Wagyu cattle have been refined over many years to produce a richly marbled, tender, buttery type of beef with an exquisite mild flavor. They are also high in omega-three and monounsaturated fat, meaning it is healthier than most commercially-produced beef.
Wagyu is an umbrella term describing cattle that are purebred or interbred between four certain breeds of Japanese cattle and do not need to be reared in Japan. Cattle bred outside these four breeds are known as Kozatsu.
Many producers outside of Japan produce crossbred Wagyu. For example, there is American Wagyu, Australian Wagyu, and Chilean Wagyu.
The word Wagyu is an adjectival noun meaning Japanese Cow. Wa means Japanese, while Gyu means Cow.
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What is Wagyu Beef?
Wagyu beef can come from four breeds of cattle:
- The Kuroge Washu or Japanese Black is the most common Wagyu and makes up around 90 percent of their numbers. Kobe beef only comes from this animal. Within this breed, the Tajima bloodline produces the finest-quality meat with the most intense marbling.
- The Akage, also known as the Japanese Brown or Red, is reared in the Kochi and Kumamoto Prefectures. Its meat is lean and considered to be healthy.
- Nihon Tankaku or Japanese Shorthorn. This breed is native to Northern Japan.
- Mukaku or Japanese Polled. This breed is the rarest of all the Wagyu, making up only one percent of Wagyu cattle.
Wagyu beef also goes by the term white beef because it appears that color at first glance. The white aspect is due to the extensive marbling (or fat deposits) and this marbling (known as Sashi in Japanese) gives it its superior tenderness and flavor.
Japanese Wagyu beef is extremely expensive. The highest ranking Wagyu is Miyazaki, which has now won the Wagyu Olympics twice. Olive Wagyu, from the island of Shodoshima, is the rarest steak in the world and ranges from US$120 to more than US$300 for just one cut.
A two-pack of eight-ounce 100 percent, A5 Grade Japanese Wagyu Kobe Filet Mignon costs US$299 on Amazon! Wagyu calves can be 40 times as expensive as American ones – adult cows can bring as much as US$30,000.
Japan exported 5 billion yen worth of Wagyu beef in 2013. Last year, exports reached 24.7 billion yen. Many Japanese slaughterhouses are now also obtaining halal certification to ship to Muslim countries and increase their influence further.
Why Wagyu Beef Is So Popular
Japanese Black purebred Wagyu cattle have been continually refined for over 100 years.
Wagyu cattle suffered cramping from grazing on rugged and hilly pastures, and breeders would massage the animals to alleviate their suffering. Remarkably, they would also add sake and beer to the cattle feed, and these techniques, allied to the D.N.A. of the cow, produce a richly marbled, tender, buttery type of beef with an exquisite mild flavor.
Wagyu beef is also higher in omega-three and monounsaturated fat, meaning it is healthier than most commercially-produced beef. Inosinic and amino acids give it its characteristic hint of sweetness.
History of Japanese Beef
Due to Buddhism and other cultural traditions, eating beef was banned in Japan for almost 1,000 years. After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan’s new leaders lifted the ban to encourage Western values and remove Buddhist influences. However, meat-eating didn’t become widespread for another 100 years.
Wagyu cattle are not native to Japan. As they closely resemble Northern European and Scandanavian cattle, it is believed that Japanese explorers brought them back to Japan over 2,000 years ago as draft cattle helping with rice production. The cattle kept their genetic integrity due to the isolation of the Japanese islands.
When rice cultivation started to become mechanized in the mid-1950s, Wagyu cattle became a source of beef as the Japanese economy started to boom, and meat consumption rose.
The Japanese government prohibited the export of live Wagyu cattle for decades to protect its domestic beef industry. Laws relaxed in the 1970s, and four Wagyu bulls were exported to the U.S. in 1976. Two bulls and three cows arrived in 1993, and then 35 cattle the following year. The last batch came in 1997, and the entire Wagyu population outside Japan can trace their ancestry back to fewer than 200 cattle arriving in the United States in 1976 and between 1993 and 1997.
These first Wagyu cows arrived in the U.S. for crossbreeding with Anguses, but there is now a ban on live imports of Wagyu cattle.
Wagyu Beef Grades
Every Wagyu carcass rating follows Japan Meat Grading Association (JMGA) standards, which depend on yield score and meat quality. Yield score is the ratio of meat compared to the total carcass weight and has an A, B, or C rating, A being the best. In Japanese grading systems, the carcass receives one of 15 separate grade categories, A5 is the highest, and C1 is the lowest.
Meat quality includes five categories: marbling, meat color, fat color, brightness, and texture. Each category scores from 1 to 5, 5 being the best. For example, a Kobe beef-qualifying score would have a yield of four or five, a meat quality score of A or B, and a beef marbling score of six or more.
How To Cook Wagyu Beef
To unleash the full potential of your Wagyu beef, follow these instructions for preparing an eight-ounce ribeye steak:
- Defrost and thaw the meat in your fridge for about 24 hours. Take it out of the refrigerator before cooking and wait until the steak is at room temperature before cooking it.
- Trim the fat from the edges and use this to cook the steak. Use a medium- to medium-high heat and place the steak in the pan when the fat has started to smoke (the trimmed fat will act as a layer between the meat and the pan and prevent the steak from losing moisture).
- Add a tiny amount of salt to the steak before cooking; the intense “umami” or delicious meaty richness that A5 Wagyu has is all the flavor you’ll need.
- It would be best if you aimed to sear the outer part quickly. Remember, you must only melt the marbling gently, not cook it. Wagyu beef gives off a very distinctive aroma at 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
- If you flip the steak at regular intervals, a medium-rare steak should take about two minutes per side. If you prefer it rare, give it 90 seconds per side, and for a medium steak, you should allow 2½ minutes a side.
- Let the steak rest for double the time you cooked it (six minutes’ resting time for three minutes of cooking time, for example)
Differences Between American and Japanese Wagyu
As Wagyu cattle herds increased in number across the U.S., ranchers crossbred Wagyu cattle with Black Angus because many Americans found pure Waygu beef too ‘white’. It is this crossbreed that we now know as ‘American-style Kobe beef’.
The steers and heifers go to auction when they are seven months old and then to fattening farms before slaughter. Japanese Wagyu cattle are fed for 650 days or more, while American Wagyu cattle are fed for 400 days. This longer feeding period means they finish at about three years, weighing around 1,500 lb. A typical U.S. beef operation takes half the time to reach that point.
Although it is a closely-kept secret, the Japanese Wagyu diet consists of barley, wheat bran, rice bran, corn, and other quality feed. American Kobe beef cattle feed on wheat, barley, alfalfa, and corn.
While Kobe beef originates from Japan, the rearing of Wagyu cattle also happens in the United States, Australia, and Chile, among other places. The purity does vary from place to place.
American Wagyu follows the Japanese 12-point beef marbling standard scoring method, although it has a stronger taste than Japanese Wagyu steak, which is considered a little mild for tastes in the United States.
How are Wagyu raised?
Like Kings, if the popular mythology is to be believed! There are stories of them being played classical music while being milked and having beer to stimulate their appetite.
Generally speaking though, Wagyu cattle are simply given clean environments and are well looked after by their owners due to the future financial rewards.
What is the difference between Wagyu and Kobe?
All Kobe is Wagyu, but not all Wagyu is Kobe. Authentic Kobe beef only comes from Tajima lineage cattle. Most Wagyu sold in the United States is American Wagyu.
Which cuts are available from Wagyu beef?
Wagyu beef comes in all the most popular cuts, such as sirloin, tenderloin, strip steak, and tri-tip. You can even buy the hard-to-find bavette, also known as the “butcher’s cut” or “hanger steak.”