Notes on Kobe Beef

I got an email right after Christmas from my friend CC Chapman, a social media guru you really need to be following if you’re at all interested in the New Media space. If you read my Remarkably Mark blog, you will remember a VIDEO I posted tasting Magnolia Cupcakes with CC. He had a request for help with cooking tips:

So my business partner sure does know me well. he was extremely disappointed when he found out I had never had Kobe beef, so for Christmas he gave me 4 Kobe Filets.

Curious what is a good way to cook them. I’ve actually never cooked a Filet before if you can believe that.

After swallowing my envy at CC’s bounty, I typed out a response, and figured that it would make a good article for our dear readers.

Firstly, I should note that while there is no official governmental regulation governing naming of Kobe Style beef (as there is for Champagne, Parmigiano Reggiano, and other recognized heritage foods), it’s still important to discuss naming. Kobe is an area of Japan, in the Kansai region in the Western part of the main island of Honshu. Kobe is a port city, and is known worldwide for its beef. What we know as Kobe Beef usually refers to the style raising of the Wagyu breed of cattle. Kobe is legendary for the pampering given to the cows, from drinking beer or sake, to frequent massaging of the cows during their weeks of “finishing”, to assure for ample marbling of fat amidst the muscle. Much of what people know about this comes from run-away marketing. While these cows are well fed, the image of Geisha girls in full dress gently massaging cows as they sip warmed sake on a tatami mat is just not the reality.

Here in the US, much of what is marketed as Kobe beef really should be called Kobe-style or American Kobe or American Wagyu. Most American producers have cross bred the Wagyu with Angus or other breeds that can do better in the North American climate, so look for labeling that is open and clear about the provenance. Better to support a producer who is clear about what they are selling than to buy from a seller of questionable ethics trying to pass off their meat as raised in Japan.

One such honest seller is Oliver Ranch. We’ll have both audio podcasts and a video podcast soon with Carrie Oliver from Oliver Ranch in the coming weeks. In the meantime, you can check out the tasting notes for their Wet-Aged Wagyu-Angus Cross Filet Mignon on their website. Note that they’re not selling it simply as “Kobe Beef”.

An any case, the main characteristic both American Wagyu producers and producers in Kobe are going for is the extreme marbling of fat. In Japan, the beef is graded on a scale of 1-12 to signify the degree and quality of intramuscular marbling. Those on the higher end of the scale look so pale pink as to be nearly white, there is so much tasty fat interspersed among the flesh.

It’s most likely that the Kobe style steaks CC has, or that you and I would find readily available, are on the 4-7 end of the Japanese scale, which would be just slightly better than “Prime”. Beef graded higher than that is likely to be too fatty for most Americans to enjoy in large quantities (and in Japan, these super high end cuts are used in small quantities for special dishes).

One of the ways that alot of restaurants serve Kobe Style beef lately is to slice it thin and sizzle it up on hot river stones. I’m betting that most of you don’t have river rocks laying around suitable for grilling on, but you can use the same idea and grill it.

The thing about Kobe Style beef is that in order to be enjoyed, you have to “activate it”. Just serving it rare, you won’t get the fat to start rendering, and it will just seem like a fatty cut of meat. You won’t get the tenderness that is so special about a Kobe. At the same time, you don’t want to simply melt the fat, or you will end up with a very expensive piece of normal steak, and lots of fat in the pan. The fat should remain sort of solid. Think fried ice cream or Baked Alaska. The outside should be hot and the inside just on the verge of melting, but not melted.

For a Filet Mignon cut, I would let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or so before cooking. You never want to have it cold, as this will exacerbate the fat not activating.

When you’re ready to grill, preheat your oven to 350 F and get a grill pan nice and hot on the stovetop without any oil in it. You don’t want it to smoke up the place before you start cooking, and it should take a few minutes at high heat to get going. Lightly sprinkle your steaks with kosher or sea salt. I also like to crack peppercorns with the back of a pan, and also sometimes some lightly ground coriander seeds. (Crush the coriander seeds, and roll around in a cloth towel for a bit to remove the husks)

Press the steaks into the pepper and coriander mixture, and then very lightly drizzle with olive oil. The best way to get any steaks brown is to also use some butter, so I put a pat of butter in the pan just 1 second before the steak. Any sooner and the hot pan will send the butter burning immediately. I drop the butter in and plop the steak right on top.

Since your pan is hot, you’ll immediately get some caramelization going, and you’ll start that amazing Kobe Fat softening. Don’t disturb it until you’ve got a nice brown crust on the bottom, 2-3 minutes, then turn over. Once they’re seared and brown on all sides, place in the preheated oven until you’ve reached desired doneness. For Kobe style, I’d say medium rare. Not bloody, since again, you’ll want that fat activated, and not medium, because that will overcook it and you’ll miss the whole point of this amazingly fatty meat.

Remove from the oven and let it rest under foil for a few minutes to let the juices redistribute, and the carryover cooking time to keep working that sweet kobe fat. Serve and enjoy!

(By the way, CC, I’m so jealous of you right now…)

-Chef Mark

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