PATIENCE IS a curious virtue when it comes to matters of the kitchen. Chocolate-chip cookies never rise fast enough. Potatoes and carrots take their damn sweet time to brown. A watched pot never boils. And while human ingenuity has defused our impatience and petulance by way of microwave dinners, fast food and the Instant Pot, there’s something to be said for slow food, some truth crystallized within our platitudes: There’s a special pleasure knowing that nothing but time could have made this dish—and that this good thing is well worth the wait.
BESIDE EACH table at Taylor’s Steakhouse in Dumas, fixed to the wood-paneled walls with a strip of Velcro, as if to preemptively assuage the doubts of people still unconvinced that beef liberated from their butcher’s freezer for weeks and months at a time can be a delicacy, there are laminated one-sheets of paper with the heading “Definition of Dry Age Beef.”
“The time honored process of dry aging,” it reads, “begins with top-quality meat. Only a fraction of beef dry ages well: well-marbled prime grade and meat from those exceptional cattle breeds. … The meat is hung in large sterile refrigerators with carefully controlled airflow, humidity, and temperature for two to six weeks. During this ripening period, several key things happen. Enzymes break down the muscle fibers, improving tenderness, until by the third week the meat is positively buttery. A 20 percent moisture loss concentrates the beefy flavors. The meat’s ability to hold onto moisture with cooking is improved, too, making for juicier cooked steaks. Dry-aged beef also develops a crust which has to be trimmed away, resulting in an additional loss of up to 25 percent of the meat’s original weight.”
Turn to the left when you walk in, and you’ll find the meat that Chuck Taylor is aging, entrusting it to the stewardship of time, and you’ll find that nothing is hidden. The glass won’t allow for it. Three display windows look into the walk-in refrigerator, where on 12 shelves, 24 beef loins face the outside. You can tell which ones have been there longer, which are nearly ready to serve after a month and a half. These have darker tones, the bright reds of fresh meat gone darker, leaner, a quarter of their weight tithed to the angels, the once snowy fat cap closer to a beige or taupe.
Under normal circumstances, that’s what you’d order (or ought to order) at Taylor’s. That’s why people make the drive, why Chuck and his wife, Pam, have seen such success since they started selling dry-aged steaks in 2012. But this spring, there was something different. While the majority of the beef was rotated through, there were four beef loins, some 132 pounds, that stayed on—sourced from Iowa, sleeved in netting, once-in-a-year finds. For 120 days, they sat in the sterile fridge. And when they were finally ready this June, after accounting for loss of moisture and trimming, there were just 32 steaks.
And this is the moment that I tell you a horrible truth:
They were delicious, and there aren’t any more.
PATIENCE IS indeed a curious virtue when it comes to matters of the kitchen, because you would think, having waited four months, that waiting an additional 15 minutes, an infinitesimal fraction of that time, would be nothing. But it’s not. As our nine-person table waits for the main course, my mind is increasingly somewhere else, picturing the back of the restaurant, where, as if in a world totally divorced from the rest of the kitchen, where orders for barbecue shrimp and bread pudding are flying, Mr. Taylor stands apart, peering into the red mouth of an oven that heats to 1,600 degrees. Although the steaks feel just a fraction of the brunt of this, some 1,000 degrees, the heat is enough that it chars the bone.
At the table, there’s something sobering about the fact that there are so few of these steaks in the world—and that our table will be getting a fourth of them. But as the plates arrive, and plates of half-finished appetizers are shuffled to the side and stacked, looking around at the pair of wine glasses set before each of the nine people who’ve traveled here from Little Rock, there’s something comforting in the knowledge that we’re doing this right. Thanks to some wine-savvy friends—to whom we will forever be indebted—the pairings from this evening are second to none.
“Twenty-eight years ago, that riesling was bottled … to be paired with beef fat,” says Aaron Walters of the 1990 J.B. Becker, a gorgeous prismatic thing that looks like liquid amber when poured into the glass.
You’re probably wondering what it tasted like, this steak. And 800 words in, you’re absolutely entitled to some description. But the truth is, while I can tell you that it was complex and super umami, with notes of Parmesan or blue cheese, almost nutty, its texture not unlike room-temperature butter—that’s not doing it justice. I could tell you that the people I was with that night, foodies, sommeliers, chefs, agreed, without exception, that it was the best steak any of us had ever had. Or that people were ranking this meal in Dumas, Arkansas, alongside the likes of Chez Panisse and among the top five meals they’d ever had. But ultimately, that won’t do much.
What I can tell you is to go there—to ask about the steaks, if there are any plans for long-term aging, and then to wait.
I can promise you it’ll be worth it.
CAN YOU DRY-AGE AT HOME?
Planning on playing Chuck Taylor with that store-bought ribeye? You might wanna think again
“BE CAREFUL,” Mr. Taylor says when asked what he’d tell anyone interested in doing it for themselves. “You’ve gotta have the right temperature, the right humidity and a lot of airflow. You can’t hardly do it in a refrigerator.” Gesturing to where the steaks are drying behind glass, he says, “See that the beef’s on those racks, where the air can go all the way around it? You can’t cut off the air. That’s the secret.” He keeps the room between 70 and 75 percent humidity, walking a fine line between drying out the meat and picking up mold.
What’s more, you’ve got to be careful about the meat you’re starting with. “You’ve gotta have everything right, and the right kind of beef. If you try to go to the mad butcher and buy a select, try to dry-age it—it ain’t going to dry-age because it doesn’t have enough fat in it.”
If you do some looking around the internet, you’re liable to find all sorts of theories and gadgets to help you DIY dry-age. But frankly, given that those choices involve risking E.coli or dropping $3,000 on a German-made Dry Ager (which makes a great Christmas gift), we think we’d prefer just to make the trek to Dumas.