Earlier this year, I enjoyed a spectacular steak that had been dry-aged for 240 days. I purchased it raw from Dallas’s Knife, and seared it on my stove top in a cast-iron pan. It had the deep funky flavors of Parmesan and blue cheese you’d hope for in a dry-aged steak, and it was still incredibly juicy after all that time sitting on the shelf. After posting a photo of the finished product, I got a text from Trey Felton of Thorndale Meat Market that read, “I just don’t see how it’s possible.” Over the last few years, Felton has done some dry-aging experimentation of his own, but nothing to that extent. It began a conversation between us about his method of dry-aging at the meat market.
Last month, Felton was the one sending photos. He had coated a whole cold-smoked, bone-in prime rib with pearly white beef tallow (melted and strained beef fat), then placed it in his cooler to age for 45 days. When it was ready, he persuaded me to drive down to Thorndale, about an hour northeast of Austin, for a taste.
I wrote about Thorndale Meat Market last year while highlighting the tradition of dried sausage in Texas. Felton turned a walk-in cooler at the market into a cold smoker for the sausages, and he employed it for his dry-aged steaks too. The prime ribs he ages (he’s also experimenting with loin cuts) spend three days in the cold smoker. The process is done at such a low temperature that the beef is still raw when it comes out of the cold smoker. Its outer surface takes on the color and flavor of oak smoke, but the beef is still red inside. From there, the cuts of beef sit in a cooler, uncovered, for 45 days or more. The one encased in tallow was the first he had tried that way, but he has plenty more tallow from all the brisket trimmings he collects on the barbecue side of the business.
Even though Thorndale Meat Market serves barbecue, Felton normally sells all of his steaks, dry-aged or not, raw from the meat case. During my latest visit he grilled off three steaks to try side-by-side-by-side at a table inside the market. One was a ribeye cut from a Chairman’s Reserve brand (an upper Choice grade brand from Tyson) bone-in prime rib straight out of the bag. The second was the same brand of beef, but it had been cold-smoked and dry-aged for 45 days, and the third had been cold-smoked, coated in beef tallow, then dry-aged for 45 days. All were seasoned with salt and pepper before grilling.
The freshest of the three was noticeably larger and juicier. Because of the moisture loss, beef loses mass and girth during dry-aging. We found that the tallow-encased meat lost less of that water weight than the one without. Describing that un-aged steak as juicier might sound like a notch in its favor, but it was so juicy it tasted watered down compared with the other two. One purpose of dry-aging is to intensify the beefy flavor of the steaks, and both dry-aged versions did just that. Neither could have been described as having a dry texture.
The first bite from the spinalis, or ribeye cap, of the tallow-encased steak literally made me laugh with joy. The smoky flavors from the cold smoker were still pungent, but only at the outer edge. It was like eating a bacon-wrapped ribeye. The added flavor of a funk from dry-aging made it the most unique flavor I’ve ever enjoyed in a single steak. I’ve never experienced those two flavors together like that. The dry-aged steak without the tallow provided a similar eating experience, but the smoke flavor was muted a bit. Still, both versions were incredible. No other steak I’ve eaten has had such a distinct barbecue flavor, and few steaks I’ve had were as memorable or spectacular as this one.
I asked Felton if there was a big demand for dry-aged steaks in tiny Thorndale. “It’s not a massive seller, but it is one of those niche products that people will travel for,” he said. The nearest vendor for dry-aged beef is in Austin, but they charge a bit more in the big city. A standard bone-in ribeye at Thorndale Meat Market is $17 per pound, and the upcharge for the dry-aged stuff brings it to just $32 per pound, which is a heck of a deal for the unique qualities of the steak. The market also functions as a restaurant, but if you want Felton to prepare a dry-aged steak, you’ve gotta call ahead.
Felton said he sold quite a few steaks over the past week, and he’s planning ahead for what he hopes will be a Thanksgiving rush. He’ll have a dozen full prime ribs ready for purchase by then, and more in the cooler waiting for Christmas. He’s also trying the process with strips and tenderloins, but has to wait to test those results. In a year when roast turkey for twenty guests might not be in the plans, a hunk of smoked, dry-aged steak for two or four won’t seem like a downgrade. The difficult part will be when you close your eyes after that first bite and have to choose between being transported to your favorite barbecue joint or your favorite steakhouse.
Method: Oak in a cold smoker
Pitmaster: Trey Felton
Address: 300 W. U.S. 79, Thorndale
Hours: Monday–Saturday 10:30 a.m.–6:30 p.m.
Year opened: 2011