You’ve probably seen Wagyu beef on the menu at any fine dining establishment. It may have made you wonder what it is and how it differs from other beef. What makes this beef so special?

Wagyu beef originated in Japan and translates to “Japanese cow.” “Wa” means Japanese and “gyu” means cow. It is pronounced, “wah-gyoo,” instead of the common mistaken pronunciation of, “wah-goo.”

Wagyu beef has become known as a luxury steak. Let’s find out why.

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What Is Wagyu Beef? Cattle Breeds

While all Japanese cattle can be referred to as “wagyu,” only four types of Japanese cattle provide the authentic Wagyu beef that winds up on fine dining menus.

  • Japanese Brown (called Red Wagyu in the United States)
  • Japanese Black (most of this beef is exported to the United States)
  • Japanese Shorthorn
  • Japanese Polled

All other beef cattle in Japan are used for general meat production. Wagyu cattle are selectively bred and raised to produce the desired high quality of meat.

How Is Wagyu Beef Raised?

Wagyu cattle are treated better than people might imagine. There is speculation that Wagyu cattle are force-fed, the way that geese and ducks are in order to produce foie gras. This is not the case. Foie gras is a fatty liver, caused by overeating, while Wagyu beef is the muscle and fat of the animal.

When animals are stressed, they release high levels of the cortisol hormone. This cortisol reduces the quality of the beef. Farmers ensure that Wagyu cattle live serene, peaceful lives to keep their stress levels low. They have even been known to keep cows of the same family together and massage their cows’ muscles to relax them. They check on their cows throughout the day, provide them with nutrient-rich food and fresh water, and show them love and care. Cows that don’t get along with each other are separated to improve their lives. The farmers believe that this is crucial to providing the best quality of meat possible.

How Much Does Wagyu Beef Cost?

For just 1 pound of Wagyu beef, you can expect to pay between $100–$200. This high price tag is mostly due to the quality of care that goes into raising the cattle. Wagyu genetics in certain cattle must be met before breeding. Raising the cattle in stress-free environments requires a great deal of time and dedication to the process.

wagyu beef with spinach and tomatoes on a plate
Image Credit: tibi147cm, Pixabay

What Makes Wagyu Different From Regular Beef?

In addition to how the cattle are raised, one huge difference between Wagyu cattle and regular cattle is the flavor of the meat. Wagyu breeds of cattle have more intramuscular fat cells. The result is marbling occurring inside the muscles, rather than on the outsides. Compared to a regular piece of steak, you’ll see the marbling throughout the Wagyu, whereas the other will have the fat simply lining the perimeter.

This sets Wagyu breeds apart. Even if other cows were raised in the same conditions and given the same level of care, they won’t metabolize fat inside their muscles.

Wagyu beef has a unique flavor that is buttery and sweet. It has a deep, rich umami taste. One of the reasons for this is the high fat content of the meat. This melts as it cooks, saturating the meat’s fibers. Many people prefer this meat served with only salt and pepper, as it needs no other seasoning to give it flavor.

The texture of the beef is soft and almost silky. It’s best to enjoy this slowly to appreciate all the flavors that it has to offer.

American Wagyu vs Japanese Wagyu

American Wagyu beef is the result of breeding purebred Wagyu beef cattle with Angus cattle. The flavor and texture of the beef are similar to domestic American beef. It also retains the same marbling and tenderness as Wagyu beef. Both American and Japanese Wagyu have flavors that are beyond anything that regular cattle produce.

The main difference reported between the two is eating ability. Japanese Wagyu is far richer than American Wagyu. While both have exceptional quality and flavor, the richness of Japanese Wagyu makes just a few bites of it more than enough. Smaller quantities are more satisfying. When you’re craving a giant steak dinner, Wagyu beef might be too much.


Different Flavors for Different Cuts

Different parts of the cow may have slightly different flavors. Routinely-worked muscles may have a richer flavor than those that weren’t used much. The best way to cook more muscular cuts of Wagyu beef is low and slow, allowing the flavor to develop.

Grading  Japanese Cuts

The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) is responsible for grading Wagyu beef. This ensures that it meets the expected standards of consumers.

Certain factors are considered during this process:
  • Fat color
  • Meat color
  • Ribeye shape
  • Size of ribeye
  • IMF%, which refers to marbling quality

The grading system uses numbers and letters, from A–C and 1–12. The final grade will be a letter and number from 1–5. For example, A5 would be the highest grade that Wagyu beef can get after the process.

The quality scores of 1–12 that factor into the final grade are as follows:
  • 1: Poor
  • 2: Below average
  • 3–4: Average
  • 5–7 Good
  • 8–12 Excellent

Grading American Cuts

The USDA uses a grading system that consists of Select, Choice, and Prime. American Wagyu is usually graded Prime. This is equivalent to Grade 12 in the JMGA.

What Is Kobe Beef?

Kobe beef is a brand of Wagyu beef. However, it has stricter requirements. First, there is only Japanese Kobe beef. American Kobe beef can’t happen because for beef to truly be called Kobe, it must come from Kobe, Japan.

Additionally, everyone involved in the processing of Kobe beef must be licensed by the Kobe Beef Association. The farm, processors, consumers, and restaurants all fall under this requirement.

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Final Thoughts

Japanese Wagyu is celebrated as one of the best cuts of meat in the world. The flavor, texture, marbling, and richness of this decadent beef are due to the farmers who put high levels of care into their cattle. Wagyu cattle also have unique abilities to metabolize fat that other cattle can’t replicate. The result is meat with a rich, deep flavor and buttery texture.

American Wagyu offers delicious flavor and texture but is more similar to domestic American beef in many ways. Japanese Wagyu is in a class all its own.

Featured Image Credit: leeyounghee, Pixabay