Wagyu beef: a complete guide on the Japanese luxury
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Fatty, rich, and unbelievably tender, wagyu beef is a name that has almost become synonymous with luxury in the eyes of food connoisseurs.
The otherworldly buttery texture of wagyu, when combined with that natural umami punch, engulfs your tastebuds in a feeling of pure joy that’s nothing but the literal embodiment of foodgasm!
‘Wagyu’ simply means Japanese cow. But the version of wagyu we all crave refers to specific breeds of Japanese cattle that have unique genetic qualities, the most important of which is a particular distribution of the fat within the meat referred to as ‘marbling.’
As much legendary status as the meat holds, so is it complex and somewhat misunderstood among the masses.
Even I wouldn’t know if someone was using the name as a marketing gimmick had I not had the pleasure of trying the meat several times.
That said, I will discuss everything you need to know about this premium Japanese delicacy in this article, from its literal meaning to its origins and everything in between.
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What is wagyu beef?
The term wagyu is derived from two Japanese words, “wah” and “gyu,” where the former means Japanese and the latter means cow.
In other words, wagyu simply means a Japanese cow.
Where the name has a relatively simple meaning, it is often a matter of great confusion to an unfamiliar ear.
It gives the impression that it refers to all the Japanese cows, which it doesn’t!
As a matter of fact, it refers to four specific breeds of cows native to Japan. Among them, one (Kobe) is genetically unique.
This genetic uniqueness translates into fat-rich A5, luxury meat, where the fat is marbled inside the meat rather than accumulating around it.
Since such marbling is specific to the cow’s genetics, no other breed raised in the finest of environments (or precisely similar to that of Japanese wagyu) can have the same beef quality.
As for the taste, tasting a piece of wagyu is just like biting on the most refined quality butter; it just melts in your mouth.
It will also display subtle hints of umami-ness that refines the full flavor of the meat.
Wagyu beef is so tender that you won’t even want to cook it.
When cooking a premium quality wagyu, the chefs often keep the meat’s interior as raw as possible, searing only the outside.
With the tender, raw inside, the beef is then cut into thin slices, which dissolve in your mouth as soon as they hit your tongue.
Though not very liked, you could also cook wagyu to medium, but that would affect the natural tenderness of the meat.
Is wagyu a cut or a cow?
Wagyu refers to the four native Japanese breeds, and the meat obtained from them is known as wagyu beef.
It cannot be obtained from nor referred to any other cow or cut.
A special quality that distinguishes wagyu from other meats is the high amount of intermuscular fat, which gives it a distinct texture and taste.
What is special about wagyu beef?
Wagyu cows have a unique genetic trait that makes their meat highly marbled, with ample intermuscular fat.
It gives the meat a unique texture and a buttery tenderness that cannot be found in any other meat.
Hence, wagyu beef is not only luxurious but rare, making it extremely special.
Why is wagyu beef so expensive?
There are a bunch of reasons for it.
First, wagyu cattle are raised in a controlled environment and fed twice as any other cattle.
Second, the DNA factor also has a massive role in it due to the rarity of the breed.
Hence, the higher the DNA rating, the more expensive the meat.
Is wagyu beef worth the money?
If you love meat and want the absolute best version of it, then you should try wagyu beef at least once in your life. It’s worth every single penny.
Origin of wagyu breed: a brief history over the years
Well, it has been found that the genetic mutation responsible for the development of this unique meat traces back as far as 35,000 years.
However, it was until 1997 that the Japanese government gave the wagyu cattle the status of “national treasure” and banned the export of live wagyu to other countries, ensuring that the best meat stayed in Japan.
The process toward this acknowledgment was quite eventual, beginning in the Meji restoration era, when king Meji defied all the Japanese customs in existence and tasted beef.
Before that, the consumption of meat and birds was prohibited as the region was strongly influenced by Buddhist ideologies that mainly advocated a vegetarian diet.
The cattle were only used for agricultural activities due to their physical endurance and strength.
Once the emperor himself ate beef publicly in 1872, the consumption and production of meat saw a significant spike, going up by at least 13 times.
The once isolated Island slowly got influenced by western cuisine, and the popularity of meat further increased with time.
As the country entered the 20th century, it moved from just producing meat to cross-breeding with cows from other regions.
The breeds crossed with Japanese cattle included Brown Swiss cattle, Devon, Shorthorn, Simmental, Ayrshire, and Korean cattle.
This practice of interbreeding continued for the next few decades until 1990 when four breeds were separated as superior in quality to the other, which would later become the primary source of Japanese wagyu.
Those four breeds include Kuroge Washu or the Japanese black, Mukaku Washu or Japanese polled, Nihon Tankaku Washu or the Japanese shorthorn, and Akage Washu, or the Japanese brown.
Among the aforementioned breeds, Japanese black has the purest genes, and it has three further major strains of it: the Tajima, Fujiyoshi, and Kedaka.
They all evolved naturally due to the geographically isolated environment of the country and comprise about 90% of all the wagyu cattle raised in Japan.
The only distinction among the aforementioned in terms of quality is the Tajima wagyu beef, which has the most extreme marbling among all and accounts for only 1% of the total wagyu population in the world.
Wagyu breed history in the USA
The history of American wagyu dates back to 1976, when Morris Whitney imported 4 wagyu bulls from Japan and cross-bred them with American Angus cattle.
Afterward, 4 wagyu cows followed and were bred with the full-blood bulls, creating the first few full-blood wagyu cattle in America.
In the following years, the US imported a few hundred more wagyu cattle, primarily black and red, until the Japanese government banned further imports in 1997.
Since then, the American ranchers have had to propagate the wagyu production by interbreeding the existing lines.
By now, the total number of American wagyu cows counts somewhere near 40,000, of which only 5000 are full-blood wagyu.
Much of the US production and consumption of wagyu can also be accredited to the outbreak of BSE disease in 2003 when Japan and other countries stopped importing wagyu from America.
It increased the total production and sale of wagyu beef in the local market, which continues to this day.
Is Kobe beef the same as wagyu beef?
If you have had the chance to eat wagyu, you must have heard the word “Kobe” used interchangeably for an expensive cut of wagyu.
Perhaps you might be wondering, why the word “Kobe” is only used for expensive cuts and not the others.
Moreover, why do wagyu sellers often tout the word so much?
The fact is that Kobe is indeed referred to as an expensive cut of wagyu, but not any wagyu. In other words, it’s a brand name for meat that originates only from the Kobe region of Japan.
All the parties involved in the production and supply of the meat, from the farmers to the slaughterhouses, buyers, and anyone in between, have to be licensed by the Kobe Beef Association.
Plus, all the cattle must be raised to the highest standards set forth by the Hyogo prefecture.
They must qualify as A5 or A4 wagyu beef at the least on the wagyu rating system, scoring between 8 to 12 on the BMS scale.
This leads us to another interesting question- what is the Wagyu Rating system? Or maybe, what is BMF? Well, you might find the answer fascinating. ;)
Also check out my finger licking Kobe beef toban yaki recipe
What is the Wagyu Rating System?
To understand what the Wagyu Rating System is all about, let’s get into the basics first.
So, when you are sitting in a high-end restaurant, savoring all the delicious flavors this meat offers, chances are that the bite you put in your mouth is an A4 or A5.
There are two parts to this rating, the alphabet, which is “A,” and the number, which is “4” or “5”.
The alphabet basically represents the total yield of the cow, which refers to the total amount of meat it has off the bones.
For example, a healthy cow with a lot of yield or meat will get an A rating, while a scrawnier cow will get a B rating.
However, this isn’t important for someone dining with Wagyu meat; it’s mainly for the purveyors.
What counts for you as a diner is a number beside the alphabet, which leads us to the second part of the rating, the BMS.
The BMS scale has a rating of 1 to 12. The position of meat on the scale depends upon the overall quality of the meat and its marbling.
The better the meat, the higher the rating.
That said, the A4-rated wagyu is basically the meat with a BMS rating of 6 to 8, while the A5-rated wagyu has a BMS rating of 8 to 12.
Wagyu beef with a BMS rating of 12 is the best it can get, and so is it the most expensive and rare.
Plus, it’s only available in Japan. No other country has an authentic A5 12 or even A5 7 wagyu.
So even if they claim to have a 7-rated wagyu, it’s not a possibility.
Wagyu rating is a very complex skill and requires years of training, skill, and knowledge to rate and understand wagyu beef.
In other words, if some random joe from a restaurant claims something like that, it’s nothing more than a gimmick.
What are the best and rarest cuts of wagyu?
To be perfectly honest with you, wagyu is all premium.
But if we talk about the best of the best, let me make one thing clear: you will find it either in Japan or originated from Japan.
None of the American or Australian Wagyu qualifies for even something close to the thing produced in Japan.
That said, the following are some of the best Wagyu cuts in the world, with the absolute best fat marbling, hands down!
Shiroi wagyu, Hokkaido
Shiroi wagyu is one of the most expensive and premium types of wagyu.
What makes it so good is the perfect amount of mono-unsaturated fat in the muscle fibers, making the meat very light to eat.
The secret to such a fantastic quality can be accredited to the naturally good genes of Kuroge cattle and the perfect weather of Hokkaido, with a warm climate, ample water, and abundant nature!
However, you must fly to Japan to have a taste of it.
Tajima wagyu, Hyogo
As I mentioned earlier, Tajima is obtained from the purest-bred wagyu cows.
Hence, this too is rare and can be found only at the most excellent Japanese restaurants, and as obvious is extremely expensive.
Compared to Shiroi wagyu, the meat has a ridiculous amount of marbled fat that makes it unique and overwhelming at the same time.
Nevertheless, that’s also one reason that makes it interesting for wagyu connaisseurs.
If you are used to mainly eating lean red meats, perhaps you will like to take it with a sprinkle of lemon juice.
Or, if you want to get a bit experimental, it also makes excellent wagyu sliders. But trust me, it’s going to be a smooth ride anyway!
Himi wagyu. Toyama
At first sight, you won’t even notice if it’s wagyu since the meat is leaner, and the fat marbling isn’t as patterned as your usual wagyu.
However, that’s until you put a bite of it in your mouth. It’s just an explosion flavors with a lot of depth and heartiness that you can’t help savor.
What makes it even better is its light nature. You can eat thrice the amount you consume a of a normal, fatty piece of wagyu.
Shinshu wagyu, Nagano
Shinshu wagyu has just the same taste and fat content as any premium wagyu beef, however, with a slightly sweet aftertaste that makes it pleasingly unique.
The only suggestion I would give you as you try this meat is to have it with a traditional sauce or a marinade.
It just takes the flavor to another level.
Noto wagyu, Kanazawa
Apart from having one of the most gorgeous marbling and astonishingly bright color, Noto wagyu is just what you would expect from a high-quality piece of wagyu steak.
The meat has a lot of fat spread throughout and is only palatable when accompanied by some extra flavors, such as salt, pepper, garlic, and sometimes, wasabi.
As soon as you put the meat in your mouth, the marbled fat melts immediately and fills you up after just a few bites of pleasure.
However, as much as I love it, I wouldn’t eat it regularly, partially because I love my money and partly because I don’t want a premature heart failure.
Anything in excess is poison, no matter how healthy it is.
How do you cook wagyu beef?
Let’s be frank: even a modest piece of decent quality wagyu in a Japanese restaurant will cost you nothing less than $100 or $200 per pound. That’s a lot of bucks.
In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised if you were one of those people who like to save some extra money and bring the thing home to cook yourself.
But hey, that saving would be in vain if you don’t know how to cook a wagyu steak properly in the first place!
By ruining the meat, you get yourself at a double loss.
If you are too afraid of that, you can also try the meat raw… at least that’s what people do in Japan, and guess what? They love it! The meat is just too soft and juicy to resist.
You may know that Japanese people also like to eat their eggs raw in certain dishes!
But then salmonella is also risk too big compared to a few seconds of pleasure.
This leads us to one conclusion; you must learn to cook wagyu properly!
While cooking wagyu beef, a grill is the first and foremost thing you will avoid. You don’t want even a single drop of juice and fat sucked out of the meat.
That said, wagyu beef should only be put on a searing hot pan with minimum or no oil. I prefer to cook traditional dishes in quality cast iron cookware for a premium experience.
As the beef is already filled with ample marbled fat, the fat will render and pool in the pan by itself.
The super hot pan will ensure that all the outside of the beef is cooked without affecting the internal juiciness, resulting in perfectly cooked meat.
Another thing you would not like to do is to add a lot of spices. The meat’s delicious and buttery, and its umami flavor is enough to please your taste buds.
Still, if you are insistent, you would like to glaze the meat with a bit of garlic or maybe put some salt and pepper on it once it’s cooked to complement its natural flavors.
This should be enough to satisfy your craving.
Last but not least, let the meat rest for at least 10 minutes.
This will allow the meat juices to redistribute throughout the cut, resulting in a succulent bite with pure juicy goodness.
Popular wagyu pairings
The taste of wagyu itself is good enough to make you forget any other food you’ve ever eaten.
However, what makes it even better is the number of side dishes you can try with it to accentuate its flavor.
Following are some of them:
Not a dish, per se, but even the worst things taste good with red wine, let alone be something ultra premium like wagyu.
Just make sure the wine is high quality, something like a French Bordeaux.
A rule of thumb is to serve the boldest types of wine with the rarest steak. It will make the experience just otherworldly!
Sauteed mushrooms are quite commonly eaten with wagyu steak.
They have a distinct savory flavor that perfectly balances the overpowering butteriness and richness of the meat.
You would love it!
Find out all about the most popular and delicous Japanese mushrooms and how to cook them here
Most wagyu recipes also include baked potatoes as a side dish.
Though not common in Japanese cuisine, it gives a delicious earthy punch to the rich flavor of wagyu, which goes well with the buttery taste.
Roasted vegetables have long remained a staple side dish to pair with steak, whether other red meats or wagyu.
You can add a little olive oil, salt, and pepper seasoning to the veggies for maximum flavor.
Some of the best veggies to pair with wagyu include sauteed spinach, broccoli, green beans, and asparagus.
Apart from the fact that fresh vegetables add fantastic color contrast to the seared wagyu, they also add much-needed freshness to the dish with their light essence.
Though I would understand if you didn’t prefer it, I would still highly recommend it anyway.
Try this fresh miso ginger dressing for salad with some simple greens for example.
Who knows if the seemingly ridiculous combination appeals to your tastebuds?
Which sauce goes best with wagyu?
Personally, any sauce with wagyu would just ruin the whole experience for me, as the meat is too delicious to be dipped in a sauce.
Moreover, since I’m paying a lot, I would like to savor all the flavor the meat has to offer without tainting it with sauces.
However, that’s really a preference. Some people just like to spice things up a bit.
If you are one of them, you would most certainly want to use traditional Japanese sauces, including soy sauce, teriyaki, chirashu, ponzu, etc.
These sauces have flavor good enough to kill your appetite for extra flavor while not overpowering the overall taste of the meat much.
But as I said, sauces really kill the fun of wagyu.
Here are 13 popular teppanyaki dipping sauce ingredients and 6 recipes to try with your wagyu steak
Health benefits of Wagyu beef
Though this seemingly fat-filled chunk of meat isn’t something that looks much healthy from any angle, to your surprise (and mine), wagyu beef is a very healthy and safe option and actually comes with a number of benefits.
Following are some qualities of wagyu beef that makes it a very healthy option:
As fatty as this specific meat seems from afar, it contains the same amount of cholesterol as any red meat.
Thus, even if you consume it as frequently as traditional beef, you have nothing to worry about.
High mono-unsaturated fat
Wagyu beef contains monosaturated fat. It is what we call the “good fat.”
It is extremely helpful in promoting cell growth, and have no side effects on health whatsoever.
Plus, the amount of saturated fat is also meager in wagyu compared to domestic beef. So you are on the safer side both ways.
Ample fatty acids
Wagyu beef is rich in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids.
Both of these compounds have a huge role in lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases and are associated with lowering the symptoms of diabetes.
From what I have seen, read, and tasted, wagyu is one of the most luxurious foods in the world, going toe to toe with caviar or anything equivalent.
The amount of care put into raising wagyu cattle is far more than average, and so is the final product.
Apart from being delicious, wagyu is also considered one of the healthiest meats in the world and comes with several health benefits.
However, as healthy and delicious as the meat is, the price for even just a pound of wagyu is humongous.
Price factor apart, I would recommend everyone to at least give it a try at least once in their lifetime.
There’s not a single dollar you would regret paying for it, especially if you are meat savvy.
Next, read all about toban yaki and why wagyu beef brings this dish to the next level completely
Check out our new cookbook
Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.
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Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.