Wagyu beef has made quite a reputation for itself here in the United States. Often thought of being and marketed as synonymous with Kobe beef, wagyu beef is known primarily for two attributes: it’s unique, fat-marbled texture that gives it a somewhat light and delicate, but still rich taste, and for it’s cost-- sometimes up to $200 per pound. When comparing the raw cuts of meat to ordinary beef, it is quite obvious that wagyu is different from appearance alone, but what exactly makes it so special? And what about it makes it worth the sometimes very steep price? The answer to both of these questions lies in the source of the meat itself-- specifically in the peculiarities of Japanese cattle.
The term “wagyu” simply means in Japanese, “Japanese cow” and refers to the breeds of cattle endemic to Japan. Due to Japan’s nature as an island, Japanese cattle breeds genetically diverged from other breeds sometime around 35,000 years ago. This variation results in Japanese cattle possessing a genetic predisposition to carrying body fat intramuscularly, rather than in deposits over top of the muscle and beneath the skin. Fat deposits within the muscle tissue leads to the marbled, melt-in-your-mouth texture of the cooked meat that wagyu is known for. About half wagyu’s superior taste is attributed to the genetics of the cattle. The other half has entirely to do with how the cattle are raised.
There is a common misconception that wagyu is delicious because the cows a