As a devoted carnivore, I love beef in all its forms. However, in my book, very little can compare to the taste and texture of Wagyu beef.
One of the world’s finest foods, Wagyu has long been my beef of choice for special occasions. But what is Wagyu beef exactly?
In this article, I will dive into its background, the different types, and why it's so coveted.
- Wagyu is a type of beef from Japan known for its high marbling and flavor.
- Its production methods are highly regulated to ensure quality and purity.
- Wagyu beef is generally more expensive than average beef due to its rareness.
What Does Wagyu Mean?
The word "wagyu" literally means "Japanese cow" and refers to four strains of Japanese Wagyu cattle – Japanese Black cattle (kuroge washu), Japanese Brown (akage washu), Japanese Polled (mukaku washu), and Japanese Shorthorn (Nihon tankaku washu) .
Developed initially from draft animals that needed substantial numbers of intra-muscular fat cells to provide energy, these four breeds of beef cattle are native to Japan.
They are raised with an emphasis on producing high-quality beef with extraordinary marbling.
Brief History of Wagyu Beef
The story of Wagyu begins in Japan, where cattle have been raised for centuries for their exceptional quality. As a result, Japanese Wagyu beef has a unique texture and flavor profile that is coveted by chefs all over the world.
Over time, careful techniques developed by Wagyu breeders helped create genetically distinct breeds of Japanese cattle that all boast incredible qualities—including the famous authentic Kobe beef.
Many people mistakenly refer to any Japanese beef as "Kobe steak" instead of "Wagyu." But true Kobe beef only comes from Japan's Hyōgo prefecture.
In the 1970s, countries like Australia and the United States imported Wagyu bulls from Japan and started breeding their own herds.
The Japanese government ceased exporting Wagyu breeds and their DNA in the 1990s, so now the majority of Wagyu is imported beef from Japan or is Wagyu bred from the descendants of the original Japanese bulls .
Characteristics of Wagyu Beef
Wagyu beef first made its debut on menus around 1880–1890 during the Meiji Restoration when Western influence began to spread across Japan .
During this period, restaurants began serving western-style dishes, including steak tartare made with Wagyu beef, which quickly became popular with locals and foreigners alike.
Today, there are several things that Japanese and American Wagyu beef share in common.
1. Taste and Texture
Wagyu has an intense flavor profile due to the high intramuscular fat content in the meat.
As the fat melts during cooking, it infuses each bite with its signature flavor. This type of beef has a sweet yet savory taste when prepared correctly.
Additionally, since Wagyu beef is so tender, it doesn't require much cooking time—which means that it won't lose any of its juiciness or flavor when cooked.
Its naturally rich marbling helps keep it moist while also adding extra flavor. When thinly sliced, this type of beef melts in your mouth as you chew it.
2. Health Benefits
In addition to its exquisite flavor profile, there are numerous health benefits associated with consuming Wagyu beef.
It has a higher monounsaturated to saturated fat ratio than other beef cattle, making it a healthier option for those looking for an indulgent steak dinner without sacrificing nutrition .
Unlike all Angus beef, Wagyu breed cows are raised on a strict diet of grains and grasses free from hormones or antibiotics, so you can be sure that every bite is healthy and safe for consumption.
A 100-gram serving of Wagyu beef contains:
- 478 calories
- 26 grams of protein
- 30 grams of fat
- 109 mg of cholesterol
Additionally, Wagyu is a good source of omega fatty acids, vitamins B12, B3, and selenium .
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Grades of Wagyu Beef
Wagyu beef is strictly graded by the Japan Meat Grading Association (JMGA) based on its yield and quality.
The Japanese scale assigns yield grades from "A" to "C" based on how much meat you can get from the full-blood Wagyu, with "A" coming from the highest-yielding carcasses with an output of 72% or higher .
A "C" yield is the lowest and indicates cattle with an output of 69% or lower.
Quality grades are based on marbling, fat, firmness, color, and texture. Grades range from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest and 5 being the highest.
To achieve a score of 5, the meat must have an even and extensive marbling, very good firmness, a very fine texture, deep red color, and a milky white fat.
"Through careful genetic selection and feeding, Wagyu producers can create an experience for connoisseurs unmatched by any other beef."
- American Wagyu Association
When looking at Wagyu beef, the highest grade is A5. This level means the meat is the top certified grade and offers the most exquisite flavor and texture. The beef may sell for as much as $200 per pound at this grade.
Unlike the Japanese black or red strains of cattle that must be 100% pure, USDA regulations only require US Wagyu to be 50% genuine to hold the name.
Also Read: Grades of Beef Explained
Why Is Wagyu So Expensive?
Wagyu is so expensive because, unlike other types of cattle, Japanese Wagyu is raised and slaughtered in a very special manner.
From the beginning, domestic Wagyu cows are special. As calves, they are fed milk by hand and given coats, so they do not get cold.
As they grow up, the Japanese cattle are fattened for two years - five times longer than standard American beef.
They are raised in small herds on open pastures, with access to fresh air, natural sunlight, and plenty of room to graze.
They are also given a special diet of high-quality grains and grasses, believed to help produce better beef.
The slow-growing nature of the cattle and the amount of time it takes to raise them results in fewer available cows and a higher cost for the beef.
Breeders must also ensure that the cattle's genetics remain pure by avoiding crossbreeding or introducing foreign bloodlines.
The required testing to demonstrate purity is an additional cost passed to the consumer.
All of this makes Wagyu beef highly prized as one of the world's most expensive types of super-premium beef. It is also why the best Wagyu is served in small portions.
What Is So Special About Wagyu Beef?
Incredibly tender texture, deep flavor, and incredible marbling are what’s so special about Wagyu beef. This type of beef comes from a breed of cow that has been specially bred to produce higher levels of fat and a unique flavor profile.
What Is the Difference Between Regular Beef and Wagyu Beef?
The difference between regular beef and Wagyu beef is that regular beef is raised with a focus on yield and cost efficiency, while Wagyu cattle are given individual attention and care, resulting in superior flavor and texture.
What Does Wagyu Taste Like?
Wagyu tastes sweet and luxurious, while American Wagyu, which has been crossbred with the native stock, has a more familiar beefy flavor.
Is Kobe Beef a Type of Wagyu?
Yes, Kobe is a type of Wagyu beef, along with other types, like Mutsusaka, Bungo, and Ohmi.
Is American Wagyu the Same as Japanese Wagyu?
No, American Wagyu is not the same as Japanese Wagyu because American Wagyu doesn’t have marbling that’s as dense as Japanese Wagyu, making it more convenient for roasting and grilling.
Get the Best Wagyu for Your Meals
Wagyu is super-premium beef known for its incredibly tender texture, deep flavor, and luxurious marbling. Wagyu cattle are raised in specific ways to give the final product its signature appearance and taste.
Because of its price and rarity, Wagyu is not easy to find at the corner grocery store. If you want to try this meat, check out our roundup here of the best places to buy Wagyu beef.