We are no longer keeping cows. Keeping cows alive, that is. Both of our cows are now wrapped up in neat packages in several freezers. We prefer to slaughter and butcher the animals we raise ourselves. We feel that these are essential skills a person should acquire if they have a chance, and we like to have control over our animals lives all the way to the end of it. Also, we are advocates of aged meat. I’ve already covered aspects of this topic in another post, but it’s worth revisiting. At the end is a bonus recipe for a cultured steak sauce.
Professionals exist who will happily slaughter and butcher a cow for you. For a number of cents per pound you can bring a live animal to their facility, and return with boxes of wrapped up meat. The thing they aren’t willing to do is let your meat hang around for up to several weeks in a room with perfectly monitored temperature and humidity. This is known as “dry aging,” and it’s a practice that has virtually disappeared in the U.S. It’s expensive to keep large pieces of meat refrigerated, plus there’s the liability of possible contamination during storage.
Why is this period of time important? Humans have short digestive tracts, and out of necessity we have created a number of ways to make it easier for our bodies to assimilate nutrients. Waiting for enzymes in the meat to break down amino acid chains makes the flesh more tender, more flavorful, and much easier to digest. Oxygen remaining in muscle fibers allows the formation of lactic acids, which also soften proteins. Water evaporates from the meat during this time, leading to more concentrated flavors in the final product (a carcass weighs up to thirty percent less after aging – another incentive meat producers have to avoid the process).
We have similar teeth to dogs and other carnivores, but dogs have incredibly strong stomach acids, capable of killing pathogens and dissolving protein bonds. Their bodies and jaws can handle the job of breaking down and unlocking nutrients in fresh meat. Most people today probably don’t know of differences in beef’s taste or texture, as basically only very high end steak houses dry age their beef (and customers pay out the nose for the privilege).
Interestingly, I’ve seen that dogs also enjoy aged meat. On butchering days around here, most of the scraps our dogs score end up getting buried somewhere in the yard for a few days. Even canines like meat that has “gone good.” I prefer mine with less dirt on it.
We hang cows in quarters, which, just as it sounds, is the gutted carcass cut in half lengthwise down the spine, and then in half again, creating two front quarters and two hind quarters. In June, eight cow quarters hung in our cellar for a week. During this time the enzymes present inside the meat relax muscle fibers. In the relatively warm temperatures (50-60 degrees F) of our cellar in the summer, seven days is plenty of time for this process. At cooler temperatures (31-37 degrees F is standard at those fancy steak houses) the aging process can take much longer, usually not more than thirty days.
How long meat hangs depends on taste preference. Some people enjoy the flavor of “high” meat – or meat that has been basically rotted on purpose. I can’t say I’ve tried this method of aging meat. Never say never is my rule of thumb with any kind of food, but it’s a good way to prove that the flesh of a healthy animal remains safely edible far beyond the point where most people would refuse to eat it.
We don’t have a technologically advanced walk in fridge, and we just expect our meat to get a little rough looking by the end of its time in the cellar. This time around everything was covered in a fuzzy layer of mold. The mold is apparently an important aspect of the aging process as well. It doesn’t penetrate into the interior of the carcass, and its released enzymes provide another form of chemical meat tenderization. The quarters are trimmed of all mold before we wrap individual cuts for the freezer, and I’ve been feeding what we cut off to our pigs. They love a good moldy piece of cow. We always turn the day of butchering into a work party, inviting helpful friends over for the labor intensive art of turning large pieces of animal into cookable chunks of meat.
I realize that few people have the opportunity to raise their own animals, much less the gumption and ability to kill and butcher them at home. Our digestive systems benefit from eating fermented and enzyme-rich condiments with meat. I recently whipped up a really tasty one that anyone can make.
It begins with lacto-fermented, shredded horse radish. I found that the fumes were tolerable if I had a jar with brine waiting and could stuff the root mass below the liquid every few minutes. A pile of shredded horse radish in a small room could probably suffocate a horse. I put a small jar in the top of the big jar to hold the roots below the liquid of the brine, and waited. Three months later I remembered the jar and decided it was time for a taste test. Just like mustard, time greatly diminishes the nasal stinging powers of this root. I chopped up about four tablespoons of it and stirred it into some sour cream (which ends up looking like chunky sour cream, so I’ll spare you a photo). It was really good with our steak, but I found myself wishing it had a little more heat. I think adding back in just a touch of freshly grated root would make a perfectly balanced meat sauce. The enzymes and bacteria of these two cultured ingredients make for a stomach friendly accompaniment with beef.