Everything You Need to Know About Dry-Aged Fish
When I pop by my neighborhood seafood market to check out some dry-aged fish, I have no idea that I’m about to eat dry-aged sashimi. But Los Angeles fishmonger Liwei Liao, who opened The Joint in Sherman Oaks last year, wants me to try the fish in its purest form, so that I can truly understand how dry-aging improves flavor and texture.
Liao slices a wild Santa Barbara white sea bass, which has been aging for a week inside a commercial glass-door refrigerator that’s been customized to quickly remove excess moisture. He tells me to lean down and smell the head of the gleaming, clear-eyed fish. It doesn’t smell fishy at all. This, Liao says, is because dry-aging fish removes the moisture, including residual blood and slime, that creates a fishy odor. Dry-aged fish is cleaner fish.
It’s also more tender fish. The texture of the white sea bass, which I taste three simple ways (with soy sauce, with salt, and with yuzu kosho) benefits from aging because the large flakes of tendons have broken down. Liao believes that dry-aged white sea bass tastes creamier and richer than fresh white sea bass. And after eating a few slices of raw fish, I see his point.
How dry-aging fish works
One thing Liao has noticed on the numerous fishing trips he’s taken is that fresh isn’t best. There have been many times when he’s caught a fish and eaten it immediately.
“It’s never good,” he says. “The connective tissue is tight. Everything is fighting back. It’s a fight to actually eat it.”
At The Joint, Liao carefully cleans and scales fish like amberjack, tai snapper, and branzino, and then he hangs them in his glass-door refrigerator. There’s no salt involved in his dry-aging process. He monitors the temperature and moisture with devices that are connected to the Internet and send him alerts. But he points out that Southern California has a low-humidity environment that makes it possible for you to dry-age fish in your home refrigerator. And it’s fine if you put salt or baking soda in your refrigerator to reduce moisture. The key to dry-aging at home, Liao says, is making sure you’re getting good fish from a proper fishmonger. If you’re a fisherman, you should by all means dry-age the fish you catch and clean.
Liao likes to age each fish for four to seven days before he takes the first cut. In one extreme case, he aged a Spanish mackerel for more than 90 days, which he says resulted in something that resembled dry-aged steak.
“I’m looking at my fish every day and kind of assessing it,” Liao says. “If things go downhill, then I can move in a different direction with the fish. But no fish should spoil in seven days.”
Because he doesn’t have space to hang an entire 500-pound Spanish bluefin tuna, Liao dry-ages select cuts of tuna on a rack (with a tray below to catch moisture) in a refrigerated display case. He takes out some 10-day tuna for me to examine. The tuna has developed a black crust, but the interior of the fish is deeply red like fresh tuna when Liao cuts into it. And unlike dry-aged steak, there’s no mold on the crust of the fish.
Liao purposely cuts me some pieces of tuna with tendons, so I can taste how everything has softened. It’s remarkable. This tendon-flecked fish would be rejected at many sushi bars based on its appearance, but it turns out it’s excellent sashimi.
Dry-aging plays a big part in The Joint being a zero-waste seafood market. Liao puts tuna trim into fish tacos and also sears some trim on the plancha to create tuna bacon. He also gives away assorted fish heads and bones to customers who want to make stock.
“When you have heads and bones from dry-aged fish, the stock is super clean,” Liao says. “You don’t get that foam. You don’t get the blood protein when you’re boiling it down.”
How to serve dry-aged fish
This is the easy part.
“My customers are always intimidated by dry-aged fish,” Liao says. “But after a little bit of education, they understand that they should just treat it like fresh fish. They don’t do anything different. It’s just a superior piece of fish.”
Liao has many customers who roll their own sushi with dry-aged fish. At The Joint, which is also a restaurant with an attached coffee bar, Liao makes crudo with dry-aged fish. Or you can just pan-sear the fish with salt, pepper, and olive oil. A simple preparation works well because dry-aged fish has such highly concentrated flavor. Dry-aged fish is popular with private chefs, Liao says, because they understand that they don’t have to do much to it.
Liao knows that Japanese chefs have been aging fish for centuries. (David Chang once wrote a GQ piece about how sushi is great “because it’s actually sort of rotten.”) He knows that avant-garde restaurants like Angler and Noma have been thinking about how time transforms fish. He hopes that more chefs will realize that dry-aging can turn less desirable cuts of fish, like the tendon-flecked tuna sashimi I’m enjoying, into something that’s delightful to eat.
“Maybe one of these days, one of these Michelin-starred chefs is going to come out and have a tuna loin that’s completely black on the outside,” Liao says. “And then they’ll cut it into it.”
I think about a restaurant like L.A.’s Somni, where visual tricks are a big part of the dining experience. The future Liao envisions might just take a little more time.