Kobe beef is rich in more ways than one

Sunday Gourmet

Japanese breed's meat is high in both fat, cost

November 16, 2003|By Marlene Parrish | Marlene Parrish,TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

Kobe beef is showing up on fancy restaurant menus all over the country. Chefs love it. Ask Thomas Keller of the French Laundry, Wolfgang Puck of Spago and the Iron Chef himself, Morimoto of Morimoto's in Philadelphia. It is even available in high-end supermarkets. Should you order a steak dinner or buy steaks to grill at home, be prepared for a treat - but also be prepared for sticker shock.

Kobe beef is very expensive.

Why? Kobe beef is a legendary delicacy in Japan. It's a type of beef with so much white-fat marbling that it rivals foie gras for richness. It also costs an obscene amount of money, often $300 a pound or more for the real thing in Japan.

Kobe beef comes from a Japanese breed of cattle known as Wagyu. Wagyu have been bred to be genetically predisposed to intense marbling and to produce a higher percentage of unsaturated fat than any other breed of cattle in the world.

But they are famous not just because of quality. Kobe beef is world-famous because Dutch sailors in the 1800s used the port of Kobe for trade with Japan. The sailors coined the name Kobe beef when they raved about it in their travels.

In order to earn the appellation Kobe beef, Wagyu cattle must have been fed in confinement for an extended period of time in Kobe prefecture, or county, and meet rigid production standards. Those standards require extraordinary pampering. In some cases, beer is fed to the cattle to stimulate their appetites in the summer, when the heat depresses their food intake. Massages are given to relieve stress and muscle stiffness because the animals are confined to a small space with little room for exercise. Some cattle are even brushed with sake, since it is believed that softness of the coat and the skin relates to meat quality. The sake rubdown is more of a grooming technique, and it usually happens before the animal goes to market.

In order to protect the domestic beef industry, the Japanese government has imposed strict laws that prohibit the export of any living Japanese Wagyu cattle. So until recently, all Kobe beef was bred and raised in Kobe prefecture. Not anymore. Today most Kobe-style beef is raised in Australia and the United States where, compared to Japan, land is cheap and grain is plentiful.

In 1976, four Wagyu animals were imported into the United States. Then in 1993, two male and three female cattle were imported, followed by 35 males and females in 1994.

Today, Snake River Farms in Idaho produces 70 percent of the Wagyu beef sold in the United States.

"Technically, the American beef should be called American Wagyu beef. That hardly rolls off the tongue. So we refer to it as American-style Kobe beef," said Shane Lindsay, general manager of Snake River Farms. But it is also sold as Kobe-style or simply Kobe. Hence, while the name Kobe beef has high recognition and implies the real thing, it just isn't what it appears to be. The Wagyu beef designation can legally be applied to the meat from any cattle of the Wagyu breed, but it is not a place appellation or an indication of how the cattle were raised and fed.

"What makes Wagyu taste different than other breeds is the unique fat composition," Lindsay said. "Relative to other breeds, Wagyu has half the saturated fat and twice the unsaturated fat per ounce, making it a lighter, sweeter-flavored beef."

The American Wagyu breeding program allows a longer period of time than the Japanese for the cattle to grow to adulthood in a free-range environment. To enhance taste and marbling, they are fed grain, along with a balanced mineral and vitamin mix. Antibiotics, hormones and animal byproducts are not used.

Here are tips for cooking Kobe-style beef at home.

Size and thickness are important factors. Steaks should be at least 1 inch thick, preferably 1 1/2 inches. That allows for a crisp finish on the outside and a rare interior.

The meat should be at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before cooking. Do not cook meat taken directly from the refrigerator.

Always use tongs to turn the meat, never a fork. This prevents juices from seeping out.

You can't time the steaks. You need to tend the process, but not fuss with a lot of turning.

Use the pressure test for doneness. Here's a guide: Pretend the limp palm of your hand is a steak. The cushiony part at the base of the thumb feels like the surface of rare steak, the less cushiony center of the palm feels like a medium steak, and the stiff spot just below the pinkie finger feels like a well-done steak.

After cooking, allow the steak to rest for 4 minutes before serving so that the juices are redistributed.

Overcooking steaks will cause a loss of fat and result in a thinner and less succulent steak.

There are two ways to cook Kobe beef: pan-cooking and grilling. The preferred cooking method is high heat searing followed by a resting period, because with longer cooking, the fine marbling tends to melt away. Since the beef is rich in unsaturated fat, it cooks about 35 percent faster than standard prime beef.

To pan cook: Thoroughly heat a cast-iron skillet. Season the meat with salt and pepper. Add a small amount of olive oil to the skillet. Add the steak. Sear the meat over a high flame until the steak releases from the pan. This will take about 1 to 2 minutes, depending on thickness. If it sticks, don't force it. (The meat will have a tendency to stick to the pan at first.) Turn it with tongs and sear the other side for about 1 to 2 minutes. A thicker steak can be finished by placing it, skillet and all, in a 375-degree oven for about 2 minutes. Remove the steak to a warm platter and allow it to rest for 2 to 3 minutes before serving.

To grill: Charcoal is recommended over gas because charcoal allows you to build a two-level fire, banking the coals higher on one side. Once the coals are white-hot, use the hot side for the searing process and the low side for the finishing process as previously noted.

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