Once upon a time, I only knew Angus; Wagyu was too foreign of a concept for me to comprehend. Today it defines the epitome of a steak. Some go as far as calling it the beluga caviar of beef. I’m here to tell you what makes Wagyu Wagyu, and how you can get in on this party.
So what happened to Kobe? Kobe is beef produced in one place, from one breed of cow, heavily protected and patented by the Japanese government. While suppliers in the US and elsewhere paint their beef as Kobe-style, the fact is that it remains ‘Kobe-style’ and not Kobe. It is harder to find, is strictly regulated by the FDA- preventing its import- and is often used as a marketing ploy to attract customers. All Kobe is Wagyu, yet not all Wagyu is Kobe. Wagyu expands further than that, and while Kobe might be more elusive, Wagyu is what you’re really missing out on.
Imagine a 500g rib-eye sprinkled with specks of monounsaturated fat, distributed so evenly that it becomes hard to differentiate the red from the white. Once cooked right, screw the steak knife, you can cut it with a blunt spoon. Imagine a buttery texture that allows every bite to meld with your tongue, the fat dissipating, muscle tender and smooth. So much fat. So much fat it’s actually good for you.
You read that right: monounsaturated fats in the marbling of Wagyu not only provide you with the juiciest steak around, they also assist in reducing cholesterol levels in the human body. But let’s not argue that steak is actually good for you. While Wagyu may be better for you than Angus in terms of its cholesterol content and fat type, I wouldn’t recommend it as a daily staple. (If only)
Famously originating from the Hyogo, Shimane and Tottori prefectures in Japan, Wagyu is a location-centric meat, though it is replicated in countries like Australia, where cattle breeding conditions are well monitored. But I’ll not bore you with a geography lesson. ‘Wagyu’ simply means ‘Japanese Cow.’ Wagyu simply means an orgasm for your tongue.
Traditionally used as a draft animal for agricultural purposes, these animals were not engineered for consumption. Not initially at least. As a result of the utility of these animals, they required more energy, and over years of breeding, they developed a higher concentration of intramuscular fats. Minus the mumbo-jumbo, this means a higher degree of marbelization than ever seen before, which means yummier, more-tender, fall-off-itself, prime beef.
Grading System: The Beef Between Wagyu And Angus
Big deal, you may think to yourself. Maybe you rolled your eyes too. But it is a big deal; if you haven’t tried Wagyu, allow me to guide you, tantalize your senses, make you run for that over-priced steak joint that you thought was oh, so bourgeoisie.
Wagyu is a league and a half above anything else you’ll be able to find in any market (If you can find it at all). It is so far beyond the reach of any other competing beef that the Australians had to expand their grading system from 0-6 to 0-9. Yes- a whole new category was developed for such royalty. Whoa, hold up! What’s this grading system? I’ll tell you.
The meat grading system is a result of a critical analysis of several constituents that make the beef what it is. The things to look out for in no particular order are the proportion of meat yielded from a certain part of the carcass (more is better), the amount and spread of the specks of fat within that cut (more and more evenly distributed fat is better), the color (brighter is better) and the texture (believe me you’d see the difference in a heartbeat).
This means several things. Firstly it means that there is not a universal scale on which Wagyu can be compared side-by-side to other strains of beef. The US, Australia, Canada, Argentina and Japan all have their own grading scales, making it increasingly harder to document the differences among strains. I like to think that if all beef was measured via a thermometer, the finest Angus would reach the ceiling of the allocated space, whereas Wagyu would heat the instrument to the point where the mercury has no option but to burst out and explode. It’s just that damn good.
There is one way to compare Angus to Wagyu, however and that is through a marbelization score (MBS) ranging from 1-15. USDA Prime Angus maxes out at an MBS of 4-5, which means it has anywhere between 10-14% fat. On the other hand, Wagyu only begins at a MBS of 4, going all the way up to a MBS of 12 (a maximum of 40% fat). The numbers say it all.
At the end of the day, not only does Wagyu have more fat than Angus beef, the fat is softer itself, the meat is better in terms of texture and color- offering a richer, more exquisite dining journey. This is not going to be your standard steak experience; it’s going to turn into a full fledged romance with red meat. There’s no going back after you cross this threshold and learn that at the top of the pyramid there’s Wagyu, and then there’s everything else.
So what does this mean for the average self-proclaimed steak connoisseur with a wad of cash to burn? So long whatever-piece-of-meat you used to call steak, hello Wagyu.
Common Misconceptions: Well-Done Steaks, Pre-Salting, Over-saucing, Resting
So you’ve got your Wagyu. It’s expensive, the distribution of fat looks like a psychedelic adventure waiting to happen and everyone you plan to impress can’t wait to feast. Let’s not screw this up.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry has a strong opinion on what constitutes a good steak, how steaks should be cooked, down to whether you should sprinkle sea salt on a steak before or after you cook it. It really is annoying. The same lads order well-done steaks at steakhouses and wince at a the slightest hint of pink that makes their ‘cherished’ steaks tender. Talk about blasphemy.
With Wagyu it’s simple- the meat does all the work for you, all because of the wisps of fat working their way through the thick of the beef. Take care of the fat and it’ll take care of you. This is precisely why you should stick to inferior cuts of meat if you want to murder your steak by overcooking every ounce of what will inevitably morph into chewy rubber. Want a Wagyu steak? No more than medium, and even that might be pushing it. For all intents and purposes, avoid directly pouring too much of any sauce onto the finished product. Actually, scratch that- the steak that pops your cherry should have no sauce at all. Period. Let your tastebuds and your brain process God’s gift to earth before you start any of that saucy business.
Pre Salting is a big debate among the communities of amateur cooks and culinary chefs alike. While some argue pre salting beef makes it dry up since salt absorbs the moisture inside it, others say that the same moisture goes back into the beef to provide a more flavorful experience. I recommend either salting it an hour in advance (at room temperature) so that the salt draws out moisture, infuses with the liquid and is reabsorbed into the meat, or just after you cook it, where the salt will remain at the surface and not interfere too much with the core.
Wagyu is not for the impatient. If you want a quick meal, go for instant ramen. For the love of everything holy, let the meat rest after you cook it. Ideally you want to rest your steak between three to five minutes. Fight the temptation to dive right into it. If you dig in too soon the meat will still be in the cooking process, resulting in uneven temperature. Even more of a reason to rest it is that all the juices that have been dislodged during the cooking process will be evenly distributing again, and voila, you have a tender steak that’s inevitably juicier.
Ways With Wagyu: Sear, Bake, Grill, Fondue Chinoise, Carpaccio
There’s really no wrong way to cook Wagyu. A vast majority of chefs worldwide pan sear beef steaks as a rule of thumb; it allows for an even, clean experience and a simple stopwatch is your best friend while determining doneness. Understandable, as the beef cooks in it’s own juices, leaving little else to be desired.
While searing the steak is an option, some go further; after browning all sides of the beef in a pan or skillet, you can place it in a oven preheated at 120C till it’s done (depending on the thickness and cut of steak), allowing for an even more controlled cooking environment. Keep in mind that the resting period for a steak cooked in the oven will increase approximately twofold. I get why people would do this but it certainly isn’t my cup of tea.
Grilling a steak over coals and/or wood chips provides a smoky flavour that most sane people would rejoice. It allows a darker color on the surface, a firmer, almost crispier steak with more ‘bite’ at the end of the process and an opportunity to cook outside. While all this may seem ideal, don’t forget that in most cases it is harder to control or maintain the temperature of a coal fueled fire. Combine that with the amount of surplus fat on most Wagyu cuts, don’t be surprised if the flames envelop your meal. Done right, you’re looking at perfection.
Fondue Chinoise is a method that is most often seen in restaurants, considering that the equipment and presentation needs to be on point before you can comfortably serve it in this manner anywhere in the world. Beef is put in a broth of varying ingredients; sometimes just water suffices, but more enthralling bases include soy, sherry, ginger and mushrooms, all of which work well in creating a simple, infusing experience for you to taste what Wagyu is all about. The meat can be as bland or as marinated/seasoned as you want, depending on what you choose to include in the fondue pot. The same goes for how much or how less it is cooked.
Wagyu carpaccio is a delicacy that usually involved pounding and flattening a piece of tenderloin- as the name might suggest, it is suited for consumption in this manner. Coupled with freshly ground black pepper, coarse sea salt, rocket, parmesan, capers and olive oil, it is a cold-appetizer that shreds like paper and dissolves like listerine (minus the mint) on the tongue.
How you should eat your Wagyu really depends on your palate and courage. Don’t be shy and don’t be too brave- the right balance of adventure and sensibility and you’ll be just fine.
The first few times I tried Wagyu, I had it medium rare. Mind you, I usually go for medium. As a result, my stomach revolted, unable to fully process the ‘underdone’ beef. It tasted terrific though so there was no turning back. So I had to train my system to accept the degree of doneness that would allow the tenderness I craved. Months later, I can eat most things without fear of landing myself in difficult situation. So experiment around, see what the right balance for you is. It might be medium-rare, medium, or even the frightful medium well. Pick something that works for YOU.
I’ve tried most Wagyu ranging from a MBS of 4 to 10+. And there’s a balance to be found there as well. After several failed experiments and silly-putty looking steaks, I’ve come to the conclusion that for me the perfect ‘bite-to-tenderness’ ratio lies in the 7-8 MBS range. Less than that and it nearly eliminates the buttery feel that distinguishes Wagyu from all other beef; more, and you’ll find your steak rather fluid regardless of how well executed it is. Again, it’s personal preference, but take my word for it.
I started with cooking on a pan, then a skillet. Both were relatively straightforward and a stopwatch from my phone was all I needed to ensure that all the steaks were cooked exactly the same way day in and day out. Minor tweaks and I could go from medium well to medium rare in a matter of a few minutes. This method is highly recommended for large parties and people who don’t like their steaks charred.
My favorite way to cook Wagyu is over a coal fire, and the reason is simple: no other way of cooking steak provides the depth of flavor without compromising the sanctity of the meat. It feels better, looks better and tastes better. After all, isn’t that all you could possibly ask for?
However you choose to cook Wagyu, realize that its own fat is the only lubricant you’ll need to transform it from raw to just perfect. Oil, however subtle it may be, can and will take away from the meat itself, often burning the fat to create a disharmonious piece of junk.
Wagyu burgers are a complicated mess. Some say that you can achieve the same consistency of wagyu patties by proportioning angus chuck with angus fat in a similar manner. And I’d have to agree with them. Nothing about a Wagyu burger stands out as distinct; that’s not to say that it isn’t divine on its own account, but the fact that it can easily be replicated by any ground, high quality meat with the right constitution of fat has me doing a double take.
That being said, I’d recommend a Wagyu or Angus burger done medium, with dijon mustard, light mayo (or garlic mayo), red onions, rocket, smoked mozzarella, and maybe sauted mushrooms if you’re into that kinda stuff. You’re going to want to hold off on pickles and jalapenos for this one.
Wagyu has been a godsend. I can honestly say it has changed the way that I view and appreciate beef, especially with regards to steak. I will not allow you to die till you have feasted on the phenomenon that is Wagyu.