Here's Why Wagyu Beef Is Better—and the Easiest Way to Tell if It's Real

There’s a reason Waygu is one of the most sought after types of beef in the world. Here’s how to tell if you’re eating the real thing. 

If you've tried Wagyu beef, raw or cooked, you know it's a real luxury to eat. Wagyu is deliciously marbled with fat, tender yet flavorful—and centuries of tradition, generations of cattle breeding, and a whole lot of rules and regulations are in place to keep it that way. Despite all this, the topic is rife with confusion, at least partly because of unscrupulous operators who want to jack up the price of the steak you're eating.

The real stuff, though, is a stunning special occasion treat. Here's how to tell the difference, and why you should.

What is Wagyu?

Despite its fancy reputation, the name is actually quite humble: Wagyu just means "Japanese cow," but not all beef from Japan is Wagyu. In order to qualify, it has to come from one of four breeds: black, brown (usually called red), shorthorn, and polled (or hornless). Black is by far the most common, though you'll also occasionally see meat from red cows, and the latter two aren't available at all in the United States.

The distinctive thing about Wagyu meat is how well-marbled it is, meaning the fat is evenly and generously distributed. Also, this fat melts at slightly below body temperature, so you'll have an actual melt-in-your-mouth steak.

Not all beef makes the cut.

Japan has rigid guidelines for Wagyu before and after it's harvested—remember, only beef from certain breeds even qualifies. The meat is graded on marbling, color, and other factors on a one to five scale, five being the highest quality. (For comparison, Prime, the highest grade the USDA gives, is a four on the Japanese scale.) The imported Wagyu beef you find in the U.S. is typically a four or five, which is why it's normally quite expensive—at least $80 for a 4-ounce portion.

Wagyu is not only from Japan.

Ranchers elsewhere in the world, including Australia and America, raise Wagyu cattle too. In America, according to USDA regulations, meat from cattle can be less than 50 percent Wagyu to be labeled as such. Often, they're crossed with Angus cattle to make them better-suited to conditions here. (Sometimes people refer to these crosses as Wangus!) This meat is often less well-marbled than Japanese steaks, but it's still a luxurious variety of meat—and a domestic Wagyu typically costs about half of what an imported one would.

Kobe is a variety of Wagyu.

Kobe steak is a particularly prized variety of Wagyu, and, courtesy of a special regulating board, there are very precise rules on what meat qualifies. To start, it has to be from Hyogo Prefecture, a region in Japan, and it has to hit a certain weight, color, and marbling guidelines, so not that many cattle from that particular region even qualify.

Kobe is supposed to be wonderful, but you'll have to work really hard to try it. Only 38 restaurants in the U.S. are allowed to serve it. (Time to book a trip to Japan?)

There is one online retailer certified to sell authentic Kobe beef, Holy Grail Steak Co. It'll deliver A5-grade Kobe right to your door.

Learning to sniff out the fakes pays off.

It's hard to verify if a steak is truly Wagyu, and it commands a high price—which means the label attracts some shady operators. So how do you save yourself from a costly mistake?

To start, give it a good look: A raw Wagyu steak is so thoroughly marbled it looks pink instead of bright red. The fat shows as little dots of white distributed throughout the muscle. Buy from a reputable butcher (or eat at a well-known restaurant), and ask questions—usually, if the meat is imported, the vendor or restaurant can tell you what prefecture it's from. One more tell: Imported Wagyu beef is always boneless.

American Wagyu is trickier. A cow doesn't have to be full-blood Wagyu for a steak to be labeled as Wagyu, so it will be well-marbled, but not as distinctively so as an imported steak. Again, buy from a reputable place, and ask questions. And if a place says they're selling Kobe beef, run. At best, they don't understand what they're talking about. At worst, they're actively deceiving people, so they are not to be trusted.

It's surprisingly healthy.

After the bad news about food fraud, here's some good news: All the fat in Wagyu beef means it's actually better for you. How is that possible? Wagyu is high in a compound called oleic acid, which gives it a higher proportion of monounsaturated fatty acids—otherwise known as the good kind of fat, which does not increase your cholesterol.

Cooking it right can make all the difference.

If you're lucky enough to get a Wagyu steak at the store, make the most of it. You'll need a smaller portion than you would for a classic American steak because it's so rich—4 ounces is plenty. Be sure to bring it to room temperature before you cook it. The meat cooks quickly because of the high fat content, and you don't want the outside to burn before the inside is cooked. Imported cuts are better suited to the stovetop than the grill, because the rendering fat can light on fire very easily. Season it simply to better appreciate that flavor, and enjoy!

Was this page helpful?
Real Simple is committed to using high-quality, reputable sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts in our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we fact check our content for accuracy.
  1. Gotoh T, Joo ST. Characteristics and Health Benefit of Highly Marbled Wagyu and Hanwoo Beef. Korean J Food Sci Anim Resour. 2016;36(6):709-718. doi:10.5851/kosfa.2016.36.6.709

Related Articles