Once you start getting serious about quality meat products, it’s hard not to notice all the different labels. Even amateurs have likely heard about Wagyu beef, and terms like “Select,” “Choice,” and “Prime” are common. But what do they mean, exactly?
Our guide is here to help you discern the difference between Wagyu vs Prime brisket, and whether it matters which one you take out of the butcher’s case.
Wagyu Brisket vs Prime Brisket
Wagyu is a breed of Japanese cattle. In the US, Wagyu beef is usually the result of cross-breeding between the Kuroge Washu and Angus cattle. Prime brisket is a cut that’s received the highest possible grade from the USDA, and it means the meat is well-marbled and taken from a young steer.
What Is Wagyu Brisket?
Wagyu brisket has become exceedingly popular on the competition circuit. Since these pitmasters are always seeking to gain whatever edge they can, their habits are worthy of mention.
“Wagyu” is actually a mashup of two Japanese words that combine to mean “Japanese cow.” In the States—and in most areas outside of Japan—the term refers specifically to beef from the Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu cattle breed.
The meat from this cattle is intensely marbled. Since your primary goal when smoking a brisket is to keep the meat from drying out, this is a definite plus. The fat also gives the meat a bold hit of umami flavor and contributes to its melt-in-your-mouth texture.
American vs. Japanese Wagyu
It’s important to point out that there’s a slight difference between the American term “Wagyu” and the Wagyu beef you would get in Japan.
While American, or domestic, Wagyu cattle can trace its lineage back to Kuroge Washu cattle, it only needs to contain 46.875 percent of this bloodline in order to qualify.
Most domestic Wagyu beef comes from cattle that has been cross-bred with Angus strains in order to increase production. Although the USDA does certify it as “American Wagyu,” there’s a higher-than-average chance that it came from a mixed-breed cow.
The rules are more stringent in Japan. Nearly 100 percent of Japanese Wagyu breeding cows can trace their lineage back to a single bull. This comes about as the result of strict breeding practices that keep the strains as pure as possible.
When it comes down to it, Japanese Wagyu is the superior product. However, in addition to being expensive, it’s also very hard to find.
A Word About The Wagyu Grading System
Unlike the American certification system, which bases its decision on only two factors (see below), the Japanese system uses three grades to rate its beef. Let’s take a closer look at these grades and what they mean for the meat that ends up on your plate.
The yield grade refers to the amount of meat that can be harvested from the carcass—or more specifically, the most sought-after portions of the steer.
An A grade means that at least 72 percent of that portion is deemed usable, while a B grade indicates a score between 69 and 72 percent. If the yield grade is C, it means that the carcass will yield less than 69 percent of usable beef.
This grade looks closely at the amount of marbling in the beef. In this way, it’s similar to the USDA grading system.
However, the Japanese system also takes the texture and color of the meat into consideration when giving the quality score. It also inspects the quality of the fat itself.
Taking everything into account, the quality grade rates the beef on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being lowest and 5 representing the highest score.
Beef Marbling Score (BMS)
As you might have guessed from the name, the BMS subjects the meat’s marbling to an even closer examination.
This score runs on a scale of 1 to 12. A score of 1 indicates that there’s very little marbling, or perhaps none at all. On the other end of the spectrum, a 12 suggests that the beef contains “extreme” marbling.
In general, a BMS of 8 to 12 is considered exceptional. Therefore, if you see a cut of Wagyu beef that’s been graded A1 8-12, you can assume that it’s attained the highest possible rating based on these standards.
What Is Prime Brisket?
Prime is the highest certification level offered by the USDA as far as beef is concerned. Less than 2 percent of the beef produced in the US receives this grade, which hinges on two contingencies: the age of the steer at the time of slaughter, and the marbling.
Prime brisket comes from younger cattle that was properly fed and fattened up throughout its lifespan. The beef should be well-marbled, especially on the point end of the brisket, which is naturally fattier than the flat.
It can be difficult to find Prime beef in the butcher case. Most Prime cuts go to restaurants, where they’re given the royal treatment by professional chefs. If you have your heart set on a Prime brisket, try searching through online retailers.
Wagyu Brisket vs Prime Brisket: Which Is Better?
So, is Wagyu brisket superior to Prime? Not necessarily.
Many people assume that Wagyu is a superior product. While that may be true on a case-by-case basis, the truth is that the grading systems that are used to certify them are not identical.
If you can find a Wagyu brisket with a BMS of 8 or higher, you can expect the meat to be of better quality than a brisket with the USDA Prime label. The difference will be slight, but the Wagyu selection will have superior fat content, and the fat will be rich and flavorful.
Now for the bad news: Wagyu brisket carries a high price tag. We’ve seen it priced as high as $90 per pound. While this might not deter you if you’re on the competition circuit, it makes this product a no-go for most home chefs.
What About Choice and Select Cuts?
One step down from the Prime designation is the Choice label. Choice brisket has slightly less marbling than Prime, but it’s still a quality grade of beef. As long as you cook the brisket at a low temperature, you should wind up with delicious results.
Select grade beef doesn’t have much marbling at all. If you’re not careful with it, you can wind up with dry, tough meat. Since a high fat content is key to the success of smoked brisket, we don’t recommend buying this grade if you can avoid it.
Tips For Cooking Wagyu Brisket
If you’ve invested in a Wagyu brisket—even if it’s only the flat—you’ll want to ensure that it gets the proper treatment.
First of all, leave plenty of time for the extra fat to render out. A Wagyu brisket with extreme marbling can cook to 217 degrees Fahrenheit without suffering any ill effects. In fact, it may take that long for the meat to attain the right texture.
Don’t be tempted to use too much spice rub on a Wagyu cut. The intense umami flavor of the beef should be enough to make your taste buds dance.
Last but not least, use a meat probe to check the temperature of the brisket. If there ever was a time to ensure that the brisket cooks to the proper temp, this is it.
The Bottom Line
Wagyu brisket isn’t necessarily superior to Prime, but it might be, depending on the grade it receives.
The thing to remember is that Prime refers to the grade itself, while Wagyu only refers to the type of cattle. Once you understand this distinction, it should be easier to make your choice.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!