Is Wagyu Beef Really That Much Better than USDA Prime?

American Wagyu New York Strip and USDA Prime New York Strip

We smoked and reverse seared steaks – a USDA Prime NY Strip we got from Costco, and an American Wagyu Gold NY Strip from Snake River Farms.

To reverse sear a steak on a smoker is the ultimate way to honor your meat. If you’ve never tasted a steak prepared using the reverse sear method – well just do it because it will change your life. To add the element of smoke…… well that’s how you get to a divine eating experience.

I’m also going to discuss below a technique that may also be new to you – dry brining steak. Everyone knows you’re supposed to brine your Thanksgiving Turkey. But did you know that almost every meat will benefit from some form of brine? Or that not all brines are made with water? Read on to find out what a little extra time and effort can do to your steak experience!

As long as we were going to reverse sear some steaks, we decided to do a little comparison between grades. We took a $16 USDA Prime New York Strip from Costco and pitted it against an $80 American Wagyu Gold New York Strip from Snake River Farms in Idaho to see if we could tell the difference in a steak that costs 5x what we normally pay for a steak.

Can you tell the difference between Prime and American Wagyu?

If you’d like to watch how we did all of this, scroll down to the bottom of the post – you can watch the YouTube video.

The term “Wagyu” literally means “Japanese cow” in Japanese. So what’s “American Wagyu”? A politically correct Japanese-American cow? Well, kind of. The top grade of Japanese Wagyu Beef – A5 – is intensely marbled and has a unique flavor and texture. It doesn’t taste like the beef us Americans grew up on. Some people – including Mrs. EMV – don’t enjoy traditional Japanese Wagyu Beef. Blaspheme, I know. But she loves the taste of Angus beef, so we forgive her, right?

Japanese Wagyu is extremely rare and hard to buy in the United States. So in 1975 Morris Whitney shipped two Black Wagyu bulls and two Red Wagyu bulls from Japan to the US, and began cross-breeding them with American cows – primarily Aberdeen Angus cows – and adopted the revered feeding and nurturing habits of the Japanese. The result is a well-balanced combination of the Angus taste that many of us grew up on, and the unique flavor and texture profile of Japanese Wagyu beef.

OK – enough with the history lesson. Let’s get to cooking!

Trimming your steaks

Usually, when we talk about smoking beef (or pork, or most meat for that matter), we plan to leave a nice 1/4″ body fat cap on both to protect the meat and to add some flavor when it renders. That’s only the smart move, though, when we are doing very long low and slow cooks. Fat starts to render around 135° Fahrenheit (about 58° Celcius), so when we make a brisket or pork or lamb shoulder that we take to over 200°F the fat has lots of opportunity to penetrate the meat to help develop that unctuous texture. But when we’re cooking a steak that we want to finish at 130°-135°, the body fat just hangs on there like an unwelcome parasite trying to ruin our good meal.

So trim away! We don’t need any of the fat around the sides of our steak – it hurts, not helps our cause. We love intramuscular fat (marbling), but for steaks, we hate body fat.

Fully trimmed, the only fat left is marbling

The Dry Brine

What’s this dry brine you speak of Al? Brines are for putting turkeys in big bags full of salt and sugar! A dry brine is the simplest thing you can do to enhance your meat experience. It’s salt. Kosher salt. And time (not thyme – time). Nothing else.

Put your trimmed steaks on a drying rack on a baking pan (these setups are super cheap – if you don’t have one, this is the one I use. You want it on the rack so the air can get all around it. Then liberally sprinkle your kosher salt over the whole steak including the sides – and put it uncovered in the refrigerator. Leave it uncovered the whole time – you want that dry air being circulated by the fan in the refrigerator. The salt will draw the moisture out of the steaks, and form a salty mush on the surface. What the steak needs it will draw back in…with the salt. The rest will evaporate.

You may be asking yourself “But I want my steak moist! Why would I take the moisture out?”. That juiciness you want in your steak doesn’t come from water – it comes from the rendering of the intramuscular fat we call marbling. These are tiny “veins” of fat – so they can actually render very quickly if you’re cooking your meat to medium-rare or medium, and they provide that wonderful juiciness that we all relish.

When you’re in a hurry you can dry brine for as little as 30-40 minutes. If you have time, though, do it overnight, up to 24 hours – the results are much better when you use a good dose of time.

Our Wagyu Steak salted and ready to spend the night in the fridge

When you finally take the steaks out of the refrigerator, you’ll notice – especially if you went for a nice long overnight brine – that the surface is dry but sticky. It’s formed a pellicle – a thin film all around the meat, to which the seasoning and smoke will adhere. It’s really quite beautiful. But I gush over steak so maybe I’m biased!

The Reverse Sear

Everyone has their favorite way of preparing a steak. Steakhouses often sear in a cast-iron pan then finish in a hot oven to bring the steak up to temperature. Some people swear that just grilling over high heat until the steak is at temperature is ideal. Both of these and many other methods can produce great steaks. If they tell you it’s the best way to make a delicious steak…..

They’re wrong.

Once you try this method you’ll never go back. I’d like to apologize to you in advance for making every other steak you taste that’s not reverse sear smoked seem inferior. #sorrynotsorry.

The first step isn’t to sear – the first step is to smoke. If you don’t have a smoker, don’t fret – you can do this in a charcoal grill by putting the coals on one side with some smoking wood and putting the steaks on the other side. You just have to control the temperature. It actually works – I had to do a bunch of ribeyes at my father-in-law’s house over the holidays on his 30-year-old Weber kettle and they turned out delicious. If you do have a good smoker, though, use it – you will have better control and a better end product.

We’re going to smoke our steaks at 210°-225°F until they reach an internal temperature of 115°F if we’re making medium-rare steaks and 125°F for steaks that will be done medium. These are about 15°F lower than where we’ll finish – so that 115° steak will end up a perfect 130° medium-rare. For those of you rare steak eaters out there (like I used to be) who think medium-rare is too tough and a steak needs to be done rare to be tender – trust me here. At 130° the marbling has started to render and each bite will have a burst of juicy flavor. At 120° rare you just won’t get this experience.

Use a remote thermometer if you can so you don’t have to open the smoker to keep checking temperatures. I like my Thermoworks Signals or my Meater+ but there are lots of varieties out there that will do the job. In the video below I used a Yoder YS1500s pellet smoker and it comes with two food temperature probes that I can watch from my phone so I used them.

The great think about cooking the steaks slowly like this is it’s easy to get the temperature perfect. Another chef (I wish I could remember who so I could give him credit – if you’ve heard this before please tell me in the comments so I can update the page) explained that catching a steak at the right temperature is like catching a moving car. Steaks cooking slowly over low heat are easy to pull right when they get to the desired temperature, while steaks cooking hot and fast over high heat will get away from you so it’s almost impossible to get them dead on every time.

Once the steaks reach temperature pull them off the smoker, wrap them in aluminum foil and set them aside to rest. We filmed the video in the dead of winter so I put the wrapped steaks in a cooler so they didn’t cool down too much but in the summertime, you can just wrap them and set them aside. While they rest they will continue to cook another 5 degrees or so, so they will be about 120°F when you take them out of the foil. Even if you have another grill or cast iron pan you’re going to use for the sear you need to let those steaks rest for 10-15 minutes to let the inside stop cooking.

Now it’s time to get ready to sear. I like to sear right on the grill after I smoke a steak – but you can also bring them in and do it in a cast-iron pan on the stove if you prefer or just don’t have a grill that will get hot quickly. The flavor for this next phase isn’t going to come from the fire – it’s going to come from a process called the Maillard reaction – discovered by French Chemist Louis-Camille Maillard who gave us the 2nd best French cooking asset to come out of that country (the 1st, of course, being the wonderful treasure of a human being that is Chef Jacques Pépin).

Your searing process is going to bring those steaks up the next 10 degrees to the perfect temperature. Once your grill or pan is up to a surface temperature of 550°F or so, we’re going to do a 4-stage sear. One minute on, rotate the steak 45° for one minute, flip it over for one minute, and turn it 45° again for one minute. Check the steak with a meat thermometer (I like the Thermapen MK4 from Thermoworks but any good meat thermometer will do in a pinch) and make sure it’s right where you want it: 130°-135° for medium-rare, 140°-145° for medium. If you like your steak done well done, please stop reading now I can’t help you!

Pull the steaks from the grill, give them another maybe 5 minutes to rest – and slice against the grain and serve. I’m a little cocky when it comes to a great steak so I always serve a sliced steak. That way I don’t have some heathen guests cutting it with the grain and complaining that it’s not perfect. But also it’s a nice thing to do for your guests and it can make for a nice presentation so I’m not entirely a jerk.

And THIS is the end result. If you want to see how juicy those turned out, watch the video. It’s pretty amazing.

So back to where we started – was the Snake River Farms Gold Wagyu worth 5x the money vs the USDA Prime? Leah and I both have to say unequivocally YES. We can’t eat like this every night – but when we have the opportunity we will do it every time.

Not to push the video again, but if you want proof, watch the look on Leah’s face when she tastes the Wagyu steak. It’s priceless!

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