The History of Dry-Aging
by Eric Bedke
This is the time of year when we celebrate our fathers and grandfathers. So much of what we do on the ranch is still done the same way my father, grandfather, and great grandfather did them and we love the legacy of those things. But there are some things from their days, that have evolved for the better, and we wouldn’t go back. Take, for instance, the way we handle the beef we eat. We definitely have the advantage over our progenitors.
Eating beef has always been important to our family, however it has not always been as handy, or as easy, to have beef as it is today. Though society at large has had electricity for many years, we didn’t get electricity at the ranch in Nevada until 1974. I still remember when the beef was handled in the old-fashioned way.
Our family has always lived part of the year at the ranch. Especially during haying time, our family stayed there all summer and also into the fall for the fall round up of the cattle. Because there was no refrigeration there, we had a cellar that was dug into the side of a hill close to the house. Inside the cellar they had built cinderblock walls and then put a wooden roof over it, but had it all, top and sides, covered with dirt for insulation. The temperature was somewhat consistent though it varied some as the weather got hotter or colder.
In the years before I was born, all of the harvesting of the hay was done with teams of horses. During the haying season, the neighboring ranchers on the creek would all go to each other‘s place to help put up their hay (that’s just how we say it around here). So when everybody came to our place, my mother, and my grandmother before her, would cook meals for more than a dozen men plus children, three times a day. This was all done on a wood burning stove and oven, I might add. A beef was killed before haying season started. It would be quartered, wrapped in cheese cloth and burlap, and then a big heavy, insulating blanket (and I mean really heavy), called a Nancy, would be wrapped around the beef and it would be put inside the cellar by day. Because the nighttime temperatures are cooler at the ranch, usually reaching down into the 50°s, even during the heat of the summer, the beef would be unwrapped completely. The carcass would then be hung on a hook that was fastened to the overhanging entryway of the cellar, outside in the night air. That is how they kept it dry and also cooled it. This was when beef was truly dry-aged. It was never frozen. In the morning, the beef that would be used for that day would be cut off of the carcass and then re-wrapped with all of the layers and then put back into the cellar for the day. Great care and proper handling was paramount to keep the meat from spoiling. An outside coat of mold would form as the summer progressed. Even though my wife cringes at the mentioning of “mold”, it is actually nature’s way of helping to preserve the meat. Before re-wrapping the meat in the morning, they would cut off whatever portion was needed. The skin of mold would be trimmed from the meat that would be used for that day. Though this went on during my lifetime, I was too young to remember it well. I do remember seeing the meat hanging during the evening time. My dad always said that when beef was handled in this way, it was the best he had ever eaten. He said the flavor was better and the meat was never more tender.
It was certainly labor-intensive to keep beef on the table in those days. In our process of producing beef today, we mock that old process of dry-aging. We hang it in ideal circumstances for 14 days, where no mold grows, achieving many of the same benefits that we have enjoyed all along.
We are grateful for many of the Old West ways of life that have been handed down to us by our fore- fathers. They taught us the art of dry-aging beef. It is part of what makes the beef we make available to you, have the flavor and tenderness that it does. You can taste the difference.