This blog of mine was originally published at meatingplace.com in February 2016
When I teach Center of the Plate (COP) seminars across the country, one question I’m often asked by Millennials who’ve joined the foodservice selling corps is, “Why can’t I get the same high quality steak at my local retail store that I get at my favorite steakhouse?” All things being equal, such as USDA choice (or higher) graded beef, the answer is aging. A trained chef in a restaurant would never send out a steak that has little or no aging, be it “wet” in the vacuum package or “dry” in a specially designed dry-aging cooler.
Why won’t most retailers sell aged steaks?
Before roll-stock packaging technology (aka, thermoforming or vacuum packing) the answer was shelf life. Steaks cut in the meat department would start to rot sitting in those overwrapped foam trays, and most consumers won’t buy brown colored meat. But with roll-stock packaging, steaks can now be packaged in vacuum-sealed individual portions that allow the steaks to age for up to 21 to 28 days without spoiling. We’ve all seen these in the self-serve case in the meat department. Some steaks are now being sold this way, but the vast majority are still sold un-aged, from the full-service glass case or in foam trays overwrapped in plastic, neither of which provide a wet aging environment.
The main reason retailers continue to sell un-aged beefsteaks in the full service meat case is profitability. They make more money cutting steaks than they do buying case ready roll-stock packaged steaks, even though that would be in the best interest of the consumer. Plus, the meat counter looks so great with all those bright red steaks lined up under the glass with flowers and vegetables on the boarders.
And so the retail beefsteak consumer-rip-off rolls on at many meat counters. Uneducated consumers continue to face the disappointment of taking home expensive, tray packed, un-aged steaks. Most are simply unaware that proper steak aging provides the most flavorful bang for their buck. What a shame. Consumers are paying for a premium protein item and getting inferior quality beef. It's like paying for a Rolex and getting a Timex!
This antiquated, 50 year-old steak merchandising model leaves wide open a great opportunity for a major retailer to step up, educate consumers and provide them with restaurant quality steaks at the retail level. Consumers have already accepted roll-stock packaging. Retailers could buy machines to do this in their meat departments, or most meat processers now have this technology, enabling retailers to sell case-ready steaks that have a 21-day shelf life.
Be an Informed Consumer. Ring the Bell
Consumers not in the food business need to know that beefsteaks absolutely require age to become more tender and flavorful. With most proteins you’d feed your family, like ground beef, chicken or seafood, the fresher the better. So buy your ground beef and fish straight out of the full service meat case, but never un-aged steaks. Try buying your steaks at a meat market that only sells wet or dry aged steaks. Ask the meat department to explain their aging program for steaks. Ask about the roll-stocked packaged steaks they offer.
Don’t hesitate to ring the bell and ask the clerk to explain the steak-aging program to you. Tell them you want a restaurant quality steak. If you get a “deer in the headlight” look, like I often do, either buy your steaks somewhere else, or find the roll-stock packaged steaks in the self-serve case yourself.
For more information on beef quality with aging, see: http://www.beefresearch.org/CMDocs/BeefResearch/PE_Executive_Summaries/Industry_Guide_for_Beef_Aging.pdf
What have your experiences been with buying retail steaks? Are you finding retail meat cutters who know how aging effects meat quality and who can make informed recommendations for you?