What does it all mean? A diner’s guide to Wagyu
Date Published : 21 May 2018

They’re terms that we see on menus all the time; Iberico pork, Wagyu and USDA certified beef; they’re marks of quality that guarantee the provenance of our food. Or do they? On its own, the label ‘wagyu’ tells you very little about the beef that you’re actually getting.

Wagyu can come from any one of four breeds of cow originating in Japan. It has some distinctive qualities; the main attraction of wagyu is that it’s more extensively marbled than beef from other breeds. Marbling is made of deposits of fat between the cow’s muscle fibres, this fat melts during cooking keeping the meat moist and tender and imparting loads of rich flavour. But the word ‘wagyu’ on the menu is, in itself, not a rock-solid guarantee of quality.

What to look out for

There are 15 different grades of Japanese Wagyu. The meat is graded in quality from A to C, A being ‘above standard’ and C being ‘below standard’. It’s also rated from 1 to 5 for the amount of marbling present, 1 is ‘poor’, 5 is ‘excellent’. So, if the menu simply claims your beef is wagyu, there’s no guarantee that its not C1 substandard beef. If the menu specifically says ‘A5 Wagyu’, then you know you’re getting the good stuff; beef that has been raised on quality grain and cared for properly by the farmer.

Not all wagyu is Japanese. The grading system outlined above only applies to wagyu beef raised in Japan. Herds of the four wagyu breeds; Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn plus other crossbreeds that are also sold as wagyu, can be found in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. Each of these countries uses their own beef-grading system. (For more on this, see our upcoming Diner's Guide to USDA Beef.)

The particular part of the cow the meat comes from will have a much greater impact on your enjoyment of your meal than the breed of the cow; a piece of A5 (top graded) wagyu shank is unlikely to be as tender as a piece of tenderloin from a less glamorous breed of cow.

If you want to enjoy your steak like a connoisseur, you’ll do better investing a little time familiarising yourself with the properties of the different cuts available rather than investing in names alone. And if you’re wondering which cut to choose; the muscles in a cow’s neck and legs do the most work, and therefore, produce the toughest meat. So, as a rule of thumb, the further from the horn or the hoof the meat comes from, the more tender and juicy it will be.

If in doubt, ask your waiter or butcher to tell you more about the beef you’re buying. This is the only way to find out if they really know what they’re talking about, or if they’re just using fancy-sounding names as an excuse to charge premium prices.

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