So the sagely cattle nod their heads wisely - knowing exactly how to pack a flavoursome punch; possessing a deep, dark secret that will allow their meat to be rich and tender and a sensation on the taste buds. This would be a rather romantic and far more interesting way of explaining the ageing process for cattle - but sadly it is slightly more technical than that..
'Aged meat' is not the clever cattle, the ones 'in the know'. It is a process that commences after slaughter. It mainly involves placing meat in a specialised fridge and leaving it for a few weeks. This can be an exercise in patience. These fridges extract all moisture out of the air insuring no bacteria gets into the meat and it preserves it rather than allowing the decaying process to set in. However, don't try this at home as domestic fridges can't cope with the drying. Also you would be lucky to fit a body of beef in your fridge!
It is always better to cook meat in as big a piece possible, as it is far more likely to be tender - the same is true of ageing. This is why you we don't age each steak piece by piece. For a start, we'd be there forever but also it is impractical. This is because, when we dry age meat it shrinks. Aged meat often costs more money due to the butcher having paid for an original weight and then having to incur those costs once the meat has shrunk.
There is of course a difference between ageing meat and 'old' meat. Old meat is the stuff your butcher is desperately trying to flog you in the hope of not having to put a nice piece of fillet steak into the mince. The best aged meat is claret in colour and the fat is a perfect white. However, and this is important, there is nothing wrong with beef that is slightly discoloured. Essentially when oxygen hits red meat, it turns it brown - this will not affect the taste in any way. I promise. But sadly we have a tendency to buy raw meat with our eyes and not our imaginations.
How long should you age meat for? The best amount of time is between 21 and 28 days. So we're talking a minimum of 3 weeks after the cattle have been slaughtered. This just allows the meat to mature and for the flavour to develop. If you prefer your beef to taste gamey, why not ask your butcher to age it for longer? I have tried 60 day aged beef and whilst I was in awe, the flavour was rather over powering and very rich. In contrast to this, totally fresh meat is likely to be far more chewy and lacking a quality that will truly satisfy proper steak hunger. This is when we crave iron, when we really fancy red meat.