Lately wagyu beef—you know, the transcendently tender, fatty, umami-rich steak—has become as synonymous with luxury as caviar or black truffles. But no matter how many Michelin-starred menus this delicacy graces, all of the facts about wagyu steak still tend to elude even the most seasoned diners.
“It’s an extremely fascinating but confusing world,” says Joe Heitzeberg, the co-founder and CEO of Crowd Cow. Heitzeberg, who admits it wasn’t until he’d spent ample time meeting with Japanese slaughterhouse owners and farmers (his minor in Japanese at the University of Washington helped) that he felt like he truly understood wagyu.
“There’s a lot of information out there that’s not accurate, mostly unintentionally, and perhaps some intentionally,” he says. Because of the prestige associated with wagyu and the premium price it fetches (a pound can easily run in the triple-digits), some people throw around “wagyu” and related terms as a marketing gimmick, even if what the purveyor is selling isn’t that luxury version. So what is wagyu beef—and why does it taste and feel unlike any other steak you’ve ever had? We’ve gathered some of the foremost experts in restaurant industry to explain.
What is Wagyu Beef?
Simply put, wagyu means Japanese cow, But the straightforward definition belies a subject riddled with misinformation.
For starters, it’s pronounced wah-gyoo, not wah-goo, “a mispronunciation that’s common even among wagyu farms in the west” (and that admittedly tripped up even this intrepid reporter), says Heitzeberg.
And wagyu isn’t an umbrella term for just any Japanese cow. The luxury version of wagyu we all want on our plates refers to a specific breed of Japanese cattle with special genetic qualities. “There are four breeds native to Japan. Of those four breeds, one of the breeds is genetically unique,” Heitzeberg says. “It has a genetic predisposition to create this crazy marbling of fat on the inside of muscle tissue. No other livestock does that.” Think of your average piece of steak. Chances are, it’ll have a fat cap on its outside. With wagyu, the cow metabolizes the fat internally, so it’s integrated within the muscle.
“When I eat too much food it goes to my belly, but when they eat a lot of food and they get fat, that one breed gets it on the inside of the muscle,” Heitzeberg explains. This means any other breed, even raised by an award-winning wagyu cattle farmer in the exact same conditions as wagyu, would not produce wagyu beef.
The result is a rich, luscious cut of beef that practically dissolves once it hits your tongue. “When you have very high-end wagyu, you barely want to cook it. The middle you want to keep as raw as possible. But even if it were cooked medium or medium-well, it would still be juicy,” says Giuseppe Tentori, executive chef of GT Prime in Chicago. “Just slice it super thin so it melts in your mouth.
How are wagyu cows raised and why do their conditions matter?
There’s a misconception that wagyu is produced in the same way that foie gras is: The cows’ movement is limited and they’re force-fed in order to create fatty, tender meat. This couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Heitzeberg. “The number one principle is managing the stress of the animal to zero. Farmers want to make sure these animals from birth to harvest are in a stress-free environment. Stress creates cortisol which will deteriorate the quality of beef.”
Japanese cattle-breeders go to great lengths to give their cows a zen-like existence. They control the noise level so animals don’t scare. Farmers constantly replenish water, so there’s a steady supply of fresh, clean H2O to drink. Cows who don’t get along are separated (because what’s more stressful than grazing next to your nemesis?). And unlike some American farms where cows are left to roam free in open pastures, wagyu cattle are kept on open-air farms where they can be carefully monitored.
“[Crowd Cow] works with farms that will check animals every four hours. In America, if you’re in Montana with a thousand-plus acres, you may not see your animals for seven days,” he says. “They’re out there foraging on the natural Montana grasses, but you don’t know what else they’re doing.” In other words, a cow left to roam, could also be prone to stressful, cortisol-raising experiences.
What does the wagyu rating system mean?
When you see wagyu on a menu, chances are it’ll be alongside an A4 or A5 rating, with A5 representing the most premium level of wagyu. There are two components that go into that rating.
The first factor—the one that differentiates A’s from your B’s— is yield. “If you were a farmer and had a cow … I would give you a yield score, which tells me how much meat I’ll be able to get off the bones,” Heitzeberg explains. An “A” represents the highest meat yield, while a scrawnier cow will get a “B” rating. This part of the rating is really more for the purveyor than for those of us sidling up to a steak dinner. “What’s important isn’t that A or B, it’s that five or four”, Heitzeberg says.
To understand that four or five, you need to know about another rating system: the Beef Marbling Standard (BMS) rating. The BMS is a scale of one to 12 and relates to both the amount and quality of the marbling. A rating of 12 means you’re getting the highest degree of marbling.
To be rated A5, the meat must have a BMS of 8 to 12. A4 is just below that level, representing a BMS score of 6 through 8.
“If you have A5 12 wagyu, you have the best of the best. It’s not going to get better than that, ever,” says Hilary Henderson, chef de cuisine at CUT by Wolfgang Puck in Beverly Hills, one of America’s best steakhouses. However, this top-tier wagyu is hard to come by on this side of the Pacific, she says. “Most A5 12 will be sold nose-to-tail in Japanese markets. Unfortunately, we can’t get that here in the states because it won’t pass USDA regulations on the bone.”
Another thing to take into consideration is that in Japan, rating is an intensely studied skill. To become a rater requires three years of training, and each animal is rated by three separate raters. “It’s important to understand that this rating system is a very Japanese thing. It’s highly skilled, highly regulated and highly practiced,” Heitzeberg explains.
Wagyu vs. Kobe Beef
You may have heard “kobe” used interchangeably with “wagyu”, or used to tout an expensive cut of meat. So what is kobe beef? Kobe is essentially just a brand of wagyu beef, in the same way that Nike is a brand of shoe.
In order for something to be labeled as Kobe beef, first of all, it has to originate in Kobe, Japan. Then, all parties who have a hand in getting this sought-after meat to your table—from the farm to the slaughterhouse to the buyer to the restaurant—has to be licensed by The Kobe Beef Association. “Everyone is paying to be part of the thing called kobe beef,” Heitzeberg says. “But the final thing is they have to be rated A4 or A5—so everything else could be true, but if it’s an A3, you can’t call it Kobe”.
“Kobe is from Kobe, Japan, just like Champagne is from Champagne,” Henderson says. “To be true kobe beef, it has to be from Kobe. [Restaurants] could be part of an association where they’re able to sell kobe beef, but kobe beef is not able to be produced here.”
What’s the Difference Between Japanese and American Wagyu?
In addition to the looser rating system and divergent cattle-farming techniques, the biggest difference between American wagyu and Japanese wagyu is that Japanese wagyu is purebred, where American wagyu is crossbred. “[American wagyu] is still going to be crazy marbled with intense flavour, but it’s most likely wagyu bred with angus,” Henderson says.
“Almost all of that stuff is angus beef crossbred with wagyu in an uncontrolled, unregulated, unspecified percentage of DNA,” Heitzeberg says. “I’ve eaten my bodyweight several times over in Japanese wagyu and American wagyu, and I haven’t tasted anything that’s angus mixed with wagyu at any percentage that tastes like Japanese wagyu does at 100 percent.”
Because of this, American wagyu doesn’t have the sweet umami flavour that Japanese wagyu does, and it never quite reaches that same melt-in-your-mouth level of marbling. Though Heitzeberg is quick to stipulate that this doesn’t mean that American wagyu isn’t delicious.
“The American stuff is wonderful. You can eat more of it,” he says. “With the Japanese stuff, because it’s so fatty and rich, most people can’t eat more than a few bites of it before it’s so overwhelming. So if you’re in the mood for a steak dinner, and you want a giant steak, you can’t really do that with Japanese wagyu.”
American wagyu packs the familiar beefy flavour of an angus steak. “The Japanese stuff is almost like a light beer experience. You just don’t have as much of that beefy taste, and then you have that umami flavor that’s hard to describe. It’s almost like a sweetness”, Heitzeberg says.
If you have the opportunity, order one of each. “Try different types of wagyu from different countries and compare one to the other,” Tentori says. “You’ll learn something new, and you will appreciate it for more than just being so expensive.”