Some things in life are worth the splurge. In my opinion, great steaks definitely earn a spot on the list. With all the hullabaloo surrounding Wagyu beef, you might be wondering: Is American Wagyu worth it, or should you opt for a less pricey cut?
Is American Wagyu Worth It?
While there are a few authentic Wagyu beef cattle purveyors in the United States, most “American Wagyu” beef comes from cross-bred animals. As a result, the meat doesn’t have the same level of marbling or overall tenderness. Since restaurants charge exorbitant prices for Wagyu beef dishes, it’s better to prepare it at home if you want to splurge.
What is Wagyu Beef?
When it comes to steak classifications, things can get a little confusing. There are different cuts, such as round, brisket, sirloin and chuck. The USDA also grades beef based on quality, using terms like prime, choice, and select.
Wagyu isn’t a section of the cow, nor is it a grade of beef. Rather, it’s a type of meat that comes from a set of specific cattle breeds. In order to be called Wagyu, the beef has to come from one of these animals.
Four major breeds are used to produce Wagyu, and all of them are native to Japan: The Japanese Black, the Japanese Brown, the Japanese Shorthorn, and the Japanese Polled. They’re bred and cultivated to produce beef that’s exceptionally tender and rich.
The bold flavor and tender texture come about as the result of a high ratio of monounsaturated to saturated fat. This translates into a high price tag, which is why Wagyu beef dishes are among the most expensive items listed on restaurant menus.
These four types of cattle were originally bred as draft animals. That’s what gave them such high levels of intramuscular fat. As farming practices shifted, the cows were no longer needed for this type of work.
However, when farmers began to butcher their retired cattle, they found that the meat had an unparalleled buttery texture, with a flavor to match.
About American Wagyu
So, if the cows needed to produce Wagyu beef are all Japanese, how can there be such a thing as “American Wagyu”? Some would argue that there can’t be, which is one of the topics we’re here to discuss.
The word itself, Wagyu, literally means Japanese beef. So while the American market can try to replicate it, there will always be a demarcation line between the two products.
According to the American Wagyu Association, the Polled and Shorthorn cows aren’t bred outside of Japan. Evidently, most of the beef that’s marketed as “American Wagyu” comes from cattle that are a cross between Wagyu and Angus (and sometimes Holstein) breeds.
The difference is slight, but if you were to perform a side-by-side taste test of authentic Wagyu and the American version, you would probably notice. The texture, marbling, and flavor are marginally inferior in the American product.
Before it’s cooked, real Japanese Wagyu beef is lighter in color than you might expect due to the marbling. By contrast, the American variety is well-marbled, but it still can’t compare to the real thing.
Breaking Down The Genetics
The American system for “grading” Wagyu beef also differs from its Japanese counterpart. Here’s how it works.
If the cattle are direct descendants of the Japanese cows, they’re considered “full-blooded.” The crossbred cattle—that is, the ones with 50 percent full-blooded Wagyu ancestry—are called F1.
When crossbred cows with 50 percent Wagyu DNA are bred with their full-blooded counterparts, the resulting calves carry 75 percent Wagyu DNA. These offspring are labeled as F2.
At this point, the F2 can be bred with other full-blooded animals, raising the Wagyu genetic percentage even further. The calves are labeled as F3. When the genetic percentage rises as high as 93.75 percent, the resulting beef is labeled as purebred, or F4.
What does this mean for you as a consumer? Essentially, it means that American Wagyu beef isn’t always from purebred cattle even if it’s labeled as such. Unless it comes from Japan, you can’t be sure whether it’s really purebred Wagyu beef or not.
Does it matter? Again, the differences in flavor and texture are only noticeable if you’re directly comparing one to the other. But it’s hard to justify the sky-high price tag when the American product is less authentic than its counterpart.
Are Any Full-Blooded Wagyu Cattle Raised in America?
Just because the cattle are native to Japan doesn’t mean they have to stay there. Wagyu cattle has been imported to the US since 1975.
However, since demand for the product is much higher in Japan, a lot of the American-raised cattle ended up being exported back to its home country. While a few small-scale breeding operations remain, American-raised purebred Wagyu cows are a rarity.
Is American Wagyu Worth It?
The answer depends on the circumstances, as well as your budget.
If you have the extra cash to plunk down and you’re confident in your abilities, go ahead and splurge for an American Wagyu cut at the supermarket. It’s worth trying at least once, and you won’t have to pay the exorbitant prices you’d expect from a restaurant.
I would definitely recommend shelling out for a Wagyu cut if you’re entering a competition. The quality of the beef will give you an edge before you’ve even fired up the grill.
It’s harder to justify the splurge when dining out. Restaurants have to charge more anyway due to labor costs, and the results will probably be impressive. But often, the hype surrounding the Wagyu name outweighs any benefit you’ll receive.
I should also note that some purveyors will use the term “Wagyu” just to sound upscale and trendy, especially in a restaurant setting. Since you won’t be able to tell whether the meat is really Wagyu or not unless you order it (and maybe not even then), I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Wagyu vs. Prime Beef
As I pointed out, Wagyu isn’t a grade of beef, but a term for four different cattle breeds. But when you’re weighing your options, you might consider going for beef that’s labeled as Prime, even if you don’t know the provenance of the cattle.
Wagyu beef has more marbling and unsaturated fat than Prime beef. As a result, it’s juicier, with a texture that melts in your mouth. The lower amounts of saturated fat make it a healthier option when compared to Prime.
In terms of flavor, though, Prime beef is more robust. That gives it an additional layer of versatility, as Wagyu beef is more delicate and should be seasoned and prepared using simple methods.
Finally, you can expect to pay less for Prime than you would for Wagyu, even the American variety. So if budgeting is your main concern but you still want a quality cut, Prime would be the way to go.
The Bottom Line
Whether or not you decide to spend the extra money on American Wagyu beef is up to you. Personally, I would recommend doing so only if you want to splurge on a great steak dinner at home.
Best of luck, and happy grilling!