Dry-aging steak? Sure, dry-aging beef is a centuries-old practice that enhances the meat’s texture and taste, and it’s offered at many of Chicago’s best steak houses.
Dry-aging fish? Not so common, and to some it might seem downright strange to eat fish that’s days, perhaps weeks, old.
We’re fortunate to have excellent places for sushi and nigiri in our city. A common challenge faced by sushi restaurants is how to differentiate themselves from the competition—and there are a lot of places for sushi in Chicago. One way to set your sushi restaurant apart in the market is to offer raw-fish preparations that customers can’t find at other sushi restaurants. Offering signature rolls is one way to differentiate your raw fish product…and dry-aging is another. While signature rolls are ubiquitous, dry-aged fish is available at only a handful of sushi restaurants, and the practice seems particularly popular on both West and East Coasts.
In Los Angeles, you’ll find Liwei Liao, whose Instagram handle is dry_aged_fish_guy. His mantra is “Fresh is boring,” and he claims that “dry-aged fish is everywhere all at once in L.A.” His seafood market, The Joint, specializes in this approach, which his site explains “minimizes waste and maximizes flavor” in offerings including dry-aged wild Japanese skilfish ($90 per pound) and very fatty Otoro ($105 per pound).
The New York Post reported in January that “New Yorkers are shelling out serious clams—and casting a wide net—to dine on fish that’s aged for days, sometimes weeks, at some of the city’s finest sushi restaurants.” The trend got a big boost in New York in 2021, when Japan’s highly regarded chef Tadashi Yoshida opened his Yoshino in Noho with a twenty-course, $400-per-head menu. A standout on the seafood menu is tuna that’s aged between ten and fourteen days in vacuum-sealed bags that are submerged in ice water.
Maybe in the City of Angels and the Big Apple there’s a lot of-dry aged fish in the marketplace, but in Chicago, then style is much less common, and the places that serve it tend to be, entirely unsurprisingly, at the higher end of the restaurant food pyramid. Dry-aging fish is a tricky business, some experimentation is required, and some failed experiments are going to end up in the trash, so you need considerable financial backup to support perfecting the process.
In Chicago at Porto, Marcos Campos deals brilliantly with fish conservas, but he also dry-ages some of his fish. The fish at Porto is many times cooked; at Jinsei Motto, attached to CH Distillery, the fish is usually uncooked, and it’s not aged in vacuum bags in water (a process that sounds like sous vide without the heat). You can enjoy Jinsei Motto’s dry-aged fish on the nineteen-course omakase menu ($175).
Walking into the sushi bar at Jinsei Motto, your eyes are caught by bright red fish, hanging upside down in a well-lit dry-aging cabinet. Earlier this year, we had some outstanding sushi at Jinsei Motto, including Spanish mackerel aged six days, lean bluefin aged nine days, and super-fatty bluefin from Mexico that had been aged sixteen days. It was all delicious, sometimes creamy and always flavorful. We had some questions for Patrick Bouaphanh, who owns Jinsei Motto with Andrew Choi.
First question was the obvious one:
Why dry-age fish?
People think seafood is best when you eat it right after you catch it. When you age fish, however, the meat breaks down a little bit and releases natural glutamates. The meat becomes a little softer, the tendons become a little softer, and it’s easier to eat. Even though it’s soft, the texture is bouncier. And because you’re drawing the moisture out of the fish, the flavor can be more intense.
How do you dry-age the fish?
We thoroughly clean it before hanging it upside down in our cooler. You can’t really use the regular walk-in freezer because people are always opening and closing the door. You want to keep the fish at a consistent temperature, thirty-four degrees. Of course, the cooler we use for drying fish is used only for drying fish; we don’t put other proteins or food products in there. And we have a lock on the cooler cabinet so that no one can open the door and go in there, which causes the temperature to change and might even introduce bacteria.
In the cooler, we have an ultraviolet (UV) light. The UV light helps kill unwanted bacteria, and while the fish is in the cooler, everything that’s in the fish, like the blood, is going to drip down to the trays below.
We’re experimenting with different fish right now, and by adjusting the temperature and the humidity, you can moderate the aging process.
When dry-aging, are there some fish that do better than others?
Absolutely. Bigger fish dry-age better, and the ones that are fattier—like the super-fatty Mexican bluefin—can age longer than some kinds of snapper that don’t have a lot of fat. Fattier fish are some of the best; fattier fish that have been dry-aged is even better.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org