Tour de Beef at DeBragga & Spitler

For years I’d heard the term “dry aged” mentioned at steak houses but wasn’t too familiar with what it meant.  As someone who likes to use the freshest ingredients available when I cook, I didn’t understand why you’d want to eat a piece of meat that had been left out for a month, sometimes more.  Of course the hefty price tag when compared to an already expensive steak didn’t help.

It wasn’t until I finally tasted a dry aged steak that I fully appreciated its appeal.  The steak was rich in taste and almost creamy in texture, with a tangy, nutty flavor that reminded me of blue cheese.  Simply put, there’s no comparison between the taste of a traditional steak and a dry aged steak.

Once I got hooked on dry aged beef, I wanted to learn more about the process.  At the New York City Wine & Food Festival I had the opportunity to get an inside look at the dry aging facilities at DeBragga and Spitler, one of the Meatpacking District’s few remaining meat purveyors.

DeBragga and Spitler was founded in the early 1920s as the Brooklyn Hotel Supply Company by three men who were experts in quality meat.  In the mid 1930s the company moved to Washington Street, an area that would later be called the Meatpacking District.  In 1948 the company incorporated under its present name by Farmar DeBragga (the son of one of the three founders) and Paul Spitler.  Trained butcher Marc Sarrazin joined the company in 1954 and became its president in 1973.  His son Marc John Sarrazin took over in 1992, and it’s he who led my tour.

Marc began the Tour de Beef by explaining where the meat comes from.  All of the beef cattle are naturally raised on farms around the country.  They are grass-fed and hormone and antibiotic free.  DeBragga keeps track of every piece of meat that enters its facility with a tag that shows where it came from, when it was slaughtered and how much it weighs.

We then stepped inside the first cooler for an overview of the aging process.  All beef spends some time between slaughter and cooking to improve its taste.  This time can range from a couple of days to a couple of months.

The majority of beef in the United States is “wet aged,” a process that is more cost, time and space efficient than dry aging.  The meat is placed in a vacuum sealed bag which allows it to retain moisture and prevents weight loss.

Dry aging works best with high quality meat that is well-marbled.  The meat is hung or placed on shelves in rooms kept between 34°F and 38°F.  Over time, moisture evaporates from the meat and enzymes break down fat and connective tissue.  This helps to tenderize the meat and intensify its flavor.

Because the meat loses moisture during the dry aging process it shrinks in size; the meat must also be trimmed of its outer layer before it can be sold.  These, coupled with the extra time investment, account for the higher price of dry aged beef.

After the aging lesson came a true feast for the eyes.  Marc took us into the aging rooms for a look at the millions of dollars of meat in various aging stages.  As I walked by the rows and rows of beef, I was reminded of a cheese cave.  The temperature and humidity are similar, as is the subtle yet alluring earthy and gamey smell.  Seeing the process first hand gave me a new appreciation for dry aging.

To get a nice flavor and texture, Marc recommends dry aging beef for at least 28 days, though it can be dry aged for up to 75 days.

DeBragga and Spitler supplies dry aged beef and other meat products to well-known restaurants in New York City and around the country.  They have a number of superstar chefs as customers including Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Laurent Tourendel and Tom Colicchio.  In Miami you can dine on DeBragga’s dry aged steak at Gotham Steak at the Fontainebleau.  And for the home chef you can order a variety of beef, pork, poultry and more online at debragga.com.

Before leaving the cooler I had a chance to check out the biggest chunk of Japanese Wagyu beef I’ve ever seen.  Want to know why Wagyu is so expensive?  Just take a look at the picture above.  The meat is so marbled it’s nearly white!  The fat gives the meat a buttery taste and texture.  American Wagyu is less marbled than Japanese Wagyu (and less expensive) because it comes from cows that are a crossbreed of Wagyu and Angus cattle.

After the tour came the best part — a taste of DeBragga’s wet aged and dry aged beef.  Both were tender and delicious, but the creamy and nutty flavor of the dry aged beef won me over by far.

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