The Ultimate Guide to Japanese Kitchen Knives

Posted by Amanda Delatorre on

As you learn more about cooking and go deeper into culinary arts, you will quickly find that many professional chefs and cooking enthusiasts swear by Japanese kitchen knives.  But what’s so great about them, and what sets them apart from other knives? Find out with this ultimate guide to Japanese kitchen knives that we’ve put together.

Defining Japanese Knives

To begin, let’s define what a Japanese knife is.  When comparing regular Western kitchen knives to Japanese knives.  Western knives are the ones you’re probably already familiar with. Some of the popular brands in retail are heavy duty German style knives.  They’re symmetrical, meaning both sides of the blade edge sharpened to a point directly in the middle. Their edge is typically quite rounded to allow the chef to chop ingredients rapidly with a rocking motion. And here we can find two of the defining differences between German and Japanese kitchen knives. Japanese knife edges can have a symmetrical balance (50/50) or a steeper angle for either right or left handed use (30/70) or even completely sharpened on one side.  Japanese knives are usually much thinner, lighter and have a leaner profile with less curvature towards the tip.

Another key difference between Japanese and Western knives is the types of steel from which they are made.  Japanese knives are usually made from harder steels for excellent edge retention -- even when used frequently—but as some steel choices are not stainless, they should be handled with care. 

Choosing Your Japanese Knives

Despite sharing common features, Japanese knives come in various types to fit different tasks and ingredients. Single edged knives are specialized to one purpose, such as the deba for fish butchery and usuba for vegetable-cutting. There are also multipurpose styles, such as the gyutou and santoku chef knives.

With so many types to choose from, you should have a clear picture in your head about your needs and where a new knife will fit in your kitchen. For instance, if you want an all-around useful knife, you might choose the broad category of chef’s knives. From there, you should consider what ingredients you use most often and how you like your knife to feel and perform. Do you prefer lightweight and extremely thin blades? Do you prefer knives with some weight when you hold it? Are you left-handed, and need the bevel to be on the left to match this? You may have other preferences for handle shape, size and material..

Caring for Your Japanese Knives

When you obtain a Japanese knife of your own, you should know how to properly care for it. At the most basic level, you should use your knife with more care than you would a thicker Western knife. Japanese knives are meant for clean, single-motion slicing. You shouldn’t try to roughly saw through thick bones with them or try to pry apart pieces of an ingredient with them, as they can break or chip this way.

In addition, one of the most common chef knife care mistakes regarding Japanese knives is leaving them wet after you clean them. Average Western knives made of materials such as stainless steel are resistant to rust, so you can treat them in a more carefree manner, but the same is not true with some of the steels used in Japanese knives. Japanese knife makers usually use steels with an emphasis on hardness and precision over flexible toughness. Many steels have a higher carbon content and are prone to rusting.  Therefore you must clean and dry them completely with a towel after using.

With proper care, knives can last a lifetime.  But should your knife no longer keep an edge, or fails you in its basic function, don’t be afraid to get a new one. If you have an old chef’s knife, you might inspect it to see if it has any signs indicating you should replace it, including severe breaks and loose rivets.

Honing vs. Sharpening

A point of confusion when it comes to maintaining a Japanese knife is when and how to hone and sharpen it. First, we’ll go over the difference between honing and sharpening. Honing is when you realign the knife’s edge back to a straight or central position—whichever it was designed to be, depending on whether it has one or two bevels. Sharpening actually shaves off small amounts of the metal at the edge to make it sharper.

Honing is a process that chefs perform frequently. Even though it doesn’t actually make the edge sharper, it can help to align micro damage on a knives edge for softer steels.  We don’t recommend honing on Japanese knives with very hard steels as it can cause more damage than benefit. 

Sharpening is essential to keeping your knives performing at the top of their potential. Pull-through sharpening machines that automatically grind the knife’s edge to a specific angle are becoming more popular, but these can damage Japanese knives. Instead, learning to use a sharpening stone will allow you greater control and help get your knife’s edge in top condition.

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