Home Butcher Guide

Hanging Meat After Slaughter

How Long Should you Hang/Age Beef at Home After Slaughtering?

Raising beef to slaughter has been process known to man since the beginning of civilization. A common question many have asked along the way is how long should I hang beef before processing. We will discuss what it means to hang freshly slaughtered beef at home for a period of time before processing and freezing for preservation. The process of hanging beef is common to farmers and butchers who raise beef for their families. However, hang time will depend on what you will be doing with the beef. If you plan to make hamburger out of all of it, hang time is less. If you plan to make cuts, hang time is longer. If you plan to use some primal cuts for dry-aging, the hang time will lengthen even more.

Hanging Beef

Hanging Beef for Cutting and Processing

The length of time to hang beef at home for the best flavor and tenderness for human consumption is an activity known as aging. Aging beef is the process of breaking down muscle tissue. The beef you eat is muscle. It’s muscle that has gone through a long task of enzyme breakdown. Aging begins after the beef is slaughtered and quartered and hanging in the cooler. Although If your adventurous and really hungry when slaughtering, there is a very small window of time right after the beef is slaughtered when the muscles are still relaxed enough to provide you with a tender bite of meat. However, it’s not long before rigor mortise sets in and the battle for tenderness begins within.  

Beef quartered

Rigor Mortise and the Battle for Tenderness

Rigor mortise occurs when the muscles and joints of the beef begin to stiffen just hours after death. A war between the proteins and the enzymes begins. Rigor mortise sets in quickly after slaughter and the muscles become stiff which means that the proteins in the muscles that contract, actin and myosin have now bonded together resulting in stiffness. Rigor mortis cannot be reversed since the body system has shut down, and the enzymes called calpains and cathepsins go to war and attack the proteins, actin and myosin. The attack is called proteolysis and it’s the breakdown of the proteins into fragments, disrupting the structures responsible for keeping the muscle fibers in the contractable state.

Enzymes Takeover Camp

As time goes on, enzymes continue to attack and breakdown the proteins into fragments, but now the enzymes decide it’s to take over their camp. They dismantle the structure in the muscle and undo the contraction and the rigor mortise. The enzymes have essentially relaxed the muscle and increased tenderness and taken over completely. In fact, the cathepsins work so hard that they take apart the cross-links and the fibers in the connective tissue which results in tenderness. Go Cathepsins!

Butcher Steak

The Result of Winning the Tenderness Battle

The result?  Collagen that hydrolyzes more easily during the cooking process. When collagen hydrolyzes it creates gelatin which increases succulence and prevents excessive squeezing on muscle fibers during the cooking which keeps in the moisture. The longer the butcher lets the meat hang in the cooler, those once bland fats, proteins and molecules in the muscle are transformed into fragmented little flavorful bits of compounds that you savor with every bite.

Ideal Temperature and Environment

As for you, the butcher, during this internal process, all you have to do is hang your beef in a cooler for 7-14 days at temperatures between 32 and 38 degrees F and the result will be palatable, tender, flavorful, and quality tasting juicy steaks. If the temperature of the meat goes below 28 degrees, it slows the process of proteolysis down to a snail’s pace.  For about a hundred years in our family, we never had a walk-in cooler and relied on the weather for aging and still hung our beef for 12-14 days. A walk-in cooler is more reliable and predictable and recommend when butchering at home.

How Long Should You Hang Beef for Ground Beef?

This is the fast-track way to hamburger. The beef carcass needs be cooled to 32-38 degrees for two days minimum before cutting. This is a safe and economical way to butcher beef when grinding it all into hamburger. Tenderization is not needed, but chilling the carcass is. All the meat is entirely ground and processed into packages for consumption just days after butchering. Muscle does not need to break down since you are not tenderizing any muscle mass. You can enjoy a butchered cow just days after slaughter. This is not recommended if you are cutting up a beef into specific cuts. Your sirloin would be as tough as tar.

The Best Cuts of Beef for Hamburger

The best cuts of beef to use for hamburger are: Chuck steak, sirloin tri-tip, round, brisket and the skirt and hangar steak, all make great hamburgers. However, when you are butchering an entire cow for ground meat, it’s all in there plus all the trimmings from the short ribs, soup bone trimmings, and everything that has meat on it.

Dry-aged Beef

Dry Aging Beef

Dry aging beef is another process known to man for centuries. Historically beef was dry aged for survival through the long winters. Presently, dry-aging is commonly practiced to produce high-end flavorful beef for steakhouses. Dry aging occurs when specific cuts of beef are hung for 10-28 days, or more depending on the cuts. Enzyme action is minimal beyond 28 days and the focus would be on the flavor and texture and not so much tenderness. Dry-aging reduces the amount of water in the meat through evaporation which will reduce the original weight by 20% or more. Where there is no water, the muscle fibers shrink. The meat dries out and the dry aged primal cuts will be hard and blackened with a little mold but underneath is a nutty aromatic meat enjoyed by man. More about dry-aging in a later post.

Quartered Beef

Our Personal Butcher Story

On January 2 of the new year we butchered one cow on our farm and two at the Uncles farm. After our steer was slaughtered and quartered, we loaded it up in the truck and brought it to the uncles to hang in the walk-in cooler. Three guys carried the heavy quarters into the cooler and hung them up. Uncle put his eight quarters in also and shut the door. Daily, Uncle checks the cooler to make sure the temp stays where it needs to and makes any adjustments that are needed. If the cooler were to fizzle out, the temperature outside was in the low 20’s which is fine for hanging beef indoors but would slow the aging process. Ideally a well ventilated, cool environment is ideal for aging beef.

Aged to Perfection

Twelve days later, on January 13th we were ready to process all the beef. Nine quarters were cut by seven men the first day and three quarters was left to cut the second day. All quarters were packaged by the women and children in the house. Hanging the beef for a solid twelve days gave the grass-fed beef a flavor that cannot be mistaken. It has the tenderness that you get at a restaurant and the flavor that is unmistakable.

Cows for Butcher

Mean Old Bessy

We recently butchered a cow who was getting up there in age and was starting to become mean. We don’t allow moody cows on our farm. They get sent away pretty quickly. We tried to load this cow but she became so agitated and nearly hurt a few people in the process that we decided it was best to just butcher (shoot) her. A few weeks later we accomplished the task in our yard as we had done many times before. This cow was more than 15 years old and would become hamburger only. 

1 cow + 5 Days = 450# of Ground Beef

We shot her on a Monday morning, cut her into quarters, and loaded her up to take to the butcher, all within an hour. The butcher would hang her for barely 2 days and cut her up into over 450 pounds of ground burger. We had a freezer full of beef by the following Friday. Of course we were able to sell most of the grass-fed beef to friends and neighbors for few dollars and hold back enough for our own family. Butchering for ground beef is a quick process but not something we do regularly. We prefer to raise steers for butcher and make the cuts the way we prefer. We are traditional steak and roast german folk.

Hanging beef

To Summarize...

  • Hanging beef is common practice to tenderize and to develop the best flavor for your beef and can be accomplished anywhere between 7-14 days with the sweet spot being 12 days in a climate-controlled, ventilated environment. 
  • Hanging beef is the breakdown of the stiff muscle resulting from rigor mortise creating tender and palatable beef.  
  •  Beef slaughtered for ground beef only requires two days at the least for hanging. No aging is required.
  • Dry aging is the process of reducing the amount of water in the beef over a period of 10-28 days or more, resulting in a blackened but tender, nutty flavor.
  • The home butcher will always hang beef for a period of time before safely consuming.

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