Wagyu, Kobe, dry aged? Deciphering meat on the menu

Melody Baetens
The Detroit News

Looking at a steakhouse menu can be daunting these days. Wagyu, Kobe, grass-fed, grain-finished and dry-aged are all descriptors restaurants use, but what do they mean, exactly?

Without asking your server for a quick course in farming and butchery, a little research can help you make the right decision before spending big bucks on a cut of meat.

Let’s start with “dry aged,” a term that you’ll see in restaurants but not really at supermarkets. This is because with dry-aged beef, it takes time for the water in the meat to evaporate. This makes dry-aged beef lighter and therefore more expensive. (For example, the dry-aged selection at Detroit’s Caucus Club ranges $40-$114.)

All beef is aged. If it’s not dry-aged, then it’s wet-aged: slaughtered, cleaned and sealed in plastic, where it ages.

The dry-aging process makes the beef more tender. As the water evaporates from the meat it condenses the flavor. The longer it is aged, the “funkier” it can get.

“When you dry-age you’re breaking down the enzymes in the beef, which is helping make the beef more tender,” said Gino Baratta of Eastern Market’s Fairway Packing Co. “It changes the flavor profile. It gives it more of a beefy flavor, the flavor becomes more intense.”

Baratta said those looking to try dry-aged beef in a restaurant for the first time should start with something aged 28-35 days.

“It’s not too intense, you’re going to get that flavor you’ve never really had before,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be a different experience, aged right.”

Fairway provides meat to hundreds of restaurants in Michigan, with at least 500 of those in Metro Detroit. They have custom dry-aging program, and offer dry-aged prime, Piedmontese and Wagyu beef.

While Fairway has been around for decades, Farm Field Table in Ferndale is a new specialty butcher shop that is starting to expand. In addition to launching an online shop at FarmFieldTable.com, they are doubling the size of their warehouse and facility at 1030 Woodward Heights. This includes a space for dry aging.

I stopped into Farm Field Table to talk to owner Matt Romine about the difference between grass-fed, grain-fed and Wagyu beef.

He and Beratta both told me all beef is technically grass-fed. So when you see that on a menu, know that grass is just what cattle eat. The term “grass-finished,” however, means that animal has only eaten grass its whole life.

Why choose grass-finished over grain-finished or Wagyu? Romine says it depends on what your end game is.

“If you’re looking for the healthiest option, 100 percent grass-finished is the move,” he said, meaning it’s healthiest for the diner. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in the food world. All beef is grass-fed. What’s important is how it’s finished.”

Romine explained that animals that have eaten grass (including pasture grass, hay and grass pellets) instead of grain their entire lives are going to be lean with very little fat marbling. Cattle that have been given grain toward the end of their lives – grain-finished – will have more fat marbling and be less lean than grass-finished.

Meat from Wagyu cattle will have even more marbling and has a higher percentage of omega-3 and omega-5 fatty acids. You don’t need a huge cut of it. For example, at Prime + Proper in Detroit their American Wagyu filet mignon is 7 ounces. Their Japanese Wagyu strip is only offered as a 4-ounce cut.

“Wagyu is a group of (a few) breeds,” said Romine, adding that “Wagyu” literally translates to “Japanese beef.”

“This is raised in Allen, Michigan,” he said, pointing to a beautifully marbled hunk of beef behind his counter. “But it is legitimate Wagyu genetics. This farmer, he has registered genetics. So he can show documentation that says this is the exactly the lineage.”

A sub-category of Wagyu beef is Kobe. While you can import Kobe beef from Japan into this country, most of the time when you see the word “Kobe” on a menu, Romine says it’s likely American-style Kobe or a breed of Wagyu.

If the price per ounce isn’t making you pause, then it’s probably not authentic Kobe. For example, Fairway sells beef with Kobe genetics in a few forms like strips and rib-eye for $90 per pound. That’s the restaurant’s price. Even then, it’s not coming from Japan.

“We have the genetics of the Kobe beef cattle here, but there’s different practices and techniques that they do in Japan that we don’t do here,” said Beratta.

Both Fairway Packing and Farm Field Table have more information on their respective websites, fairwaypacking.com and farmfieldtable.com. Coincidentally, they both are offering party packs of meat bundles for the big game Sunday for those looking to cook or grill at home.


Twitter: @melodybaetens