The term ‘wagyu’ is used in the culinary world in several ways, but most often as the benchmark for the finest meat of all.
The term is also used in a metaphorical sense to describe the high level of quality of another product, for example New Zealand King Salmon is often called ‘the wagyu of the sea’.
To help understand the complex world of wagyu, we’ve come up with a Wagyu 101 and, if you’re up for the challenge, we’ll give you a step-by-step guide so you can cook your own wagyu steak to perfection.
What is wagyu and why is it so revered?
The literal definition of wagyu is in two parts: ‘wa’ is the term used for Japan or Japanese; ‘gyu’ refers to a cow. Essentially then a Japanese cow. If only it was that simple.
There are four breeds of Japanese cow that can claim to be wagyu: Japanese Black (Kuroge Washu), Japanese Polled (Mukaku Washu), Japanese Brown (Akage Washu) and Japanese Shorthorn (Nihin Tankaku Washu). Additionally, the name wagyu can be interchanged for similar terms you may have heard before like Matsusaka, Kobe, or Mishima beef.
It’s the taste and texture that separates wagyu from other meat cuts. When cooked correctly, the wagyu beef will melt in your mouth like butter and explode in your mouth with an umami flavour. American food writer Robb Walsh said “Wagyu is something that every meat lover should experience at least once”.
Many wagyu advocates claim superior health benefits of the meat. Allegedly, wagyu contains higher levels of conjugated linolic acid, which has shown to improved metabolic health and lower the risk of diseases such as heart disease. Furthermore, wagyu is said to have had a higher percentage of stearic acid, which is good for cholesterol health.
The history of wagyu
Originally, cattle were raised for labour and used in that capacity for about 2000 years. During the rule of Emperor Tenmu in 675AD, a ban on consumption of meat was enforced during the farming season from April – September, and, as time went by, the taboo of eating meat was established within Japanese society.
The Meiji Restoration in 1867 caused political and social reform and resulted in a reinstating of imperial rule over the land, causing accelerated industrialisation and with it, adoption of western ideas and productions methods previously isolated from Japanese lands.
The revolution also began to erode the ancient dietary taboos, most significantly when the Emperor ate meat to bring in the new year in 1872. Subsequently, the ban on eating meat was lifted during and the selection of cattle changed from working performance and milking to meat production. Initially, cattle were shipped from the newly opened port at Kobe to the northern markets of Yokohama, and over time, the core breeds that became known as wagyu were crossed with imported breeds to improve characteristics of the beef – a few breeds are kept isolated genetically from imported breeds like the Mishimi, due to its protection by government decree.
Jump ahead a few years to the 1950s, and industrialisation caused demand for animal labour to lessen and saw a shift in the selection requirements of cattle. Over time, the marbling index improved in prefectures that genetic selection programs, unlike the previous period in which visual assessment alone was used. After decades of cross breeding, four breeds of wagyu were established and designated as superior breeds.
In 1997, Japan declared an export ban on wagyu cattle, designating the cattle as ‘national treasures’. Now, the loosened regulations on the export of Japanese wagyu means the beef can be enjoyed around the world.
Marbling and meat scores
Wagyu grading is a complex process. Each cut is graded depending on a variety of factors including fat marbling, the colour and the brightness of the meat, its firmness and texture, and the colour and lustre of the fat. Depending on where you are located around the globe, the grading scale may differ. We’ll start with the simplest Japanese scale: the Overall Meat Score.
Overall Meat Score Scale
The scales from A3 – A5 are considered ‘very abundant’ with their fat to muscle ratio. The IMF refers the intramuscular fat on each cut of meat, the higher the score, the more marbling on each cut of meat creating mouth-melting flavour.
This is how the overall meat scale works:
A3: 21.4% - 29.2%. IMF
A4: 34.7% - 42.5% IMF
A5: 43.8 – 56.3% IMF
If you want to get more specific, there the BMS Scale is with its marbling to muscle ratios, the higher the BMS number, the more marbling associated with the cute. Ranging from BMS 3 which has a 21.4 fat to muscle ratio to BMS 12 which has 56.3% fat to muscle ratio.
The American scale is very simple to use, anything wagyu tagged with the term ‘Beyond Prime’ means that it is anywhere between 21.4% - 56.3% IMF.
How to cook wagyu
Are you ready for the challenge of cooking a mouthwatering wagyu steak?
Here’s what you’ll need:
1. Wagyu steak
2. Cast iron pan or another skillet that can withstand high heat
4. Thermometer (optional)
The traditional Japanese method:
Season with salt and pepper several hours before cooking, but don’t overdo it – you want the flavour of beef to shine through. Put in the fridge for a few hours so that through the process of osmosis, the meat absorbs the salt – see here in our salting guide for more information!
Once the meat has been salting for several hours, remove the meat from the fridge and wait about 30 to 45 mins for the wagyu to come to room temperature and then pat dry with a paper towel.
Cut the wagyu into thin strips, about 4 inches long. If there’s some leftover fat you’ve cut off from the steak keep it, as we will use it later.
Now that you’ve prepped, time to cook!
Heat that pan so it’s really hot. You can tell if it’s hot enough when you pour a couple of droplets of water, and they boil off immediately (about 350o-400o). Now that it’s hot, melt that extra fat off the meat in the pan and then place your strips of meat once the fat is melted. If you don’t have any fat, then grease the pan lightly with some butter. Sear the meat for 60 seconds and then flip for another 60 seconds. Then transfer to plate and rest for 5 minutes.
The steak can be served on its own with salt and pepper sprinkled over, or if you need something more filling pair with crunchy vegetables like asparagus or green beans or vegetables that won’t overpower the flavour of meat such as potatoes or sautéed mushrooms.