world. I've been everywhere - I've eaten wagyu in Japan and so on - but I think Irish beef is out of this world," she says.
She likes her beef aged to about 32 days for her restaurant; for her, that's the sweet spot. But when it comes to cooking methods, she's totally open to anything, from rare to 'cremated'.
"I don't really care how people like to eat their beef - of course I'd rather they order their steak medium rare as I think that's how it tastes best, but I'm more interested in paying my 23 staff and keeping the doors open, so anyway the customer wants it is just fine with me."
Anyone for jerky?
Driven by health-conscious consumers looking for low-fat, high-protein snacks, the beef jerky industry is booming in Ireland. A number of companies here now offer these dried-beef products, and one of the most high profile is Rucksnacks, which was set up by a backpacker couple who saw how popular jerky was while they were travelling the world.
"The one constant we found was dried beef snacks - we saw them in Canada, the US, South Africa and Asia, yet you didn't really see them in Ireland," says co-founder Colm Connolly (pictured right), a beef farmer from Monaghan.
"We tend to associate beef with steaks and burgers, but we forget how good it is for us and how lean it is. That's where our company was born. We make our jerky in a fully-approved food grade environment, and carefully control all aspects of the process. The end product is the holy grail of snack foods: tasty, satisfying and healthy at the same time."
Rucksnacks offers five flavours of jerky: original, honey roast, fiery chilli, spicy curry and sweet chilli. They're available from stockists nationwide or via the company's website rucksnacks.com, where a box of eight packets costs €20.
"They're super high in protein - a pack typically comes in at about 16g per 30g pack, yet it's only 89 calories. We worked on it for over a year to get the product right," says Connolly.
So how has this new, yet old, snack been received in Ireland?
"We launched in 2016 and initially consumers were a bit wary, as they didn't really know what it was," Connolly says. "In the rest of the world it's entirely normal, but here it was a new thing. But Irish people in general are becoming much better travelled so they're seeing these kind of snacks abroad, and they're increasingly happy to see them here as a result."