Thinking of Buying Your First Japanese Knife? Read This First
This guide is to help you pick the best Japanese knife suitable for your needs. Japanese knives are famous for their detail and beautiful design, history as well as the precision cuts they produce. They are often considered an art of their own since most of them are handcrafted. Japanese knives are most used by the world’s best chefs. Their blades are typically thin and delicate, and can break if you don’t take care of them properly — not ideal for the beginning chef. Yet, if you put a little bit of care into your knives, they will pay back in magnified joy and satisfaction from preparing your food. They allow for thin, precise cuts and beautiful presentation, similar to the ones you’d find in a five-star sushi restaurant.
What is the best Japanese knife for me?
There is no such thing as the best knife, no matter what someone says – the best Japanese knife is the knife that works best for you. When shopping for knives, you need to ask yourself, what you’ll be using your knives for. Professional chefs and home cooks typically have different needs. Professional chefs tend to use their knives upwards of 40-50 hours of week, while home chefs typically use them for about twenty minutes a day to prep dinner.
With that in mind, home cooks don't always need to invest in heavy-duty blades that have better edge retention which professional chefs use. There are traditional Japanese slicers that feature a single bevel blade and Western style Japanese knives that have a double edge, single bevel knives can achieve a super sharp cutting edge, perfect for the most clean cuts like filleting fish for a perfect sushi sashimi.
If you’re a home cook, a kitchen knife that’s well balanced and easy to sharpen is something, we think should be your main concerns. Holding the knife to see what feels right for you is recommended. If you’re buying online, you should look for stores which allow you to test the knife with no risk and return it if unsuitable.
The shape of the handle and heft of the knife are factors to consider. Most knife handles are made with right handed people in mind. For that, you can go for octagonal or D-shaped or oval handle. If you’re left handed and the mentioned shapes don’t fit you, you can have a custom handle made for you.
Apart from that, you should answer yourself few other questions:
- Budget – what’s the maximum you want to spend for a good quality, long lasting knife/knives?
- Steel type – Does your knife definitely have to be stainless or you don’t mind a little more maintenance?
- Sharpening – Have you ever sharpened or are you able to sharpen the knife at home? If not, are you willing to learn how to sharpen the knife at home?
- Length – Based on your past experience, what is a comfortable length for you?
- Application – Are there specific jobs you want the knife to perform (e.g boning, filleting fish, chopping herbs etc.)?
Only you can decide what is the best, most useful and comfortable knife for you, you can then start to build your own set – if necessary over a period of time, rather than all at once.
Start with one knife only
Although we all like to have choice, majority of work you do in the kitchen is done on one or two knives – usually these are the multipurpose chef’s knife (Japanese equivalent is called The Gyuto) and a small utility knife (Japanese name: Petty).
Knowing that will guide you to focus on selecting and trying your must-have. Next time you are in the kitchen notice that whenever you need to use a knife, you probably have and choose between one or two of your favourites.
When buying a new knife, it’s not a wise idea to go for a set of knives because of their aesthetic value. Also, quality always trumps quantity. Rather than buying a set of knives – some of which are either used very rarely or at all, it’s best to buy a couple of really good knives that you enjoy using all the time.
Once you feel like it’s not enough, you’d like to experiment with different knives for a particular purpose. The same rule applies to buying Japanese knives.
We always advise our clients to select the knives they need and are comfortable with. Life is about choice and preferences, so while majority of people like guyto (chef’s) knife of 210mm, you may prefer a knife that is longer, shorter or bit narrower than the one with “bestseller” tag. Or, you may find a slightly different paring or utility (petty) blade more comfortable.
Stainless steel or a high carbon?
Often, a stainless steel tends to be a softer form of steel, which means it often doesn't hold an edge as well as carbon steel. Carbon steel stays sharper longer than stainless. Carbon steel, despite being harder than stainless steel, is way easier to sharpen than stainless. To make things a little bit more complicated, you also have a high carbon stainless steel.
Stainless steel is an alloy of iron, approximately 10~15% chromium, possibly nickel, and molybdenum, with only a small amount of carbon. Good Stainless steel blade kitchen knives make good rust resistance, easy maintenance, good sharpness, edge retention and ease of re-sharpening. Therefore, they have become more and more popular among beginning users to semi-professional users.
High Carbon Stainless Steel normally refers to a higher-grade, stainless steel alloys with a certain amount of carbon, and is intended to combine the best attributes of carbon steel and ordinary stainless steel. The high carbon stainless steel blades do not discolor or stain, and maintain a sharp edge for a reasonable time.
Most “high-carbon” stainless blades, like a VG10 type of steel are made of higher-quality alloys than less-expensive stainless knives, often including amounts of molybdenum, vanadium, cobalt, and other components intended to increase strength, edge-holding, and cutting ability.
The difference between Japanese and Western kitchen knives
Japanese knives are generally made from harder steel than Western knives. This allows for the edges to stay sharper for longer. While the blade is able to withstand wear and tear to a greater degree than Western knives, the harder steel can be brittle. It is imperative that you use the correct type of Japanese knife for individual tasks. Whereas a Western chef’s knife may be able to cut through a chicken bone, doing so with a Japanese chef’s knife could damage your edge. Japanese style knives also differ in that the shape of the blade is very rarely curved. Being long and straight, you should be careful to check that any knife sharpener you buy can efficiently sharpen knives of this shape.
General rules for choosing a knife shape
- Knife designed for vegetables and fruits has a much broader blade than knife designed for cutting raw fish – these have very narrow blade.
- The more curved the edge, the more it is designed for slicing and cutting with a rolling action (as you see some professionals doing) and for chopping (with the tip on the board). The straighter the edge, the easier it is for slicing (with a lateral action as in slicing smoked salmon), dicing (as you would potatoes or hard vegetables) and chopping with a straight vertical cut.
- Narrow blades are not suitable for cutting fast or with a traditional rolling action. They are also not suitable for chopping.
- Wide blades generally tend to be longer than their narrower cousins and therefore difficult to use for pairing, peeling and general cutting in the hands.
Important Things To Remember When Buying Your First Knife
Remember what you are buying is a tool, therefore function and ergonomics are more important than the look. Buy the finest edge your budget will allow. Do not buy a knife because it looks nice as a kitchen accessory. Don’t make the mistake of buying a set of beautiful, shiny handles. Think of your knives as a tool – one that has to perform well in your hands several times a day. It is like a good pen, washing machine or a vacuum cleaner – if it doesn’t work well, it causes immediate frustration, so buy the very best you can afford.
- The quality of steel or alternative material used to create the blade.
- The balance and feel of the knife
- The method used to create the shape of the blade. (hammered, stamped, roll forged, drop forged, hand forged etc.)
- The sharpness, the longevity of the edge and ability to prevent rusting (determined by steel and a production method)
- Frequency of resharpening (determined by the above – though some very fine knives with razor sharp edges may require more maintenance)
- Quality of a handle, manufacturing and forging