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What Is Wagyu Beef?
Wagyu is a designation for several Japanese cattle breeds (wa means Japanese and gyu means cattle) known for producing meat with a high level of marbling. The level of marbling depends almost entirely on the genetics of the particular breed of cattle, which stores fat throughout its muscles. There are four native breeds of Wagyu cattle: Japanese Black is the most popular Wagyu breed and includes Tajima cattle (the kind used for Kobe beef); Japanese Brown, Japanese Shorthorn, and Japanese Polled are much less common and don't have the same level of intramuscular fat that makes the Japanese Black so coveted.
Where Is Wagyu Beef From?
Technically, Wagyu beef can come from anywhere, so long as it's from one of the four breeds of native Japanese cattle. That said, many people only consider Wagyu from Japan to be authentic. One reason for this is that purebred Wagyu cattle pretty much only thrive in one place: Japan.
4 Types of Wagyu Beef
There are many types of wagyu beef, including:
- Matsusaka beef comes from the area around the city of Matsusaka in the Mie Prefecture. Along with Kobe and Ōmi beef, it's one of the three most famous sources of Wagyu.
- Miyazaki beef comes from the Miyazaki Prefecture, also from Japanese Black cattle. Little-known outside of Japan, Miyazaki beef is considered by some to be higher quality Wagyu than Kobe.
- Kobe beef comes from Tajima cattle (a type of Japanese Black cattle) raised in the Hyogo prefecture. "American Kobe" comes from Tajima bloodlines but is not as strictly regulated.
- American Wagyu beef almost always comes from Wagyu cattle crossbred with other beef cattle, such as Angus. According to USDA regulations, beef can be labeled Wagyu so long as it has 50 percent Wagyu genetics. (The American Wagyu Association tracks the genetics of American Wagyu calves.) Japanese regulations are much stricter, labeling beef by specific regions such as Kobe and Miyazaki.
Wagyu vs. Angus Beef: What’s the Difference?
Purebred Japanese Wagyu cattle produce meat that is sweet to the taste and so finely marbled that it looks pink rather than red. Compared with American beef, Wagyu is (literally) off the charts: The highest quality designation in the U.S. is USDA Prime. Beef must be well-marbled, with a Beef Marbling Score (BMS) of four to five, to be considered Prime. In Japan, BMS can go all the way up to 12.
Because of its intense marbling, Wagyu beef is prepared differently than other types of beef. For example, you might expect to be served a six-ounce, one-and-a-half-inch-thick Angus ribeye (with a BMS of two to five) at a fancy steakhouse. Its beefy flavor stands up well to gravies and sauces, and it might have nice marbling and a significant fat cap. In contrast, the recommended serving size for Wagyu beef is one ounce of half-an-inch-thick steak per person. That's not strictly for health reasons—Wagyu steaks are so fatty that eating more than an ounce can be unpleasant, like eating a stick of butter. Wagyu also has a less pronounced "beef" flavor than other steaks, so the experience of eating Wagyu beef is all about its melt-in-your-mouth texture and delicate, sweet flavor.
7 Tips for Cooking Wagyu Beef
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If you’re cooking beef from a full-blood Wagyu cow, you have to prepare it differently than meat from, for example, Angus cattle. Here's how to make the most out of your investment.
- Choose quality over quantity. Authentic Japanese Wagyu beef commands high prices due to its incredibly rich flavor and high fat content. Serving a small amount of this high-end meat (one to two ounces per person), generally in thinner slices, will allow you to enjoy the meat without feeling stuffed. Japanese Wagyu is typically sold thin (half-inch-thick slices) compared to American steaks (which are often one-and-a-half inches thick). Think of Wagyu like foie gras—it’s too rich to eat half a pound.
- Always temper your steaks. Temper your steaks (bring them to room temperature) before cooking to ensure evenly cooked Wagyu. If part of your steak is still cold, the few minutes the steak spends in contact with the pan will result in meat that's overcooked in one spot and undercooked in another. If you're working with frozen meat, defrost it in the refrigerator overnight, and bring it to room temperature on the kitchen counter 30 minutes to an hour before cooking, depending on the thickness of the steak. (Thicker steaks will take longer to temper.)
- Grill with caution. Watch out for grease fire when grilling Wagyu. Rendered beef fat can drop down into the grill and cause fires. If you do choose to grill Wagyu, cut it into small pieces and keep a spray bottle of water on hand for flare-ups.
- Go for cast iron. For stovetop cooking, a cast-iron pan is a great option. Cast-iron skillets hold heat well, ensuring even cooking. Since you’ll likely cut your Wagyu steak very thin, high-heat searing is all you need to fully cook the meat. You don't need a meat thermometer to check internal temperature—once you've seared one side, flip it over. When both sides are brown, remove from the heat to avoid overcooking.
- Choose direct heat. Since Japanese Wagyu is sold as thin steaks, it's generally not a good idea to use slow cooking methods such as sous vide or roasting, which can cause overcooking.
- Keep it medium. The amount of muscular fat in Japanese beef means that the meat will remain tender even when cooked to medium doneness. If you prefer medium-rare American steaks, you'll probably enjoy your Wagyu medium. Luckily, thin cuts of beef allow even a brief sear to achieve medium doneness inside. (Well done isn't recommended.)
- Season simply. Since Wagyu beef is so rich and flavorful on its own, a light sprinkle of sea salt is really all you need in terms of seasoning.
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