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Premium Kobe beef is now available from Pittsburgh grocers

Thursday, October 23, 2003

By Marlene Parrish, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Giant Eagle announced this month that it is one of the few supermarket retailers in the nation -- and the only large supermarket chain in Pittsburgh -- to bring Kobe-style beef to its shoppers. The premium beef is available at seven Giant Eagle stores: Village Square, Robinson Crossroads, Pine Creek, Camp Horne, Donaldson's Crossroads, Waterworks and McIntyre Square.

Tom Dowden, butcher at the Village Square Giant Eagle in Bethel Park, cuts three different steaks to show the difference in marbling, the flecks of fat prized by cooks. (Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette photo)


Try before you buy?

How to cook Kobe-style steaks

The cuts of Kobe-style beef will include: filet mignon roast and filet mignon steak at $39.99 per pound (that is not a typo), rib-eye delmonico roast and rib-eye delmonico steak at $29.99 per pound and top sirloin steak at $16.99 per pound.

Japan's special cattle

What's the big deal, and why is it so expensive?

Let's start with the basics. Kobe beef is a legendary delicacy in Japan, a type of beef that has so much white fat marbling that it rivals foie gras for richness and caloric content. It costs the equivalent of $300 a pound or more for the real thing in Japan.

Kobe beef comes from a Japanese breed of cattle known as Wagyu, which means nothing more than "Japanese cattle."

By the late 19th century, many breeds of cattle had been imported into Japan, including Brown Swiss, Shorthorn, Devon, Simmental, Ayrshire, Korean, Holstein and Angus.

These breeds cross-bred in Japan to become today's Wagyu (say wog-you). To complicate matters, there are two breeds of Wagyu, which are further subdivided into several different strains. The two main breeds are the Black Wagyu and the Red Wagyu. The Black Wagyu is the strain most closely identified with Kobe beef.

This strain is genetically predisposed to intense marbling and produces a higher percentage of unsaturated fat than any other breed of cattle in the world.

That's because Japan has been selectively breeding for marbling grade. Wagyu cattle are astounding also in yield grade (that's the amount of edible meat that a carcass produces), and the meat is significantly superior in this respect to any other known breed.

Interestingly, Kobe beef today is not recognized as the highest quality beef in Japan. The most expensive beef is matsuzaka. The reason the term Kobe is better known is that 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.

American-grown Kobe-style beef should not be confused with that raised in Japan.

In our taste test of a single portion of ribeye delmonico steak, the Kobe-style beef was heavily marbled, so it was juicy, and it had a good chew, but we were not blown away by it. Of course, this was a single cut on a single day cooked at home, so in the future we'd have to compare the Kobe-style beef side by side, steak to steak with, for example, a Prime grade Angus steak or even a comparable Prime steak from a premium steakhouse.

From left are Kobe-style, which has the most marbling, followed by USDA grades of Prime and Choice.(Pam Panchak, Post-Gazette photo)

Kobe beef

Wagyu is a breed name, but Kobe is a brand name.

Kobe is a city on the southern coast of Japan's main island. In order to earn the designation or appellation of "Kobe beef," the Wagyu cattle must have been fed in confinement for an extended period in the Kobe region and meet rigid production standards.

These bovines receive extraordinary pampering. In some cases, beer is fed to the cattle to stimulate their appetites in the summer months 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 to exercise.

Some cattle are even brushed with sake, as it is believed that softness of the hair coat and the skin is related to meat quality. This sake rubdown is a grooming technique, and it usually happens before the animal goes to market. It's a wonderful life. While it lasts.

However, the Kobe-style beef available here is raised with American-style breeding and feeding practices, which don't follow the Japanese beer and massaging methods, says Brian Frey of Giant Eagle.

Wagyu and Kobe in the States

In order to protect its 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 the Kobe region of Japan, period. Not anymore.

Most "Kobe-style beef" today is bred and 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, two Tottori Black Wagyu and two Kumamoto Red Wagyu bulls. In 1993, two male and three female Tajima cattle were imported, followed by 35 male and female cattle, consisting of both Red and Black Wagyu, imported in 1994.

Today, Snake River Farms in Idaho produces 70 percent of the Wagyu beef in the United States. It is the new supplier for Giant Eagle.

Shane Lindsay, general manager of Snake River Farms, says: "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. The product may also be referred to as Kobe-style, which is usually shortened to 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. Relative to other breeds, Wagyu has half the saturated fat and twice the unsaturated fat per ounce, making it a lighter, sweeter-flavored beef. These cattle are unlike other U.S. breeds of cattle because they have been selectively bred for meat quality rather than efficiency."

Lean and skinny they are not.

How much fat is still to be determined. "To be honest with you, we have not received proven documentation regarding the nutritional value of Kobe beef or a nutritional comparison of Kobe to other beef products from our Kobe supplier," says Giant Eagle spokesman Frey.

"In addition, due to Kobe not being recognized on the USDA scale, the Kobe product isn't included in the USDA nutritional database."

Nevertheless, the nutritional value of Kobe-style beef isn't the real appeal of this item, Frey says. "Consumers purchase this product due to its unique flavor, texture and marbling, as well as for the 'Kobe beef experience.' "

Unlike the Japanese practices, the American Wagyu breeding program allows for a longer period of time to grow to adulthood in a free-range environment. To enhance taste and marbling, the cattle are fed with genetically non-modified grains together with a balanced mineral and vitamin mix. Antibiotics, hormones and animal byproducts are not used in the feeding program. The program falls within the "natural beef" protocol approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Kobe-style beef in Pittsburgh

The Kobe-style beef sold at Giant Eagle is from American-raised Wagyu cattle.

The steaks are not dry-aged but wet-aged for at least 14 days. The meat is never frozen.

"The quality of the Kobe-style beef product at Giant Eagle is higher than USDA Prime because of the large amount of finely marbled fat running through the beef," says Ed Steinmetz, Giant Eagle's vice president of meat and seafood.

In the kitchen

Here are Giant Eagle's tips for success with Kobe-style beef:

Size and thickness are important factors. Steaks should be at least an 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 15 minutes before cooking. Do not cook meat 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 direct center of the palm feels like a medium steak and the stiff spot just below the pinkie finger feels like a well-done steak.

Allow the steak to rest for 2 to 3 minutes for the juices to be redistributed.

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

"Overcooking is the enemy," says Giant Eagle's Steinmetz. "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. The reason for that is that with longer cooking, the fine marbling tends to melt away."

Giant Eagle butcher shops also offer USDA Prime and Certified Angus Beef. Now, with Kobe added to the quality beef line-up, there seems to be an answer to the question, "Where's the beef?"


Marlene Parrish can be reached at mparrish@post-gazette.com or 412-481-1620.

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