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Come of Age

Prime aged meat. Three words that make most of us salivate. But what does the phrase mean, exactly? Let's break it down.

PRIME A prime grade, the United States Department of Agriculture's highest classification, has abundant marbling (white speckled fat within the beef's muscle), whose presence is no accident. "It has a lot to do with the genetics of the animals themselves," says Walter Sommers, president of the West Loop-based Ruprecht Company, a 148-year-old meat processor that distributes to many of Chicago's top steak houses. "It also has a lot to do with the age and feed of the animal and the climate the animal is raised in." Of lesser importance, but also a factor, is how many hormones an animal may be given—hormones produce muscle mass, not fat.

AGED Beef contains plenty of tough connective tissue. During the aging process, the natural enzymes in the meat break down the tissue, rendering the beef exponentially more tender and flavorful. Wet-aged meat, generally the preference in the Midwest, is packed in its juices, basically shrink-wrapped in Cryovac, and refrigerated for a minimum of 14 days. It comes out juicier than it began. Dry-aged beef, more popular on the East Coast, sits naked on racks in a temperature-and-humidity-controlled environment, evaporating the beef's natural water and losing roughly 20 to 30 percent of its weight. End result: concentrated flavor. There's no right or wrong here, but most steak houses in Chicago specialize in wet-aging. Only a handful dry-age, which is more expensive, and a few offer both kinds of steaks— Capital Grille, Harry Caray's, Chicago Firehouse, andTramonto's. Try a taste test.

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