If you spend any time at a Costco or an upscale butchery, it would not be uncommon to see a lighter-colored beef with intense marbling called “Wagyu.” Though the naming can be ambiguous and lead to more questions than answers, the trendy delicacy may be worth checking out.
The word “Wagyu” basically means Japanese beef, but the term is used to refer to a breed of cattle that was initially used as draft animals. Because of the freezing temperatures of Japan and labor-intensive lives of these animals, Japanese cows were bred in a way that selected for high levels of intramuscular fat over many generations.
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Fast forward to the 20th century, when mechanization of farming practices rendered Japan’s need for herds of draft animals largely obsolete. Japanese farmers began butchering their now retired cattle and found an unexpectedly lucrative market for their meat due to its rich, creamy texture and buttery taste.
What Is “American Wagyu”?
The designation “American Wagyu” is used to distinguish cattle raised in the U.S. from the meat imported from Japan. American Wagyu can be the direct descendants, confirmed by DNA testing, of the famous master bull named Tajiri (who’s the ancestor of all Japanese black Wagyu, or Kuroge Washu). However, in most cases, American Wagyu are the product of crossbreeding, commonly of Japanese cattle with Angus and Holstein.
Unlike its Japanese counterpart, the American Wagyu “grading” (at least for now) is based on genetics. The direct descendants of the Japanese cows are considered full-blood; the ones that have 50 percent full-blood Wagyu parentage are often labeled as “F1"—in other words, crossbred.
It all becomes tricky when a crossbred cow with 50 percent Wagyu DNA is mixed with a full-blood cow. As the baby cow will now carry 75 percent Wagyu DNA, it’ll be labeled as an “F2.” And when an F2 cow continues to breed with a full-blood cow, the Wagyu genetic percentage will also rise, and the offspring become an “F3.” As the offspring reach 93.75 percent, they can be considered F4, or “purebred,” as seen on some food labels.
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Why Are They Crossbreeding Wagyu?
Crossbreeding Wagyu is a common practice due in part to the export ban instituted by the Japanese government in 1997. After the ban, no Wagyu cow or specimen of Wagyu DNA can legally leave Japan.
Another reason for crossbreeding is potentially due to Western tastes. American consumers are used to the taste of Angus, Simental, and Holstein cattle varieties, which have more lean meat than the fatty, buttery Wagyu.
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Are There Still American-Raised Full-Blood Wagyu?
The answer is yes, but they’re a rather niche product. According to the American Wagyu Association, Wagyu cattle was first imported to the U.S. in 1975. However, most of the cattle raised in the U.S. ended up being exported back to Japan to meet their consumer demand.
Today, the American Wagyu Association reports fewer than 5,000 head of full-blood cattle registered in the U.S. There are some small-scale operations dedicated to raising the finest breed for consumption, such as Vermont Wagyu, whose business used to focus on high-end restaurants. Due to the pandemic and subsequent restaurant closures, some small Wagyu suppliers have shifted their focus to brick-and-mortar retail stores and e-commerce.
Shopping for Wagyu
Wagyu is expensive, so it’s important to know what you’re getting. Oftentimes, retailers are happy to answer any questions consumers may have. If the package doesn’t clearly indicate where the beef is from or how it’s graded, ask your butcher.
Photo: Martina Birnbaum / EyeEm, Getty Images