You don’t need a six-figure salary to visit a steakhouse…unless you’re looking at the wagyu beef section, of course. Seriously, the price of wagyu steaks on a steakhouse menu is enough to take your breath away. The smallest wagyu steak costs more than the largest filet mignon (the most expensive regular steak on the menu). On average, wagyu beef can run more than $200 per pound (that’s $12.50 per ounce!), so what gives? Why is wagyu beef so expensive, and could this uber-expensive steak actually be worth it?
What is Wagyu Beef?
The word wagyu has a pretty literal translation: “wa” means Japanese, and “gyu” is cow. But that doesn’t mean that any Japanese cow qualifies. Wagyu beef breeds are carefully selected, and genetic testing is used to ensure only the best are allowed into the program. By paying so much attention the genetics, the beef becomes genetically predisposed to have a higher quality than most steaks, and this tender, well-marbled beef really does taste better than the competition.
In Japan, only four types of cattle are used: Japanese Black, Japanese Brown, Japanese Polled and Japanese Shorthorn. American wagyu programs primarily use Japanese Black, although there are a few Japanese Brown in the mix (known as Red Wagyu in the States).
Why is Wagyu Beef so Expensive?
In 1997, Japan declared wagyu a national treasure and banned any further exportation of cattle, which means they largely control the market on wagyu beef. American ranchers are working hard to increase the production of this sought-after beef, but only 221 animals were exported to the United States before the ban was in place. That’s a small pool considering that Japan uses progeny testing to ensure only the best genetics are kept for breeding.
The other thing that keeps wagyu so expensive is Japan’s strict grading system for beef. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies beef as Prime, Choice, Select or a lower grade. The Japanese Meat Grading Association (JMGA) goes into way more depth with wagyu, grading the beef’s yield and ranking quality based on fat marbling, color, brightness, firmness, texture, and quality of fat. The highest grade is A5, but the fat quality scores are crucially important. These scores range from 1 to 12, and by JMGA standards, USDA prime beef would only achieve a fat quality score of four.
Is Wagyu Beef Worth It?
There are plenty of tricks to get cheap meat to taste great, so why drop so much coin on wagyu? For starters, it literally melts in your mouth. The fat in wagyu beef melts at a lower temperature than most beef, which gives it a buttery, ultra-rich flavor. All that fat also makes the beef juicier than a regular steak, and since it contains more fatty acids, it also has a more appealing aroma.
If it’s so delicious, why would we suggest skipping wagyu at the steakhouse? Because it’s too rich to eat as a whole steak. Wagyu and Kobe beef is best consumed in smaller, three- or four-ounce portions; a huge steak would overload your taste buds. Considering its high price tag, you want to appreciate every bite!
To make the most out of your steakhouse experience, buy a steak that you can’t find at the local butcher shop (like dry-aged steaks). Or go all-in for a tomahawk steak or another honker that you might not normally cook. (Psst! We’ll show you how to cook a thick steak at home, if you’re up for the challenge!) Save the wagyu for a dish like yakitori-style beef skewers, or traditional Japanese dishes like shabu-shabu or sukiyaki that feature thinly sliced beef. These dishes will let you enjoy the flavor of this high-quality beef in smaller quantities (without breaking the bank, too).