A good piece of steak should be juicy when you sink your teeth into it, have a smoky taste and let’s not forget those perfect grill marks. Throw in some dry-ageing to lend to the succulence and swag factor and it’s the perfect dish.
Forget the standard 14-days to 21-days aged beef, Kenya has now joined in the league of food capitals that have super aged beef that is matured for a full month all the way to five and a half months at the least.
At the turn of the decade, or should we say the New Year 2020, you will have the option to try out a 120-days-aged steak in Kenya, already sitting in a dry ager at this moment.
As chefs push the boundaries of beef by extreme aging it for longer periods, others are allowing their diners to watch it as it matures for anything from 21 days to 160 days, instead of serving already aged premium steaks.
At Chophouse in Radisson Blu Upperhill, the meat refrigerator—dry ager—stands next to a fine-dining restaurant in, like a spectacle. In it, pieces of meats have tags complete with a description of the date, month and year they were hung in the fridge to age and acquire a matured taste, just like wine or cheese.
The piece of steak—whether a Ribeye, tenderloin, New York strip or T-Bone, will be kept in a special refrigerator for the duration to enhance the flavour and break down the meat ever-so-slightly for that yielding bite.
At such restaurants, diners can easily order, “Bring me your oldest steak.” And they get to select it from the dry-aging fridge paraded at the restaurant.
“We are the only restaurant in this region that has such dry meat agers. They have controlled temperature and a system that kills bacteria. If you look at the meats, you will see a tag on each piece showing exactly when it was put in. After a few days, the meat crust turns dark in colour. It may actually look like it is going off but when cooking the crust is sliced off and inside is a beautiful tender red meat at its best,” said Radisson Blu Upperhill General Manager Rob Kucera, adding that the oldest meat in the dryer currently is more than two months old but it can hang in dryer for up to 160 days.
According to the hotel’s executive chef Wissem Abdellatif, you can order the steak months in advance and watch it age through the glass doors of the refrigerator.
“Besides beef, we can put in other meats like Asian tuna or fine lambs,” he says.
According to the chef, the meat develops a crust as it ages which protects the product inside and locks in the juices.
“Once you cut off the greyish crust, you will find red beautiful meat inside,” he adds.
With Kenyans’ long-standing love for meat, chefs have been introducing gourmet steaks, famed for age. However, most restaurants buy 21-days-old premium cuts from ranches and abattoirs such as Well Hung Butcher in Laikipia or Morendat Farm in Naivasha.
“Two weeks is too young. It is not aged enough. It has not had enough time to “rot” or break down the protein of the muscle. You need to let the meat rot and have something you can eat easily,” says Chef Sebastien Miraux, Executive Chef at the new Radisson Blu Arboretum.
He ages the steak served at Firelake for 40 days.
Before settling on ageing the beef for forty days, he had experimented with the standard 14 days, then 24 days, 28 days, then 30 days and once the beef hit the 40 day mark, he felt that the product was exactly what he wanted.
“I did not try beyond 40 days because the result was very nice, the texture was not tough and taste was incredible.” Says Chef Sebastien.
Firelake have the beef aged at the farm for the 40 days before it is delivered to the hotel for consumption while Chophouse, they do the ageing inhouse with the dry ager at the restaurant.
Globally, steakhouses have been dry-aging meats to perfection for years and selling it to restaurants that want to give their diners a taste of superiority. This may be similar to the earliest example of humans storing food for later consumption, but in this era, it is a luxury.
Normally, the older the meat, the more expensive it is in most fine-dining restaurants. In Kenya, super-aged beef goes for as much as Sh10,000 for a serving. Currently, the new tasting menu item is steak aged for over 21 days. Some foodies argue that eating a 72-day-old piece, just like extra-matured wine or cheese, is explosive. However, others say a 24-day steak is no different from one aged for six days.
Michelin-star chef, Jan-Hendrik van der Westhuizen, a South African who owns a restaurant in Nice, France says he has tasted steak matured for six, 12 or 24 months and there is no difference.
“I put all the three pieces of meat on one stick. But the taste is different, for instance, if you eat French or German beef. The taste of meat depends on the type of grass that the cows eat,” said the chef who was the first South African to get a Michelin star.
The local chefs state that ageing is just but the second part of the process which begins all the way from how the cow is reared.
“To age the beef, you must start with good quality beef. We always ensure we get top quality Borana beef from our supplier (Well Hung),” says Chef Wissem. He adds that the beef must be placed in the dry ager within five days of slaughter. “We put in ours on day three.”
The most popular steers for beef in Kenya are the Borana and the Angus—crossbred with local cattle as Borana to make it hardy for the climate— which are grain fed with specified rations to lend to the flavour and fat composition of the meat.
Chef Sebastien visits the farm every two months to select the steers the hotel will use.
“When I am choosing the cow, I always look in their eyes because they talk to me with their eyes, look at the muscle before I pick one,” says the Chef.
Once he picks his choice animals, they are placed on a special feeding regimen.
“I go to Morendat Farm. They present me with the cows, I choose one. I have it fed on double food portions for a month or month and a half before it is slaughtered and dry aged for 40 days,” he explains.
The doubling of the feeding portions increases the amount of fat in the beef, which when roasted in the super high temperatures of the Josper melt in for flavour and succulence of the cut.
“When you cook it, the fat melts into meat and it's better than sex,” says Chef Sebastien.
According to Chef Wissem, the signs of a good ribeye is the marbling of the fat. This keeps the meat juicy even when cooked over a flame.
To add on the flavour, Chef Wissem serves the aged meat, which is usually cooked for five to 12 minutes, on a thick block of pink Himalayan salt. The resulting steak is salty, with healthy minerals and sensational.
“Aged meat is more succulent. It bursts with flavour. It’s mouthwatering. And because Kenyans love their meat salty, the Himalayan salt block that is used to serve the meat gives it the added saltiness,” said Chef Wissem, whose team also plans to elevate experiential dining at the restaurant by installing screens that guests can watch live cooking of what they ordered for.
The Himalayan salt has a softer flavour compared to the sharp one in table salt.
The longer the meat sits on the bloc, the more salt it absorbs and ensures it does not lose its sizzle.