Open a bar or pub menu today and there's a decent chance a "wagyu" burger is on it, even at some of the scuzzier dives where, I promise you, they are not spending any more than necessary on their ingredients. That alone should tell folks quite a bit about the meaningless marketing flab that "wagyu" has become.
Wagyu is a term that typically describes four different breeds of cow, all native to Japan. There isn't any guarantee of quality just because a cow is "wagyu," but the best examples are legendary for their well-above-average intramuscular fat, buttery beefy flavor, and elevated price tags. Real wagyu that's imported from Japan is increasingly available in the US and, on top of that, there are hybrid breeds being raised here in the States that, while not purebred, offer some of those desirable qualities.
Because of the god-tier wagyu of which dreams (and beef sweats) are made, the term has come to signify a quality level that much of the "wagyu" out there fails to deliver. Plus, there's plenty of regular ground beef masquerading as wagyu, which helps explain its appearance and affordability on downmarket menus. And frankly, much of what makes the good wagyu such an appealing product is lost when ground for burgers. Grinding beef automatically makes it more tender by cutting muscle fibers into short bits, which is why flavorful but tough cuts like oxtail have been added to burger blends with great results. Plus, grinding beef makes it possible to alter the fat percentage of the blend since you're not constrained by the natural fat composition of a solid cut like a steak; you can simply add more fat to the mix as needed to reach whatever fat percentage yields the flavor and juiciness you seek. All of this makes using wagyu for burgers a questionable decision at best, at least as far as cost-to-reward is concerned.
But that's all theoretical. I can say a wagyu burger isn't worth making all day long, but if I've never even cooked one, can I really be sure? (I have, I'd like to point out, cooked and eaten some of the very best Kobe, Hokkaido, and wagyu beef in the world, so I do have a better idea than most of what the seriously good stuff is about.) To that end, I ran over to Japan Premium Beef and bought some of their ground wagyu ($9.99 per pound), which, according to an employee, is made from the relatively leaner inside and bottom round cuts of American (read: hybrid, not purebred) wagyu. I also bought some ground chuck from Whole Foods ($6.49 per pound) for comparison.
I formed each into half-pound patties, salted them all over, and popped them in a smoking-hot cast iron skillet to develop a great crust on each, then tasted each.
I'll keep this short: In this specific test, I prefered the basic ground chuck. The ground wagyu wasn't bad by any means, but it wasn't special in a way that would justify its higher price tag. The burgers were similarly juicy, and, especially on a burger, the flavor differences were minor. There were also some key differences between the two that I should note, as they could have had some impact on mt impressions: The ground wagyu was a coarser grind compared to the chuck, and it had more visible pockets of fat, which doesn't necessarily mean it was fattier, since the finer grind of the chuck may have just meant its fat was better incorporated.
Now, this was hardly a comprehensive survey of all ground wagyu out there put up against a range of other beef patty blends—it's merely a single data point. But it is a data point that sets a respectable and widely available source of ground chuck from Whole Foods against the ground offering from Japan Premium Beef, a reliable retailer specializing in high-quality wagyu beef, which is about as fairly representative of a showdown between two patties as I can imagine.
Does this mean wagyu burgers are bad? No, for sure not. The wagyu burger I cooked was just fine! Is it possible someone reading this right now already has a source for ground wagyu that they think is divine and therefore worth using? Yeah, very possible. If you want to cook a wagyu burger, you should.
There's nothing inherently wrong about grinding wagyu, after all, each cow only produces so many ribeye, strip, and other sought-after steaks, and something has to happen to the rest of it; grinding some of the less desirable cuts seems like a pretty logical option. But what makes sense from a production standpoint and what makes sense for the consumer are two different things, and no shopper is under any duty to buy ground wagyu just because a retailer's need to use up the scraps exists.
Ultimately, the key takeaways are this:
- Don't assume a "wagyu" on a restaurant menu is a) wagyu or b) better than any other burger.
- It's probably not worth going out of your way to make a wagyu burger, since it's not at all clear a superior burger will be the result.
- If you want to make a wagyu burger anyway, go for it.
How Do You Cook a Wagyu Burger?
Honestly, this one is pretty simple. You cook it like any burger. There's no secret method that is different for a wagyu-based patty than any other patty of beef. As I explained above, there's so much variation in the realm of what "wagyu" even is that there's no reason to treat it differently than any other grind of beef. The basic rules remain the same:
- Handle the beef as little as possible to keep the grind loose.
- Only salt the exterior of the patty and avoid mixing in seasonings and flavorings as excess handling and salt will push the burger into meatloaf or even sausage-patty territory.
- Whether in a skillet, on a griddle, or on a grill, cook it hot for a good sear and flavor development.
- Serve it at whatever temperature you prefer from rare to well done—you know what you like.
Need a recipe? I got you. Feel free to follow the one below. But remember: There's no reason you couldn't also use ground wagyu in whatever recipe you want, whether it's for a "wagyu" burger or not.
How to Make Wagyu Burgers (And, More Importantly, Should You?)
Ground wagyu is often not all it's cracked up to be, but even if you get the real deal, does it make a worthy hamburger?
- 2 pounds (907g) freshly ground "wagyu" beef, formed into four 5-inch patties
- Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
- Vegetable or other neutral oil, for cooking
- 4 burger buns, toasted
- Toppings and condiments to taste
Season patties generously with salt and pepper. Cook, flipping often, to desired doneness on a hot grill or in a lightly oiled cast iron skillet on the stovetop, 125°F for medium rare or 135°F for medium. Transfer to a plate and allow to rest for 5 minutes.
Set patties on bun bottoms, layering with toppings and condiments of choice, then close burgers and serve.