I visited Sanagan’s Meat Locker, Kensington Market’s newest butcher, on my search for a fresh, whole leg of pork to use for the ham I wanted to make for New Year’s Day. While there I also picked up some beef inside round to roast for Christmas. This beef was grass-fed and comes from nearby Durham Region. When they heard I wanted to serve it a week later the guys at Sanagan’s offered to vac-pack the beef for me but wanting to try my hand at a little home dry-aging I passed.
When I got them home the roasts had the bright, dark-red colour that I associate with grass-fed beef. They were sightly wet on the surface but that probably had a lot to do with the trip in a plastic bag and would only really have been a problem if I wanted to cook and serve them immediately. Luckily, this beef was destined to spend a week in a cold refrigerator.
During my Google-powered search for information about dry-aging I rediscovered Joseph Mitchell’s excellent New Yorker article “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks“. In this essay Joe Mitchell describes the (sadly defunct) institution of the beefsteak which flourished in New York between 1870 and the Second World War. As a sort of political or service group rally the beefsteak combined those two most New York of past-times (at least in the days before Prohibition): the consumption of massive quantities of beef and corrupt politics. I was spoiled for choice when combing the article in search of representative sections to quote but here is Mitchell lamenting the gender integration of beefsteaks after the 19th Amendment made women equal targets for corrupt politicians.
The life of the party at a beefsteak used to be the man who let out the most ecstatic grunts, drank the most beer, ate the most steak, and got the most grease on his ears, but women do not esteem a glutton, and at a contemporary beefsteak it is unusual for a man to do away with more than six pounds of meat and thirty glasses of beer.
The (slightly) more relevant section comes later in the article when Mitchell describes how the butcher, Mr. Wertheimer, would cut off the inch-thick layer of blue mold from the outside of the shell sub-primal before butchering it into steaks. With only a week in the refrigerator I knew that I wouldn’t get–and didn’t want–any blue mold. What I was doing was more along the lines of the casual, home dry-aging outlined by Harold McGee and Shirley Corriher and discussed on this Chowhound thread. I used my parents’ basement refrigerator which is infrequently opened (so stays colder) and was a bit more humid than usual because it was also holding a very large bowl with a whole pig’s leg and over four litres of cure.
After seven days both roasts had changed significantly. They had a very dark, almost black skin that had an appropriately leathery texture. Both had lost about eight ounces, from an original three and a half pounds, or roughly fifteen percent, to evaporation. A further two ounces was cut from each roast when I used a very sharp paring knife to carefully peel and chip away the inedible, tough outermost layer.
To cook the beef I used the Cook’s Illustrated Slow-Roasted Beef recipe. The preparation for this recipe involves sprinkling the outside of the roast with kosher salt, wrapping in plastic, and refrigerating up to overnight. After adding oil and pepper to the outside the meat is seared in a very hot pan for three minutes aside. It’s finished in a very cool oven (225°F) until it reaches a temperature roughly twenty degrees shy of done and then the oven is turned off and the beef left inside to coast the rest of the way.
I worried that the inside round’s lack of a significant fat cap would mean that the roast might dry out in the oven. Luckily I still had about twelve ounces of bacon I had used to make bacon blondies. I cut approximately half of this into very thin strips and the other half into lardons. The lardons were forcibly stuffed into slits made in the top of each roast and the strips were laid across the top. Both are means of slowly introducing more fat to the leaner beef as it cooks.
Some describe the taste of grass-fed beef as “minerally” or “livery” but I don’t think either applies in this case. The flavour was assertively beefy and buttery but didn’t have the stronger metallic notes of liver. Most amazing was that the beef–through some combination of its quality, grass diet, and the short home dry-aging–tasted one degree of doneness more rare than it was cooked. In other words, the leftover piece that I just savoured was medium-rare shading to medium and had all of the pleasantly firm chew it should while maintaining the fresh, buttery, essence-of-beef taste that I associate with bone marrow and very rare beef.