Beef is a central part of the American way of life, and the United States has nearly one million heads of cattle roaming at a time.
Travel overseas, and you’ll see that other countries do beef a bit differently. In Argentina, classic cuts are far leaner. In Brazil, it’s all about thick and fatty cuts for long braising.
But in the idyllic green hills of Japan, it’s all about Wagyu, a term that connotes prestige and luxury. What is Wagyu beef, and why does it earn the high price tags in restaurants and butcher shops everywhere?
With such a stellar reputation, Wagyu is comparable to caviar and often graces the same tables in elite dining rooms around the world.
Here’s our ultimate guide to Wagyu beef and how to get some on your fork.
Wagyu Definition and Features
First things first: in the Japanese language, “wa” means Japanese, and “gyu” means beef. Put them together, and you have your basic definition: Japanese beef.
Of course, there’s a lot more to this wonderful food than a simple name, so let’s talk about the features that set Wagyu beef apart from the rest.
Beef Cattle Breeds
When we speak of Wagyu, we’re really only talking about four breeds of Japanese cattle:
Furthermore, Wagyu is categorized by the location where cattle were raised. You might see Wagyu from Hyogo, Tottori, Kochi, or Okayama—each with unique characteristics due to diet and environment.
Kobe beef stands above all as the caviar of beef—we’ll discuss that more later on.
For now, recognize the importance of region and heredity when it comes to authentic Wagyu beef because those are the factors that matter most to farmers, purveyors, and buyers.
Intense Marbling and Fat Percentage
You don’t need to be a beef connoisseur to instantly see why Wagyu beef is in a league of its own. One glance, and you’ll notice heavy, layered marbling of fat throughout the cut of beef, unlike anything you’d see in a typical American butcher case.
This is due to a unique genetic feature specific to certain types of Japanese cattle. Fat is metabolized and stored within the muscle tissue of these cows, unlike other types of cattle which store fat on the edge of the muscle in predictable formations. This kind of fat increases HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol). Many luxury food items, like caviar, are types of superfoods.
There’s a lot of mythology surrounding Wagyu production, so let’s debunk a big myth right now.
- Myth: Wagyu beef is produced by force-feeding cattle to create uniquely fatty and tender meat, as is done to create foie gras in geese.
In fact, quite the opposite is true. Japanese farmers take the well-being of their cattle very seriously, keeping stress on the animal to a minimum and allowing them to live in complete peace and quiet for years at a time.
This means no loud noises, no threat of predators, along with fresh food and clean water 24/7. These pristine conditions ensure that cows don’t produce cortisol—the stress hormone—which is known to cause tension in the body and reduce the quality of the meat.
Compare this approach to how cattle are often raised in the West (poor diets and stressful environments), and you can see why Wagyu achieves a different level of quality.
We also start piecing together why Wagyu is so expensive, sometimes costing more than $100 per pound. There is endless care and attention that goes into creating this special product, and the effort is rewarded in full.
Texture, Flavor, and Preparation
Breed and environment are important, but it’s the incredible dining experience that makes Wagyu so desirable around the world.
We mentioned the distinct appearance of Wagyu, but how does this translate to cooking and consumption?
As you might imagine, Wagyu isn’t the type of beef you want to marinate for hours or even place on a traditional grill. A hot surface, a small amount of oil, and some salt and pepper are all you need to bring the beef up to serving temperature.
Many chefs choose to apply nothing but a quick sear to the surface of Wagyu before serving, preserving the delicate fat within and maintaining the structure of the cut for an extraordinary depth of flavor.
On the other hand, medium or well-cooked Wagyu does not take on the tough and chewy characteristics of standard Angus beef since the interior fat will melt and disperse throughout the piece of meat.
In our opinion, we wouldn’t want to cook a premium piece of Wagyu beef for a second longer than necessary, but everyone has their preferences!
Authentic Wagyu and Rating System
You’ll encounter many different versions of Wagyu on your culinary journey, and maybe even a few imposters. Here’s the info you need to stay sharp and find the best beef for your money.
Japanese vs. American Wagyu
As a hot marketing buzzword, the term Wagyu is thrown around regularly in American retail. However, only a few real Wagyu cows can be found on US soil.
Instead, you’ll find many American Wagyu beef products from Japanese cattle crossbred with Angus, thus altering the DNA of the original purebreds.
The texture and flavor hold up, but true beef connoisseurs point out that these cuts don’t quite compare to the real deal under close examination.
It is often said that the best American Style Kobe beef is from Eastern Idaho. Specifically, this Kobe-style beef is raised amongst the high plains of the Snake River. These cows earn the highest USDA grade. Other countries that attempt for excellence in wagyu are Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.
If you want the truest Wagyu available, aim to find Japanese imports and nothing less. The Japanese Wagyu cattle are the clear winner.
Kobe Beef vs. Wagyu
As mentioned, Kobe is a region of Japan known for producing exquisite Wagyu beef. Think of it as a brand—the two terms are not interchangeable.
The makers of Kobe beef take it quite seriously, and everyone involved in the production process must be licensed by The Kobe Beef Association. The farmer, the buyer, the restaurant: everyone.
The Kobe beef label is very specific, so take a moment for careful inspection. The mark known as the “Japanese chrysanthemum” will signal out meat that is truly above the rest.
Wagyu Rating System
Not all Wagyu is on the same level of quality, as evidenced by its structured system or ratings and grades.
Marbling, maturity, coloring, and overall appearance play a role in grading, and farmers work hard to achieve top marks for maximum profits.
In Japan, the beef grading system goes from 1 to 12, with 12 representing the best possible quality. Additionally, A, B, and C grades refer to the yield grade, representing the volume and weight of the meat itself.
Therefore, A12 would be the best score a cut could possibly receive, earning the highest market price and praise.
You see this system applied to Wagyu around the world, though you may hear regional grading terminology used in America, whether it’s Select, Choice, Prime, or other categories.
No matter how a company markets its Wagyu, there’s no avoiding the truth of the rating! Look for upper-tier ratings – 9 or higher – to ensure you get a worthwhile Wagyu experience.
How To Get the Best Wagyu Beef
Speaking of your next Wagyu experience, what is the best way to get a taste of this mythical and marvelous beef? Here are three routes to take.
Also, keep in mind that many restaurants only add Wagyu to the menu on rare occasions or at times when they anticipate big crowds for high-profile events like holidays or New Year celebrations.
You may also find Wagyu served alongside oysters, caviar, and other specialties, especially at a number of Michelin star restaurants.
The restaurant prices for Wagyu might be off the charts, but we encourage you to try it at least once to experience the luxury and flavor firsthand. A fine dining experience is a fantastic gift.
Delicious Beef In Stores
Wagyu is making its way into markets with more frequency, but you may not find it everywhere. Your best bet is to make connections with gourmet grocers and see if they can import the real export from overseas at a reasonable price.
The Best Tasting Beef Online
Ordering from a trusted online retailer is likely the best way to get authentic Wagyu on your plate. Be sure the vendor is transparent with its sourcing methods and supply chains before you click "checkout."
Cook Wagyu with Care and Enjoy
Like caviar and other gourmet goods, eating Wagyu is a distinctive and memorable experience. Keep this info in mind when searching for Wagyu and avoid common pitfalls.
Refer back to our guide for a refresher and enjoy everything the world of Wagyu has to offer.