Literally translating to “Japanese cow,” Wagyu beef derived from native Asian cattle is a treat for discerning carnivores thanks to its exquisite texture and flavor.
“Wagyu beef tastes buttery, almost sweet with delicate notes of umami,” says Florencia Palmaz, owner of northern California-based Genesee Valley Ranch. “Some say they can taste even the faintest nutty nuance.”
Together with her ranching team, Palmaz humanely breeds purebred Black Wagyu cows on a breezy spread of former Gold Rush land, nestled in the Plumas National Forest in the Sierra Mountains.
“In the animal husbandry world, if we want to eat responsibly so often, we end up sacrificing what’s tasty,” she says. “The primary focus for us is to create a high-quality product in a sustainable way.”
At the high elevation of Genesee Valley, the melting snowpack feeds the estate’s streams, allowing an abundance of native grass to grow. The cows don’t have to walk long distances through stubble pastures to find food, thus preserving the high fat content of the meat.
While American palates may be more familiar with Angus beef simply for its wide availability and marketing efforts, wagyu offers the benefits of a remarkably smooth texture and remarkably rich flavor, especially when it comes to some of the traditionally tougher cuts.
“The strips and rib eyes are good, of course, but I think some of the wagyu’s best cuts are in the shoulder,” says Palmaz. “I encourage people to explore the Wagyu versions of Angus cuts that you would normally never buy and see how delicious they really are.”
Because Wagyu beef is so heavily marbled with fat, consumers often find themselves satisfied with a much smaller portion of meat than they are used to eating.
“Don’t expect to sit down for the average American steakhouse experience and eat a 12- or 14-ounce Wagyu New York strip in one sitting!” Palmaz laughs. “You’ll probably be very happy with 4 to 6 ounces, and when paired with fresh seasonal salads, it feels like a healthy meal while still being indulgent.”
Ranked by quality on a Japanese scale from A2 to A12, Wagyu beef carries higher price tags than its supermarket counterparts. Genesee Valley Ranch Wagyu, for example, starts at $20 a pound for ground rounds going up to $170 for a pair of 14-ounce New York strips.
“There are many factors that come into play [pricing]”, describes Palmaz. “First, wagyu is much less common than your regular herd. Our herd has a vast tract of land to roam around, the team leading the herd are experienced and we practice sustainable farming. All this combined, and the utmost care taken in raising each animal, sets the bar high in terms of an exemplary product that naturally commands a higher price.”
When shopping for Wagyu, Palmaz recommends asking questions to make sure the meat comes from a reliable source. Once at home, carefully prepare your purchase.
“Most midsection cuts, such as sirloin and strips with a fine texture and thinner marbling, can handle medium-rare ones,” she notes. “Just cook them quickly and get a nice sear. I like to slice them and serve them as medallions with mashed potatoes or parsnip puree. In my house, one New York strip can feed the three of us.”
With a coarser grain and thicker marbling, the shoulder cuts can be a bit trickier. Cooking them at a well done temperature will get all the precious fat out, but cooking them medium rare will make them tough. The same goes for the leg pieces such as sirloin steak and bavettes.
“For those cuts, there’s a sweet spot in the middle at medium,” says Palmaz.
Think of Goldilocks while you’re cooking. Not too heavy, not too rare, but just right.