Aging wild game is a growing trend in the hunting industry. I’m seeing more and more people trying it out or wanting to learn about the process. There are two main types of aging each with their own pros and cons. Dry aging is considered to be the pure, traditional form of aging because the meat develops intense flavors but requires a strictly controlled environment. For those who aren’t set up with the right equipment, wet aging is a great way to tenderize your meat. This process is really simple but one of the most common questions is “how long should I age it?” I set out to test different aging times for venison loin and compare whether or not the difference of tenderness was worth the time invested.
Before I get into the details, let’s be clear on what aging is and why we want to do it. Animals are athletes which means their muscles are highly developed. Enzymes in the body are constantly building up and breaking down protein and the breakdown process continues even after death. Rigor Mortis takes over for a short period of time after the kill and then calpain, the primary enzyme responsible for this action, begins to break down muscle fiber which results in the tenderization of meat. Therefore aging is sometimes referred to as a decaying process but understand this is not the same as spoiling your meat.
Wet aging is relatively new in the history of aging meat because it didn’t exist prior to the development of plastics. Essentially all you do is vacuum seal your meat and leave in the fridge at normal temperature for 7 to 28 days to age. The enzymes are still at work breaking down the tissue and the bag seals out all air to prevent any potential contamination. This is a much easier process and can also be done to previously frozen meat so long as it was cleaned properly and is sealed in a vacuum bag. In fact, many times I take meat from the freezer a week before I plan to cook and allow it to age if I didn’t do it prior to freezing.
This technique is better for lean cuts that have no protective barrier of fat because it eliminates water loss and therefore loss by trimming off dried meat. The downside to wet aging is that the meat does not concentrate and develop the depth of flavor the way dry-aging can because there is no water loss or mold growth. It does however rest in a bag of its own juices and blood, this is what carries the game flavor you are associated with. Because of this, I allow the meat to sit in the fridge unwrapped on top of a cooling rack set inside of a sheet tray for 24 hours prior to sealing. This gives the meat time to dry out just slightly and let excess amount of blood drip into the tray before sealing in the bag. If you shoot a deer or antelope that had been eating sage and are worried about the game flavor, I would recommend this. Every 7 days that you age you can pour out the blood, pat it dry and reseal again, repeating until you are done aging.
Testing Wet-Aging Times
During my research I came across a few standard time frames, 7-14 days seemed to be the typical length in which to wet age. That didn’t seem quite long enough to me. To test different aging times, I took a 6″ portion of the backstrap and let it dry age in the fridge (set at 35 degrees) for 24 hours to let blood run out. Then, I vacuum sealed the loin and left it in the fridge for another 7 days. After a week had passed I opened the bag up, drained any blood that leeched out, cut a 2” filet off, labeled and froze it. I vacuum sealed the leftover loin back in the bag and let it age for another week. Again, I cut a 2” filet off, labeled it 14 day age and froze it. Finally, I re-sealed the last 2” filet and let it age for one more week to reach a 21 day age. By the time I was done I had three 2” filets for testing aging times, a 7, 14 and 21 day age.
When ready to test, I defrosted the other two steaks that had already been aged and I seasoned them with a touch of salt, pepper, garlic and thyme. I decided to cook a la plancha, by searing them in a cast iron pan on the grill. I tried to cook each to the exact same consistency, medium rare. You can see by the pictures that there isn’t much of a difference in appearance between the aged filets. In fact, there wasn’t a huge difference in flavor either, none of the pieces had any game flavor. I didn’t find a big difference in tenderness between the 7 day and 14 day aged filets, but the 21 day age was melt-in-your mouth tender. It was so delicious. My only regret is not starting with a bigger loin and cutting off another piece to try a 28 day age.
In conclusion, I would recommend a 14 day minimum age and up to 21 or 28 days. Even though this was tested using backstrap, I think this will make a dramatic affect on other primal cuts as well.
One last note to mention before you prepare to age any animal is that proper field care is imperative! Never age an animal that was gut shot and not cleaned properly or shot in high temperatures and not cooled down rapidly. Always make sure meat is clean of dirt, hair, debris and remember that the meat is subject to the air around it, keep your fridge clean of odors or rotting foods.