Tuesday, May 15, 2012

"Sauternes...the other white wine..."

Sauterne...Sauternes. I had no idea that with the simple addition of an 's' at the end of the word Sauterne(s), we're talking about two completely different wines. You see, Sauternes is a sweet, golden wine produced in the Bordeaux region of France, while Sauterne, refers to a wide variety of white wines produced in California. If you are a wine buff, thanks for your patience, the rest of us are just catching up.

Now I can easily chalk up the reason that I have not really seen or heard any discussions about Sauternes to the fact that since I'm a relative 'newbie' to serious wine culture and the exploration of wine, I am simply not in the loop and surely wine bloggers and aficionados were, and are, talking about Sauternes. I looked online, in magazines, print and talked to some of my 'wine' friends and interesting fact arose. While there is some info and reference material, this is not a wine being overly covered or one that finds its name on the tips of people's tongues (no pun intended). Until now of course. So without further ado....

Noble Rot
A French dessert wine from the Sauternais region of the Graves section in Bordeaux, Sauternes is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. This fungus causes the grapes to become partially raisined, resulting in concentrated and distinctively flavored wines. Sauternes is one of the few wine regions where infection with noble rot is a frequent occurrence, due to its climate. In addition, because small changes in weather conditions can have large effects on the development of this fungus, Sauternes can not be produced consistently every year and production is a hit-or-miss proposition, with widely varying harvests from vintage to vintage.

Sauternes is a perfect foil to savory and rich dishes. The classic pairing with foie gras is Sauternes; however, there are many wonderful alternatives, especially when foie gras is paired with a fruit. With today's complexities in the Sauternes being produced, Sauternes balances out the acidity of the fruit with the sweetness of the wine.

Château d'Yquem
Wines from Sauternes, especially the Premier Cru Supérieur estate Château d'Yquem can be very expensive, due largely to the very high cost of production and sometime rarity of vintage, as this famed chateau will not make a wine in a less-than-perfect year. The most expensive bottle I could find is available in Switzerland at Bellinzona Wine Merchants. They have a bottle of  "1811 d'Yquem" for $77,797.50, but if that is a bit out of your league, you and I may enjoy the 2008 version for about $55.00. Ok, so that we know or remember what it is, let's take a closer look...

In the Beginning....
In the 17th century, Dutch traders active in the trade of German wines started looking for other sources of white grapes when production in Germany began to wane as the popularity of beer increased. The Dutch saw an opportunity for a new production source in Bordeaux and began investing in the planting of white grape varieties. They introduced to the region, German white wine making techniques, such as halting fermentation with the use of sulfur in order to maintain residual sugar levels. Sulfur stuns the yeasts, eventually bringing fermentation to a halt with high levels of sugars still in the wine. The Dutch began to identify areas that could produce grapes well suited for white wine production and soon honed in on the area of Sauternes. The wine produced from this area was known as vins liquoreux but it is not clear if the Dutch were actively using nobly rotted grapes at this point.

Wine expert Hugh Johnson has suggested that the unappealing thought of drinking wine made from fungus-infested grapes may have caused Sauternes producers to keep the use of Botrytis a secret. There are records from the 17th century that by October, Sémillon grapes were known to be infected by rot and vineyard workers had to separate rotted and clean berries but they are incomplete in regards to whether the rotted
grapes were used in the wine making. By the 18th century, the practice of using nobly rotted grapes in Tokaji and Germany was well known. It seems that at this point the "unspoken secret" was more widely accepted and the reputation of Sauternes rose to rival those the German and Hungarian dessert wines. By the end of 18th century, the region's reputation was internationally known: Thomas Jefferson was an avid connoisseur. Jefferson recorded that after tasting a sample of Château d'Yquem while President, George Washington then immediately placed an order for 30 dozen bottles.

The Region
There are five villages in the Graves region of Bordeaux that make this wine style - Sauternes, Barsac, Preignac, Fargues, and Bommes. While all five communes are permitted to use the name Sauternes, the Barsac region is also permitted to label their wines under the Barsac appellation. The Barsac region is located on the west bank of the Ciron river where the tributary meets the Garonne. The area sits on an alluvial plain with sandy and limey soils. In general, Barsac wine is distinguished from other Sauternes in being drier with a lighter body; currently more Barsac producers are choosing to promote the wines under their own name. In years when the noble rot does not develop, Sauternes producers will often make dry white wines under the generic Bordeaux AOC.

With a population of 1,010,000, The Bordeaux region is the seventh largest metropolitan area in France, and has been producing wine since the eighth century and the city is among the world's major wine industry centers. The historic part of the city is on the UNESCO World Heritage List as "an outstanding urban and architectural ensemble" of the 18th century. Its climate is usually classified as an oceanic climate (Köppen climate classification Cfb); however, the summers tend to be warmer and the winters milder than most areas of similar classification. Substantial summer rainfall prevents it from being classified as a Mediterranean climate. How the regions climate affects the production of Sauternes and its intense sweetness is, in the autumn, the Ciron river produces mist that descends upon the area and persists until after dawn. These conditions are conducive to the growth of the fungus (noble rot) which desiccates the grape and concentrates the sugars inside.

It may well be that since the area boasts some of the most well known and expensive wines in the world, Sauternes is the proverbial red-headed stepchild. Included among the list of legends are the area's five 'premier cru' (first growth) red wines (four from Médoc and one, Château Haut-Brion, from Graves), established by the Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855: The first growths are: Château Lafite-Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Latour, Château Haut-Brion, Château Mouton-Rothschild.

Semillon is the primary grape here as it takes well to bortrytis. Sauvignon Blanc is also used in the blend to add acidity to the richer, thicker Semillon. The process for making the sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac is long, labored and costly. The Semillon grape is left on the vine, after it has reached maximum ripeness, until it is infected with botrytis, or noble rot. The helpful mold then shrivels the grapes, concentrating the sugar but maintaining the acids. Weather is not always agreeable and berries must be picked at just the right moment, all by hand. Like ice wines, the grapes do not produce as much wine as normally harvested grapes due to their shriveled and concentrated state, thereby contributing to the high cost. To qualify for the Sauternes label, the wines must have a minimum 13% alcohol level and pass a tasting exam where the wines need to taste noticeably sweet. There is no regulation on the exact amount of residual sugar that the wine needs to have.

The botrytis spores are encouraged by the mist and the warmth around the vines. Once they attach themselves to the grape they begin a process of desiccation and they chemically alter components of the grape must. This process increases the concentration of sugars and tartaric acid. During fermentation, this stimulates the production of glycerol which imparts to the resulting wine high levels of viscosity. The fungus also has a dramatic affect on aroma and flavor compounds. This unique element of botrytized wines distinguishes them from other wines that derive their sweetness from fortification, drying or being harvested late. Historically the region would average three vintages a decade producing the conditions needed for the Botrytis cinerea to fully develop. The late 20th century has been more fruitful with an average of six vintages with the needed conditions. The production of Sauternes is very labor-intensive: harvest workers hand-pick individual berries that have been properly infected with the fungus. This may require several trips throughout the vineyard over a couple of weeks. The shriveled and nearly raisin grapes yield only a small amount of juice. It is not uncommon for an entire grapevine to produce only enough juice to make a single glass of wine. This contributes to a very small production, with most producers averaging 1,000-7,000 cases a year, and is the primary reason for the high costs associated with Sauternes.

The influence with the most impact on the resulting wine takes place in the vineyard, where the character and complexity of the botrytis-infected grape is set prior to wine making. At the winery, the grapes are treated as gently as possible during pressing. In the 1980s, the controversial and expensive pre-pressing process of cryoextraction was developed. During this process, the grapes are placed in a special cooling compartment where they are chilled for 20 hours. Grapes that are less ripe have a higher water concentration than riper, sugar-saturated grapes. During this cooling process, the water is frozen, allowing the pressing process to maximize the amount of concentrated juice that is produced. Traditionalists have contended that cryoextraction is an excuse for "lazy harvesting" and that it adds to the expense of Sauternes without necessarily adding to the quality. However its use has been steadily rising, especially in poor vintage years. Fermentation frequently takes place in oak barrels with the house style dictating the amount of new oak used each vintage. Some winemakers may choose to stop fermentation prematurely by the use of sulfur dioxide, in order to maintain higher levels of residual sugar. After fermentation the wine will be aged from 18-36 months in oak prior to release.

2005 Château Guiraud Premier Cru Classé
The annual production for the first growth is about 100,000 bottles. Some really bad years (1991 and 1993), no classified growth has been produced. The first growth is produced from 209 acres of Sauternes appellation vines.Only Semillon (65%) and Sauvignon (35%) are planted at Guiraud with a pruning "à cots" or "in fan" for the Millions and long branches for the Sauvignons. The average age of the vines is 35-40 years. Harvest is only done by hand picking in successive waves through the vineyard (2 to 7 selections), picking only the botrytised berries. A minimum of potential alcohol (20°) must be reached before starting the harvest.
Château Guiraud
The fermentation made in new oak barrels over a period of three weeks to two months. Different batches are fermented until they reach their own equilibrium which depends upon their selection. Chaptalisation, cryoextraction and any other technique used to enrich the wine are absolutely prohibited. The aging in barrels lasts 24 months.

Winemakers notes: The wine is great, complex, and exuberant. We feel very fine aromas of crystallized orange, exotic, mentholated, and few notes of ginger. The noble rot was very beautiful this vintage, the botrytis has a splendid purity. The finale taste is explosive, honeyed, with spices and so on. Retail: $69.00
I strongly encourage you to give these wines a try. Sauternes, the other white wine.

Bon Appetit,

Sources www.delongwine.commulled-wine.jpg,,,,

Monday, May 14, 2012

Chef Ming Tsai...Talking Food, Food Philosophy and Priorities...

I recently caught up with Chef Ming Tsai at the Mandarin Hotel in NYC. It was just hours before he and his team would be cooking for 100s of hungry attendees of this year's LuckyRice feast. In town for the feast and the Beard Awards Monday night, he was communicating with staff via text, while sitting down to have tea with me. In the quiet hush of a secluded nook located on the 35th floor lounge, we sat for a bit and he let out a sigh and offered a smile. He looked good, fit, if a bit tired. "This is my 7th event in the last 12 days." he explained as we sat down and got settled in. He flipped through his calendar from charity event after charity event on his schedule and laughed, "It's not usually this crazy; it just so happened that I had all these gigs in a row." Very few chefs talk about their charity endeavors, but as Ming pointed out, "The hospitality industry, specifically food and wine, are the most charitable industries of any when it comes to raising money for good causes." And he's right. Some of the biggest charity events in the US and, across the globe, are usually centered around gourmet food and drink. That also describes Chef Tsai. Always around good food and usually involved in the next charity gig coming up.

Ming, Stephen, Iris & Ming-Hsi
Ming was raised in Dayton, Ohio, where he spent hours cooking alongside his mother, Iris and father, Stephen, at their family-owned restaurant, Mandarin Kitchen. His love of cooking (and eating!) great food was forged in these early years, while also gaining valuable experience in front and back of the house. Ming headed east to attend school at Phillips Academy Andover. From there, Ming continued to Yale University, earning his degree in Mechanical Engineering, but his world remained centered around food and family. We talked about his days in Ohio, "You don't understand, Lou. My mom and dad talked about food, while we were eating food." We laughed, "At dinner, they would discuss what was for lunch tomorrow. We'd be out a restaurant, my mom and dad would be talking about the next restaurant we'd be going to. I remember, the first time I went to Paris, I was very young." He recalled, "I remember subsequent times as well, we would stay at the most rinky dink hotels in order to go to the finer restaurants. The priority was always food over lodging."

Photo by Leanna Creel
"I completely understand." I responded, "I have done the same in order to make sure my food budget was intact. I love to eat at great restaurants It's my art, with the plate as canvas."  He shook his head, "Yes, but I think food is unlike art in that; A painting is pleasing to your sight. Music, pleasing to your ears. Even sculpture, you can touch or see a sculpture. Food touches every sense. You smell it, you taste it, you see it, you feel it, it's texture. How it feels in your mouth. Nothing else does that all at once. And it stays with you. But you're right, I agree, I'd much rather spend the money say, going to Masa for a great meal than on someplace to stay."

Ming with Mom & Dad
His father, Dr. Stephen W. Tsai, born in Beijing and an alumnus of Yale University (B.E. 1952; D. Eng 1961; Mechanical Engineering), is a Professor Research Emeritus, Aeronautics and Astronautics, Stanford University. I asked him about giving up a career in engineering, even though he'd earned his degree from Yale. He recalled his father telling him, "'It's okay son, you weren't going to be a great engineer anyway. This is a better choice.' He laughs, "My mom and dad, they both knew, they were sending me to Paris. They knew I was getting passionate about food, going to Cordon Bleu. I told them, 'I want to be a chef.' They both agreed with my decision and they were glad," he paused, "I remember mom gave me a huge hug. They were happy that at such a young age, I was passionate about something, that I knew what I wanted to do in life. And, they were right. I was right, as things have turned out. I finished out the degree, but I knew I wanted to be a chef. My father always told me 'if you can't be 110% passionate about something, you can't be good at it,' so he understood. I was definitely not passionate about engineering. I was passionate about food." The tea arrived and it steeped as we continued talking.

After Yale, Ming worked in kitchens around the globe. He trained under renowned Pastry Chef Pierre Herme in Paris and in Osaka with Sushi Master Kobayashi. I asked him about his time overseas."I did two and a half years in Paris and it was a great life. I cooked with Pierre, doing pastries. I sous-cheffed at Natacha, playing professional squash on the weekends, living a nice life," he smiles, "but I had been accepted to Cornell when I graduated Yale. I was just too young to go." So, after his two years abroad, he returned to the United States, finally enrolled in graduate school at Cornell University and earned a Master’s degree in Hotel Administration and Hospitality Marketing. "When I got there, (to Cornell), he recalled, "even then, at 24, I was still the youngest in my program." Ming now speaks four languages: English, Spanish, French, and Mandarin Chinese.

After graduating, Tsai then took on a few hotel jobs, helping open the Intercontinental in Chicago, but his entrepreneurial spirit and his desire to be back in the kitchen dictated his next moves. I asked him if he had an eye on owning a restaurant even then and if that was the reason he pursued his education in hospitality. He explained, "When I went to Cornell, yes, I knew I wanted to own a restaurant or some type of business at some point." But, the kitchen called him. A job came open at Silks at the Mandarin Hotel, San Fransisco and Tsai took it. "I missed cooking," he said plainly, "I needed to get back to the kitchen again." It was here that he met Ken Hom, then a consulting chef for The Mandarin. "He truly is one of the fathers of east meets west cuisine and I had been doing that in France, experimenting with Frenese (French/Chinese) for my two years at Natacha." I interjected, You've always been loathe to call it fusion, even back then as well?" He replied quickly, "I hate the word fusion. Confusion is more like it. To me fusion is what you do with a atom. It's very forced. A very violent act. Frenese is more, a blending, but then all food is." I asked him to explain his east meets west style, "Is it more technique with ingredients, or flavors with flavors?"

Photo by Emily Sterne
He thought for a second, drinking a sip of the Lychee~Green Tea. "Here's how it works for me; good east~west cuisine can be either, as you say; east technique/western ingredients, or west technique/eastern ingredients. But, it can never be east with east. The flavors are way too complex, too bold. Japanese/Thai or Chinese/Thai, in my opinion, you don't need that." He continued, "When you think about it, all the top chefs are doing a version of east meet west. They just don't call it that. Look at Jean-Georges, Daniel, Thomas Keller, they call it New American, New French, whatever, but they're all using sesame oil, ginger and soy sauce. When it comes down to at the end of the day, we are all chefs and you use the best ingredients available. Chinese, Indonesian Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, I love that. "It was what I was already cooking, I was just doing what I knew." He further explained, "Chinese, with the Osaka, Paris influence, so it was a natural fit for me."

Photo by Emily Sterne
In 1998, Ming opened Blue Ginger in Wellesley, MA and immediately impressed diners from Boston and beyond with the restaurant's innovative East-West cuisine. Designed by Ming in conjunction with a Feng Shui Master. Cutting to the chase, I asked him, "Why Wellesley, Massachusetts?" He grinned at me and said, "Well, there's a funny story that goes with that, you'll laugh. I was in Santa Fe at the time, '95-'97, my first exec chef job.' He poured himself more tea. "My wife and I had a discussion and both decided we were not going to raise our kids in Santa Fe and we were looking to move. We discussed lots of places, but the one place we knew we were not going was Vegas. I was not moving from a desert to a desert. That made no sense to us". He smiles, "Not two weeks after this conversation, it was a Friday night, we'd just done 500 covers (individual diners) and they told me this gentleman wanted a word with me. This guy comes into the kitchen, glasses on, and says, 'I'd like to open a restaurant with you in Vegas.' Now my father taught me, 'listen to everything.' TV had just started with the foodnetwork, I'd done a few shows for Cooking Live. People started to know me. So I said to be polite, 'Ok what do you have in mind sir?' Ming paused to sip some tea before he continued, "This guys starts reeling off these ridiculous numbers, points, profits square footage, etc. My take home would be incredible amounts and I stopped him and said "Sir I've never heard these kind of numbers before, but even so, I have to turn this down. My family and I have decided, no Vegas, so I just can't take a job in Vegas. He was disappointed, but he hands me his card and says, 'Okay sorry to hear that. My name is Steve Wynne and I'm building The Bellagio. If you change your mind, let me know,'" Tsai laughs, "Todd (English) has that space now, Olives. That was the space."

Photo By Emily Sterne
I asked him, "Do you regret it? He replied evenly,"No, I needed to be my own boss. Back to that entrepreneurial thing. I wanted to own my own restaurant. I definitely wanted to control it. Yea, the money was nice and tempting, but I would rather have something that was mine.  "I'm happy and I'm in the kitchen. I mean, I'm not breaking down a salmon, but, I'm there. And, I eat with my kids." When I'm not traveling, I go home before service and cook a few days a week. I like to eat with the kids."

Photo by Emily Sterne
In it's first year, Blue Ginger received 3 stars from the Boston Globe, was named "Best New Restaurant" by Boston Magazine, was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as "Best New Restaurant 1998," and Esquire Magazine honored Ming as "Chef of the Year 1998." The James Beard Foundation crowned Ming "2002 Best Chef Northeast" and, since 2002, the Zagat Restaurant Guide has rated Blue Ginger the "2nd Most Popular Boston Restaurant." In 2007, Blue Ginger received the Ivy Award from Restaurants & Institutions, for its consistent achievement in meeting the highest standards for food, hospitality and service and, in 2009, Ming and Blue Ginger won IFMA's Silver Plate Award in the Independent Restaurant Category recognizing overall excellence in the industry.

Photo by Emily Sterne
Most of us met Chef Ming Tsai from the foodnetwork series Cooking Live, where he, Emeril and a number of other chefs rotated shows in 1997. Ming really began gaining notoriety and acclaim as the 1998 Emmy Award-Winning host of East Meets West with Ming Tsai and later, his popular cooking adventure series, Ming's Quest. "I really loved that show," he says of Quest, "It was awesome, traveling the world. But, the problem was, 80 days a year on the road and I had small kids. Then 9/11 happened, so traveling was out." He continued, "Just as all this was going on, I was approached by WGBH.. They said they were Boston based, they had not done a cooking show since Julia Child and they wanted me to follow her as their second show. I thought, 'Wow, how cool is that' and I took it. That's how I ended up Boston based. We are in pre-production of our 10th season. It's great to do and I am cooking,' he smiled, "so I am happy. I am toying with possibly opening up a smaller place, definitely Boston based as well. The kids are getting a bit older now," he smiles, "it's the year of the dragon this year, I'm a dragon so good things are gonna happen."

Photo by Anthony Tieuli
Ming is the host and executive producer of the show, SIMPLY MING. which received two Emmy nominations in 2009 for 'Outstanding Culinary Program' and 'Outstanding Lifestyle/Culinary Host,' and received two Bronze Telly Awards in the categories of 'Lighting' and 'Art Direction. In addition to television, Ming is the author of four cookbooks: Blue Ginger: East Meets West Cookingwith Ming Tsai, Simply Ming, Ming's Master Recipes, and Simply Ming One-Pot Meals. You can learn more about Ming's cookbooks here.

Ming also traveled to the Beijing Olympics with NBC’s Today show to provide viewers with insight into food customs and traditions that define his Chinese heritage. When I asked after his family, he became animated, smiling, "Yea, the kids are great, almost 10 and 12 now. We just came off a three generational trip to Beijing and it was awesome on multiple levels. To be there with my parents and my kids. The city will never ever again be like that as well. It was the cleanest air, no smog, no traffic, which is unheard of in Beijing." I asked him, "Each time you go back, do you learn something new about your heritage and, do you look for that type of experience or does it just happen?" He replied for the most part it just happens. Off the topic of food, he remembered, "What was real cool was my dad got to show my kids where he grew up. Same house, same sidewalk. It was pretty cool."

Ming with Mom, Iris & Dad, Stephen
Tsai became animated, a trait we've become accustomed to from his TV shows, when he's talking about food he loves. "We went off the beaten track. We went to this place which is known for Peking Duck, but it was a little dive," he laughs, "Like one cherry-wood stove, old guys with stained in white shirts, smoking cigarettes hanging from their mouths. My mom was like 'Really, we're eating here?' We laughed, "Lou, it was so good. It was amazing. And, they cut it differently. Usually you know, you take the skin off and it's cut length wise, usually your eating it more for the skin than the meat. They did it more French style, so you got a juicy piece of meat with the skin, It was so much better." He added, "The best part was it was half the price of a meal gotten elsewhere at a 'name' restaurant. It was the best experience."

We laughed about the fact that just a food memory and its description could still get us all excited when just talking about it. Thinking back to our earlier discussion, I understood what Ming was getting at when speaking about food touching all the senses, but it also can touch our hearts. I guess that is the true beauty of the celebration of good food. In the end, we are ultimately foodies.

Rejoining the reference in the beginning of this piece, about; chefs, culinary and charities, Chef Ming Tsai is proud to be a national spokesperson for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. As the father of a child with food allergies and the chef-owner of his own restaurant, Blue Ginger, Ming is aware of the seriousness of food allergies from a variety of perspectives. "When David was born, he had seven food allergies," he stated." "Chefs son." I quipped. He replied, "Yea, practical joke from upstairs," smiling, he pointed a thumb up, "but on the other hand, it was ok. He was a chef's son. I could control what he ate and believe me, he still eats better than 99% of most folks out there."

Through his work with FAAN and at Blue Ginger, Ming has brought about change in Massachusetts in the form of a new food allergy safety law. "What I am proud of is, I helped pass the first law in the Union to make restaurants safer. It has become my calling." He became serious,"Every customer has the right to know what's in his or her food." Ming's Food Allergy Reference Book, is a great resource. He states, "Ingrained from my childhood, was be good to people. Supporting some of these charities fits that bill."

One can understand why Chef Tsai, with his smooth style and easy going manner, has chosen to walk the path he has, in his own unique way. His priorities are set and in order, he's enjoying a life with his family and loving the actual journey he's on, letting the destination take care of itself. It seems to me that he has undertaken that same Feng Shui attitude applied to his restaurant and cuisine and let it permeate his lifestyle as well. A few new ventures on the horizon, one involving a balanced, healthy look at life, eating food in the right proportions and leading a balanced lifestyle, is something he is enthusiastic about. But, like the chef that he is, as the approaching dinner for 700 drew closer, his mind started to wander to the service coming up in a few hours. His balanced philosophy and Zen-like look at life, family and food, is a theme throughout everything he does and he is content to ride the current wave he's on, as long as he's steering the direction of the boat.

Bon Appetit,


Photos courtesy of, Ming Tsai Ming East-West, LLC, Emily Sterne

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The At Home Cook Series, # 9: Dry Aged vs. Wet Aged Steaks

In The At Home Cook Series I have covered all the steps necessary to get you ready to tackle complex recipes at home. I recently did a piece on grilling and also barbecue, so I though with summer coming, I'd talk about the proteins we all love to grill and my personal favorite thing to grill is my debut protein; Steaks! So far in the series we have covered:
Today I'll hopefully answer a question I received from a friend of mine about steaks and specifically, the difference between Dry Aged and Wet Aged . There has been a move in recent years for restaurants to purchase, butcher and dry age all of their own meat. This can be very time consuming and costly method, but with the right love and respect for the process, it yields an amazing end result. People flock to these restaurants to have "In House Dry Aged Bone In Rib-eyes." You can easily do this at home, and wow your friends and quests at the flavor of your incredible steaks.

So what’s all the buzz about? Why are diners drawn to this mysterious preparation? What are the differences between dry aged and wet aged? Why has dry aged beef earned the title of "the ultimate in tenderness and flavor?" Hopefully I can educate you on some of these unanswered questions. It is not as difficult as it may seem and can actually be reproduced in your own refrigerator at home.

All meat benefits from some amount of aging before being sold and consumed. Dry aging can enhance a steak in many ways, but it can also be very expensive, as it produces a decent amount of waste. The process involves hanging or laying the meat from or on racks in open air, spaced out enough to allow the air to circulate around the exterior. It is done in a constant temperature ranging between 35 and 38 degrees Fahrenheit, and a humidity of 50-60%. Dry-aging beef is basically like making cheese. You are using moisture, temperature, and airflow to allow controlled spoilage of the exterior. This process can be done for 10 to 28 days for optimum results, depending on the size of meat. Once the meat is left in the room or refrigerator for the desired time, you will be able to see spoilage or rotting meat on the outside. Don’t be alarmed, as we are not going to consume that part of the steak. Simply place the aged beef on a clean cutting board and trim off all the excess "rotted" meat. Discard the trim, and be sure to sanitize your knife and board often. What we are left with inside, is a bright red, full of flavor, and very tender steak!

Dry aging a steak will concentrate the meats’ flavor. For example, imagine cooking a soup or a stock on the stove; as the water evaporates, the liquid becomes more fortified and more intense in flavor. The same thing is happening inside the steak. As the moisture evaporates from the exterior of the meat, the interior becomes more concentrated in flavor. Also the fat will produce a nutty and buttery aroma and texture due to dry aging. Fat transfers a lot of flavor and moisture to any steak during the cooking process, and it is even more intense after dry aging the meat. If a steak is over aged though, most of the fat must be trimmed off to reveal the beautifully aged meat, so the benefits of aging in the fat would be lost. Over aging can also yield a very gamey or metallic tasting steak that can be very unpleasant, so be careful when aging at home.

To dry age at home, begin by purchasing the best quality meat available. It is more successful to use a larger cut of beef, like a whole rib-eye or strip loin. Open up the package and dry off the exterior using a dry clean towel. Wrap the meat with several layers of cheesecloth or towels, changing the towels every day replacing the moist towels with dry ones. Place the meat on the bottom shelf of the cooler where it is coldest, and space them out about 2 inches apart. After the desired aging time, you may cut off a steak, and enjoy, leaving the rest of it to age in the cooler. Once trimmed, you may freeze the steaks for several months, as long as they are wrapped tightly in a freezer proof plastic wrap.

Now that we understand dry aging a bit more, let's explore wet aging. This is a very misunderstood process, as most people believe that this is some type of wet rub or marinade. But the truth is, almost all steaks are wet aged. From the time it takes the meat to be slaughtered, butchered, packaged, sorted, shipped, stored, distributed to the hotel, restaurant or supermarket, the meat is aging. After it is butchered, the meat is wrapped under vacuum in a package called "cryovac", which is an airtight plastic covering. Normally the meat will be shipped and stored for up to 4 weeks before it gets to the consumer. This is wet aged meat, because it is sitting inside that cryovac with all the residual blood and purge releasing into the plastic during that process.

So then it would be fair to say that all dry aged meat, today, has been wet aged for a period of time. Yes, that would be true, unless of course a restaurant is growing their own cattle out back, and bypassing the meat butcher, packing house and distributor, but this is not very likely.

Which one is better dry or wet aged? This is definitely a matter of personal opinion, and one that requires a trained palate. We’ll leave that to the steak aficionados! After years of eating these flavorful steaks though, I can attest to their superior quality and unique appeal, but that is only one man’s opinion. Give it a try on your own, or check with you local beef purveyor or butcher shop near you.

As always, Bon Appetit,