Most of us have some sort of an idea that ‘matured’ meat is good – but do we really know why? It seems counter-intuitive, somehow. Wouldn’t really fresh meat taste better?
Well, the answer is a definite no. Maturation is a process that’s old as the hills, for very good reason. Also known as ‘ageing’ or ‘hanging’ (yes, it’s the origin of the phrase ‘well hung’ – no sniggering at the back, now!) it improves both the flavour and the texture of the meat.
As the meat hangs, enzymes get to work on breaking down the tissues in the muscle. This makes it much more tender – really fresh meat will be soft to the touch, but almost impossible to chew! Muscles that have been heavily used – like the rump, for instance – need longer for this process to work than lesser used muscles, which is why you might notice a difference in the age of a rump and a fillet steak.
Water also evaporates from the meat during this time, concentrating and improving the flavours. An aged piece of meat has a fuller, deeper, richer taste than a fresh one. All this needs to be done in carefully controlled conditions of temperature and humidity, or the meat will just spoil. As it is, after the meat has matured, the edges blacken and look less than appealing, and need to be trimmed off before the meat can be sold.
Of course, all this takes time – weeks on end. It’s not cheap to keep a dedicated space, refrigerated to exactly the right temperature, with air circulating at the required rate. Meat shrinks during ageing, as the water evaporates, and there’s the wastage from the trimmings to take into account, too. Not much wonder some people cut corners in the maturation process. Not Donald Russell, though – it’s something we set great store by, and take pride in, too. It’ll always be ‘well hung’ with us!