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What is Wagyu Beef?

13 Mar

There is beef and then there is Wagyu (pronounced Wha as it what + Gue as in argue). In the circles of fine dining, it is often mentioned in the same breath as Beluga caviar, white truffle, toro and Iberico ham. Wagyu beef is characterized by an intense marbling of fat obtained through selective cattle breeding in Japan over many generations, which gives it is unique buttery flavour and ultra tender texture. The veins of fat are most prominent when the meat is frozen and gradually fade off as the Wagyu is cooked.

Because of its uniformly distributed fat content, Wagyu is not usually served thick and is typically cut in sirloin style slices. That’s because its fat has to be melted to bring out the full flavour of the meat (that’s why bacon taste better with the fat melted away). If Wagyu is undercooked it tastes just like any other raw meat, excpet perhaps with a softer texture. Medium is as rare as one would go for top grade (see below) Wagyu, and sometimes my preference is to have them done medium-well, or it tastes a bit like I’m eating fat.

The ideal way to cook Wagyu is over an open charcoal grill, failing which you should at least use a cast iron grill pan with ridges. Sear on both sides twice, so you can get the nice criss-cross pattern.  Use a bit of coarse salt to bring out the steak’s flavour, but refrain from using any tenderizer, marinade or sauce. You can however serve your wagyu with thin slices of garlic that are fried till they are crispy, and/or flambe it at the very end with a shot of brandy without disturbing its intrinsic flavour. Estimate how well your steak is done is by observing its shrinkage.

  1. Japanese Wagyu
    Well this is a tautology since in Japanese Wa = Japan and Gyu = Cattle. Ironically, Wagyu is never referred to as Wagyu in Japan. All Japanese beef is branded by the area where the cattle is reared (you know just like French wines are designated by the location of their vinyard, not the grapes used), usually somewhere in the warmer regions of Kyushu or Southern Honshu. It is universally accepted that the best Wagyu is from Japan because of the high quality feed and depending on the individual regions, cattle are given massages, fed beer and all other kinds of overkill. Outside of Japan, the most commonly available types are Kobe, Kagoshima and Matsuzaka, although I have also come across Hida and Kumamoto. Dozens of other varieties such as Saga, Yonezawa, Mishima and Akaushi are available domestically but they are bred in smaller numbers and are rarely exported. Depending on the texture, colour and most importantly theamount of fat marbling, high grade Japanese beef is scored between A3 to A5, with A5 being the best (there is also B and C grade meat in case you were wondering).

    Wagyu A5 and A3

    Top grade A5 on the left, Medium grade A3 on the right

  2. Oveseas Wagyu
    The Wagyu breeds are also reared in Austalia, Canada and the USA. These cattle are (mostly) from the bloodline of Japanese cattle and are fed using the ‘local equivalent’ feed, but are considered to be not as good as the their Japan bred cousins. They cost less at the butcher’s, so this proof enough without going into a long discussion. This doesn’t mean Western Wagyu is bad in any way, they are still a premium meat by any standards. Speaking of standards, foreign bred Wagyu is graded at between M4 to M12 so if you are told a M-score, then you can assume it is of this type. Many a time restaurants will put Wagyu on their menu without stating the grade, which means its probably just a M4-5, so be mentally prepared to be disappointed. I would say M10-12 is equivalent to a Japanese A5.
  3. American Kobe-style Beef
    This is a cross between Wagyu and Black Angus, bred specially for the North American market in America. This beef has nothing to do with Japanese Kobe Beef except for the uncanny similarity in spelling. Its existence stems from the fact that Americans are so used to eating their steaks rare, since western beef gets tough if it is cooked to any meaningful degree. So the Angus component has been introduced to make Wagyu more meaty, even when it is rare. This makes sense, but then again if you are really into medium rare or rare tenderloin style steaks, why not go with an aged angus instead?

Notes

  • When you are buying raw Wagyu, after the butcher slices the thickness you want off the slab, he is supposed to cut off the fat on the outside before weighing. Also the grade of meat must be stated, or you will probably be overpaying.
  • To give you an idea of equivalence, the best grade of U.S. Beef, USDA Prime is equivalent to Japanese Wagyu A1 (the poorest grade).
  • Cast iron grill pans must be stored with a coating of fresh cooking oil and wrapped in a cling film to prevent rusting.
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3 Comments

Posted by on March 13, 2010 in Ingredients, Japanese, Red Meat

 

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3 responses to “What is Wagyu Beef?

  1. kobayash1

    May 15, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    A person left a rather rude comment (which I deleted) to the effect that Wagyu should never be cooked beyond medium rare as it will become very tough. High Grade Wagyu doesn’t get tough, even if you boil it until it is compeltely cooked (like in Sukiyaki and Shabu Shabu). If your beef gets tough, its simply not high quality Japanese beef.

    If you want to know all about non-Japanese ‘Wagyu’, this four part series from Forbes gives a very interesting and detailed story.

    http://www.forbes.com/sites/larryolmsted/2012/04/13/foods-biggest-scam-part-2-domestic-kobe-and-wagyu-beef/

     
    • Thariq Ahmad (@thariqahmad)

      September 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm

      I agree with you. There seems to be this preconception and snobbery that the all beef needs to be cooked blue or rare. This may be true in that case of an Angus Filet Mignon but in the case of Wagyu, especially the rib-eye where there is a lump of fat, undercooking it defeats the whole purpose of marbling – raw fat is eurgh! To me, the key to wagyu is to cook it just so that all the marbled fat melts enough to give flavour to the meat but not too much that it melts away. That’s why the proper technique is so important.

       
  2. David Powell

    October 14, 2014 at 4:24 pm

    Thank you very much – this is very useful! I’m just about to have some M7 so at least I now know where that stands in the scheme of things. I completely agree with you about having more fatty meat more well done. In western dining I usually order a fillet to be cooked rare, but I order a rib-eye to be cooked medium as otherwise the marbled fat doesn’t get to the right temperature to melt. When it does, and it’s added to the caramelised meat – just like heaven!

     

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