Remember when no one thought California wine would hold up to the Old World stuff? We all know what happened there (ahem, Judgment of Paris).
Well, now the cow dung is about to hit the fan: Since the 1970s, when we first started raising it, American Wagyu has been shunned as an inferior version of the Japanese original. But a new crop of quality-obsessed American Wagyu farmers are out to change all that.
One of those farmers is Tom Moon, owner of Spring Hollow Farm in Franklin, Tennessee. Moon started raising Wagyu cattle four years ago, and if there's an American who knows what to look for in a Wagyu steak, it's him. Here's the lowdown on domestic Wagyu and what to do with it, straight from pasture to table.
In the beginning: The brief history of American Wagyu farming is not exactly great. When we first imported Wagyu cattle in 1975, we started breeding them with Angus cows—which pissed off Japanese farmers beyond belief. They had spent their lives protecting the genetic purity of Wagyu cattle, and then we came along and diluted their stock. In response, Japan cut off exports of Wagyu cattle to the United States.
The ban is still in effect, but over the years, we've managed to breed a few thousand all-Wagyu cows on American soil. Unfortunately, false advertising is still a problem: "Most of the Wagyu steaks you see at restaurants are only half Wagyu and half Angus," Moon warns, and though pure Wagyu ain't cheap, it's worth the extra spend for a blast of pure, silky steak flavor. Speaking of . . .
Fat is flavor: The reason you buy Wagyu is for the marbling, those luscious strands of fat that sit in between the muscle fibers and make every bite the best five seconds of your day. Everything Moon does on the farm is intended to increase his cows' marbling, including his four-course all-grain diet. His advice for buying Wagyu steaks is simple: "The more marbling, the better." While Japan has 12 marbling grades, the USDA has only three within its Prime category (Prime Plus is the highest).
A quality Wagyu steak will have so much marbling that the meat takes on a pinkish hue. Look for rib eye or strip—there's little point in shopping for a leaner cut like filet mignon when you're paying a premium for marbling. And although this fat isn't the best thing for you, it's not the worst either. One thing that separates Wagyu cows from the herd are their high levels of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Nutritionally speaking, Wagyu is as close to salmon as a cow can dream of getting.
Shop right: Now that you know what to look for, go out and round up some Wagyu. The American Wagyu Association recommends buying beef directly from a few farms across the country, such as True Grass Farms in Sonoma County and JB Kobe Farms in Nixa, Missouri. For retail, if you live in Chicago, try Whittingham Meats, while New Yorkers should check out Lobel's.
Get cooking: As you might expect, the trick to cooking Wagyu is not cooking it too much. "You don't want anything above medium rare," Moon warns. His preferred method is on the grill: Season the meat with salt and grill at 400 to 425 degrees for a scant two minutes on each side. "Keep the inside of the steak below 120 degrees," Moon says. "When you get above that, it melts all the intramuscular fat, and you're left with leather."
After all, we love us some American leather, too, but not on our plates.
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