THE BEST STEAK I’ve ever eaten was a chuletón—a rib steak from a 6-year-old ox. I had it this summer in the scrublands of León province, Spain, at Bodega El Capricho, considered by many the best steakhouse in the world. It had been dry-aged for about 120 days and was cooked bloody rare. It tasted of iron and sweetgrass, and the fat smelled intoxicatingly like buttered popcorn.
Many factors contributed to the intense flavor of the steak at El Capricho. The most important was time—not in the kitchen or the dry-aging room, but on the hoof. It’s a detail few Americans consider or care to know about the animals they eat: how old they were at slaughter. But chefs and butchers are, increasingly, paying attention.
They know older animals have more flavor. Without delving too deeply into biology, concentrations of myoglobin—the protein that gives red meat much of its color and iron-rich mineral tang, and the dark meat on a chicken its darkness—increase in the muscles of an animal with use and age. A mature cow can have more than twice the myoglobin of a young one.
‘ The most important factor was time—not in the kitchen or the dry-aging room, but on the hoof. ’
The oxen that provide the meat at Bodega El Capricho can be up to 18 years old. Meanwhile, in the U.S., “a calf can be born and reach a slaughter weight of 1600 pounds in as little as 16 months,” said Will Harris, a third-generation rancher and owner of Georgia’s White Oak Pastures.
At the Durham in Durham, N.C., and Lantern in nearby Chapel Hill, chef-owner Andrea Reusing features beef from Chapel Hill Creamery’s “retired” dairy cows when possible—even if she doesn’t always call it out on the menu. “There is a slight fear factor” among customers, she said. “I think people have been sold a bill of goods on what older animals are. But when people taste it, they can’t believe it.” She also uses stewing hens—egg-layers past their laying years—to make an “insanely rich chicken broth that’s a bright, bright gold,” which she serves with dumplings made from the minced meat.
In Los Angeles, at Curtis Stone’s Gwen Butcher Shop & Restaurant, they’re peddling the meat that triggers perhaps the biggest fear factor of all: mutton. “If I’m putting a sign in my case I might call it ewe as opposed to mutton,” said Gwen’s butcher, Andrew Sutton. “But I’ve been toying around with the idea of just calling it mutton because I think people are starting to embrace it.”
That’s certainly proved to be the case in Washington, D.C., where José Andrés’s Zaytinya has hosted three “whole sheep” dinners since November. The most recent one, in July, featured a 7-year-old East Friesian sheep.
Despite its growing appeal, this kind of meat is still a relatively rare treat. At Main Street Meats in Chattanooga, Tenn., chef Erik Niel said, “Our main beef supplier will call about once or twice a year and tell us he needs us to take a cow because she can’t breed, or milk, or something like that. These cows are the best animals we have run through the shop, bar none. Absolutely magical flavoring and marbling.”
On the West Coast, Mindful Meats has managed to create a regular supply of beef from dairy cattle. Their ribeye steaks can be found in restaurants such as Otoño in Los Angeles and Mr. Andrés’s Las Vegas steakhouse, Bazaar Meat, where it receives pride of place on the menu, listed as vaca vieja (old cow).
No restaurant has committed to this nascent trend with more gusto than Corrida, a recently opened Spanish restaurant in Boulder, Colo. The page-long menu of steaks offers the level of detail one normally finds in a wine list. Along with the rancher, the length of time each steak has been dry-aged and each animal’s feeding regimen, every entry includes the animal’s age at “harvest.”
The biggest sellers are older cuts from Carter Country Meats, of Ten Sleep, Wyo. This fall the restaurant is offering meat from the ranch that spent between 8 and 12 years on pasture. “Four or five years ago, we wouldn’t have been talking about this,” said chef and co-owner Amos Watts. “I’m ecstatic.”
WHERE TO BUY / Mail-Order Meats of a Certain Age
While it’s always good to check at your local butcher shop or farmers’ market, here are some reliable online sources for meat from animals that lived long enough to achieve their fullest flavor:
STEWING HENS After two years roaming free on pasture and laying eggs, these chickens are well suited to the braiser and the stock pot. Their smallish size belies the big flavor each possesses. ($ 15, for a 2-pound chicken, whiteoakpastures.com)
MUTTON “When people say ‘I don’t like mutton,’ they’re usually thinking of an old wool sheep that has a lot of lanolin in the flesh,” said farmer-restaurateur Richard Holcomb of home delivery service Bella Bean Organics and the Durham, N.C., restaurant Piedmont, where older animals feature prominently. Mutton derived from Bella Bean’s “hair” sheep is richer than lamb but every bit as clean tasting. ($ 22 for a pair of mutton shanks, bellabeanorganics.com)
Hen and Dumplings
A good laying hen should have a fair amount of fat, as yellow as sunshine. Trim some of that away before cooking and render it over low heat (with onions, if you like) to produce some spectacular schmaltz.
ACTIVE TIME ½ hours TOTAL TIME: 5½ hours SERVES: 4-5
For stewing the hen and the broth:
1 (3-4 pound) laying hen, or 2 smaller ones
3 quarts cold water
3 medium carrots, peeled
3 celery stalks
1 small onion, halved
1 head garlic, halved crosswise, plus 1 clove garlic, grated
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1¼ cups dry white wine
1 large leek, white and green parts cut into medium dice and washed, green top washed and reserved
1 cup torn or sliced mixed herbs such as parsley, dill, chervil and chives, for garnish
For the dumplings:
¼ cup dried porcini mushrooms
1 slice white bread, crust removed and bread torn into small pieces
¼ cup stock
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup finely diced shallots
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
6 ounces ground veal or chicken thigh
2 eggs, lightly beaten
½ cup sliced chives Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
1. In a 6-quart heavy pot, combine chicken (along with neck, gizzard and heart, if you have them) with cold water. Bring to a simmer over high heat. As water approaches simmering, begin to skim away any fat or scum from surface. Reduce heat to medium and simmer 5 minutes while continuing to skim. Add one carrot, one celery stalk, onion, split garlic head, bay leaves, 1 tablespoon salt, peppercorns and 1 cup wine. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer until chicken is tender, 2½-3 hours.
2. Transfer chicken to a cutting board. When cool enough to handle, remove meat and skin and set aside. Return bones to pot and simmer, uncovered, at least 1½ hours (and up to 4), adding leek tops for the final 30 minutes.
3. While stock simmers, prepare dumplings: Heat oven to 450 degrees. Soak mushrooms in 1 cup boiling water and bread in ¼ cup chicken stock for 5 minutes, then squeeze excess liquid from each. Finely chop soaked mushrooms. Melt 3 tablespoons butter in a large, oven-safe skillet over medium heat. Add mushrooms, shallots, ½ teaspoon salt and ¼ teaspoon pepper and sauté until shallots are soft and lightly browned, 7-8 minutes. Meanwhile, mince soaked bread and 10 ounces reserved chicken meat and skin. In a large bowl, combine minced bread and chicken with ground veal, eggs, ½ cup chives, lemon zest, ½ teaspoon salt and shallot-mushroom mixture. Form into balls of golf-ball size. If possible, refrigerate 1 hour before cooking.
4. Set skillet used to cook shallots over medium heat and add remaining butter. Gently add dumplings to skillet and let cook, undisturbed, until browned, 5 minutes. Use a pair of soup spoons to gently flip dumplings. Transfer skillet to oven and bake, basting dumplings with butter from pan midway through cooking, until dumplings are firm, 12-15 minutes.
5. Pour stock through a fine-mesh strainer. (You should have about 2 quarts. Top up with water if necessary.) Discard vegetables and bones. Chop remaining leeks, carrots and celery into bite-size pieces. Before serving, return stock to a simmer, and add remaining wine and chopped vegetables. Simmer until just softened, about 4 minutes. Add herbs and remove pot from heat. Divide dumplings among 4-5 bowls and ladle soup over. Season with pepper to taste.
—Adapted from Andrea Reusing of the Durham, Durham, N.C.
WHERE TO EAT / Restaurants Around the World Serving Mature Meat
Bodega El Capricho
Locally and lovingly raised cattle make for arguably the best steak in the world. The cave-like dining alcoves in the subterranean dining room encourage diners to get in touch with their most primal urges. (Calle Carrobierzo, 28, 24767 Jiménez de Jamuz, León, Spain, bodegaelcapricho.com)
At this classic-American cousin to Chapel Hill’s Asian-influenced Lantern, chef Andrea Reusing uses locally sourced ingredients including laying hens and dairy cows from her egg and milk suppliers. (315 Chapel Hill St, Durham N.C., thedurham.com)
Main Street Meats
Meat is treated with the utmost seriousness at this otherwise casual combination butcher shop and restaurant. (217 E Main St, Chattanooga, Tenn., mainstreetmeatschatt.com)
The Meat Hook
Along with occasional steaks and charcuterie from older cows, mature meats star at this Brooklyn butcher shop’s special dinners, such as a recent feast featuring beef from a 9 year old Devon steer. (397 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, N.Y., the-meathook.com)
Gwen Butcher Shop & Restaurant
You wouldn’t expect Angelenos to utter the old Seinfeld line “Salad’s got nuttin on this mutton!” But the mutton chop here has been known to have that effect. Be on the lookout for “vintage” beef from Cream Co. as well. (6600 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles, CA, gwenla.com)
At the Washington, D.C., location of José Andrés’s Mediterranean restaurant, chef Michael Costa turns out modern takes on regional favorites like pork belly souvlaki with jalapeno zhoug and adana kebabs. Check the “happenings” section of their website for the next whole sheep dinner. (701 9th St NW, Washington, D.C., zaytinya.com)
Chef José Andrés sampled more than 500 cuts of beef before choosing the rib-eye steak from Mindful Meats featured on the menu here. (SLS Las Vegas, 2535 Las Vegas Boulevard South, Las Vegas, sbe.com/restaurants/locations/bazaar-meat-las-vegas)
This recently opened Los Angeles restaurant from chef Teresa Montaño leans hard into Spanish obsessions: gin and tonics, tapas and steak from well-aged cows. (5715 N Figueroa St., Los Angeles, Calif., otonorestaurant.com)
The commitment to transparency and to well-aged beef puts this restaurant in a class by itself. Chef Amos Watts, raised in Nebraska, land of the corn-fed, has taken to the new old-beef frontier with the zeal of a convert. (1023 Walnut St, Boulder, Colo., corridaboulder.com)