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The $100 Steak

“Is it worth it?”

This is what I hear asked most often on the subject of the eyebrow-raising price tags of Wagyu beef.

This marvelously marbled meat is best known for its ties to Kobe beef – a name reserved for the Wagyu steer raised in the Hyogo prefecture of Japan, whose capital is Kobe, where the Wagyu are rumored to be fed sake and massaged by hand for a remarkably unctuous steak.

There’s a reason there are so many rumors about the posh lives of these Japanese cows. Kobe beef isn’t as famous for its provenance so much as its flavor and texture. It’s not just that famous tenderness that makes Wagyu “worth it.” The high value isn’t just meat: It’s fat.

A steer develops two types of fat: external and internal. The external layer, just below its skin, is its insulation. This fat also helps to keep beef moist when we cook it, but doesn’t taste all that great. It’s the internal fat that we savor: the feathery streaks that “marble” the meat. So influential is this fat on flavor that it’s the standard by which the United States grades meat: the greatest marbling being Prime, less is Choice, and so on.

According to the book Fat: an Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McLagan, we can’t tell the difference between lean beef and lean lamb. Why not? Because it’s fat that absorbs and releases flavor, and lean meats don’t have enough. If you’ve ever unwrapped cookie dough in your fridge the same day you left something pungent like garlic in it, you may have noticed the dough started to absorb the off-putting flavor. It’s the butter that does the dirty work: Fat soaks up flavor.

So where does Wagyu come in? The breed is particularly good at developing the streaks of ivory goodness that melt throughout the meat as it cooks. Its genetics, combined with careful feeding, drive a mix of marbling and meat that no other breed can match, be it Angus, Hereford or Scottish Highland.

These white plumes drench the meat with flavor. And that marbling is different from regular beef fat: The Wagyu steer produces more monounsaturated fat, so it melts in your mouth with each bite of meat. Normal steaks can’t keep up.

While it’s easy to begrudge the high price of a piece of Wagyu meat, it’s hard to deny the remarkable difference in flavor. It’s a $100 steak that creates an epicurean experience unlike any other.

Follow my epicurean adventures on Twitter @KathrynAndersen