Monday, December 26:
The good king’s knave would have no footsteps to walk in on this feast of St. Stephen, or rather he would have only muddy ones. Frosting some nights, the weather continues on the warm side, and the animals in the south hill pasture are churning the barnyard into a sea of mud.
The steer we hung at the beginning of the month with the expectation that the average temperature would be something less than forty degrees means that the unseasonably warm weather has been no relief to us, but instead a reason to worry. The first two days after the men split and hung the first of our fall steers were cool enough to chill and firm the meat, but then daytime temps soared as high as fifty degrees, and only dropped into the high thirties at night. That meant the average was well above forty degrees, and on day five we dropped the sides into Barry’s scalding trough and bedded them in thirty pounds of bagged ice. Cooling beef you are hanging to age in this way is not ideal, since one of the conditions desirable for aging is that the meat remain dry while it is hanging, but desperate cases call for desperate measures. Anyway, we only meant to ice it for a short time, until the temperatures dropped, as they surely would.
And they did, not too much, but enough so that after two or three days we hoisted the sides out of the trough and onto the gambrel hooks again. A week passed with cooler temperatures, then on December fourteenth it rose to fifty, only dropped to forty-something that night, and by two o’clock on the fifteenth it was fifty-five degrees outside. No more fooling around; we dropped the sides, sharpened all our Bowie knives, and had the meat cut and wrapped by about eight p.m. It was warmer, and therefore less firm than is ideal for cutting and grinding, but it smelled good and looked fine, and the first steaks, which we grilled a few days before Christmas, were more than delicious.
Butchers don’t usually dry-age beef for two reasons that make financial sense – for the butcher. One is that the meat loses weight in the process of drying, meaning a lower wrapped weight –not significant when they are processing for the farmer, since he will be charged for the original hanging weight, but for retail sales a drawback. The other reason is that the meat will be taking up room in the locker for twice as long, meaning fewer animals may be processed in the given space. According to our sources, they are also at a disadvantage in that the US-Duh, as Joel Salatin calls it, requires butchers to age beef at a lower temperature than we mavericks can use, and the results just aren’t as good. We are fortunate in our neighbor Barry, who has passed on the know-how, and more importantly the confidence, to butcher our own large animals, and who inherited from his father of blessed memory some beautiful old butchering equipment and lets us use it.