Using my secondary refrigerator that I cure meats in, I experimented with dry aging venison quite a bit this Winter. I’m running this refrigerator at 40 degrees with 60-70% humidity, a bowl of salt water and a clip on fan (facing the wall for indirect air flow).
My setup is not totally optimal, in fact, far from it, but I did get excellent results, nonetheless. Because this refrigerator is not a full conversion chamber, I do not have it set up for hanging more than one or 2 primal cuts of deer, certainly not an entire deer. To get around this, I use several wire cooling racks to separate the cuts of meat and rotate and flip them as needed to ensure airflow reaches all of the meat exteriors. Basically, my experiments with dry aging were to see how effective it could be using no speciality equipment beyond a dedicated refrigerator, a $12 fan and some wire racks.
After 3-4 days, the silverskin will have separated a bit from the meat due to shrinkage. This makes silverskin removal, if needed, (the more experience I gain working with venison, the less I find myself needing to remove sliverskin). For example, on a backstrap, after 3-4 days, you can peel the silverskin off with your hands like unwrapping a plastic wrapper. At this point, the meat is very easy to work with as far as butchering. You have had just enough moisture loss that butchering is a very clean operation as there is little excess blood and moisture. Primal cuts dry aged for this duration are an absolute pleasure to butcher.
However, the meat has not reached its potential as far as the aging process developing flavor complexities. For this, its going to take at least 7-10 days, at which point you will begin to notice the earth tones of the meat mellowing out and getting slight pungent overtones (like aged cheese) that will increase as the aging process continues.
The picture above is a Venison leg after 10 days. Notice the darker color and grain separation. The silverskin surface layer peeled off in one easy pull with 0 loss of meat.
Once you pass 10-14 days, you are beginning to enter the “long aging” (at least by amateur standards) process. This should probably not be attempted if you do not know what you are doing and do not have a proper setup.
Venison shoulder at 12 days. At this stage, just another 2 days will make a noticeable difference. The exterior of the meat begins to form a slight crust. Earth tones have mellowed almost entirely, meat has a neutral smell with a slight, but building punginous.
Long aging. Somewhere between day 15 and 20, especially on smaller cuts such as backstrap, you will have a definite outer crust that is surprisingly hard. (the pictured meat is uncooked). You can thump it and it makes a sound. The crust is very dark in color and the entire piece is stiff. A very sharp knife is required for efficient cutting (or the meat will crush). Cooked to medium rare, this piece was excellent -very mellow and subtle with a crunchy surface and tender interior.
With this particular backstrap, I had been cutting and cooking small sections every couple of days. After day 20 or so, the crust was hard enough that it had to be removed before cooking. The problem with having to remove crust on venison is that you are losing precious amounts of meat.
*If I had to put a monetary value on this particular dry aged piece of venison, I’d probably place in in the $40+ range per pound.*
For the sake of comparison, below is a picture of a venison shoulder that has been in ice (and shank sawed prematurely above the joint):
In the above picture, if you need to remove silverskin, you will certainly have a loss of meat. If frozen with the film of surface moisture, the meat will be more prone to frost and freezer burn.
Conclusions: Dry aging is by far the superior way to go. You can simulate the environment enough for 4 day aging using a very large ice chest with a rack installed to keep the meat off the ice and a tiny battery powered fan for air circulation. I would not, however, attempt aging beyond 4-7 days in those circumstances unless you are monitoring the conditions inside the cooler with a thermometer. In the past, I have been suspicious as to whether actual, productive aging can be achieved at home using layman’s tools. After experimenting and getting surprising good results, I have to conclude that it can be done, even done well.
Meat that will be ground should go to the grinder sooner rather than later. Since the grinder will tenderize the meat anyway, the meat will not benefit from the aging process. Also, you will be mixing any surface bacteria in with ground meat so it is safer to not give the bacteria much time to develop.
Primal cuts that will be slow cooked or braised will not really benefit much from the aging process beyond 4-7 days. These meats will go into pots and cook for hours, so tenderization is not really a problem. Intrinsic complex flavors will tend to get lost in the process. Nonetheless, I experimented with slightly longer aging times just to see if there is any difference in comparison to the same cuts aged 4-7 days.
Conventional wisdom is that only cuts of meat that will be cooked for a short time under high heat will benefit from any sort of long aging. For the most part, this will be your backstraps (loins) and tenderloins, but you could cook eye of round this way as well. -a little tougher, but I have done it before. Based on that, only these cuts will truly benefit from long aging.
* Note: The aging temperature used in these examples was 40 degrees. Many people tend to hold their storage coolers just above freezing at 35F or so. That 5 degrees difference will slow the aging process down considerably. Though the USDA requires temps that low, I find it entirely unnecessary and overkill. My comparative results of the long aged backstrap were visually on par with another backstrap aged nearly 2 weeks longer at 35 degrees (5 degrees colder).
What if the difference between dry aging and wet aging? Read “Dry vs. Wet: A Butcher’s Guide to Meat Aging.
Aging is the process during which microbes and enzymes act upon the meat to help break down the connective tissue, for the sake of making the aforementioned 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 same (okay, almost the same).
During wet aging, the plastic doesn’t allow the meat to breathe, so it ages in contact with its own blood, which lends it “a more intense sour note and a more bloody/serumy flavor,” according to the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Minnesota. This sounds a bit negative when you’re talking about the flavor of a steak, but the fact that upwards of 90 percent of the beef taken home by American grocery store shoppers in plastic-wrapped foam trays is wet-aged seems to suggest that it can’t be all bad.
Dry aging, on the other hand, allows the meat to breathe, lose water (which increases its “beefiness” since there is now less water and but the same amount of muscle fiber), and get acted upon by other microbes beside those of the muscle itself. Those other microbes are the long, threadlike mycelia of various airborne fungi that begin to digest the meat, giving an aged loin its distinctive flavor, aroma, and fuzzy exterior. So dry aging wins, right? It’s complicated: while most meat snobs (myself included) prefer dry-aged beef, the American public actually prefers bagged beef according to a number of very expensive meat studies. Certainly you could chalk those results up to Americans preferring what they have become used to and choosing bagged meat over the funkier flavor of dry-aged beef. -Tom Mylan
My personal experience with dry aged vs. wet aged Venison (very different than beef) is that, no question, dry aged is far superior in every way. In fact, I would not even bother wet aging venison primarily because I do not enjoy working with the texture.