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For decades, the modern Western culinary world has marveled in the craft of Japanese knife making. These beautifully crafted, lightweight knives are revered and often described as the best kitchen knives in the world. The unique shape, style, and even the specific angle of the blade have some chefs ditching Western knives completely and solely in-trusting their skill in this iconic style of knife.
In this article, we take a deep dive and find out why Japanese knives are considered one of the best kitchen tools to invest in.
Video by Life Where I'm From on Youtube
HOW ARE JAPANESE KNIVES MADE?
It is believed that the art of Japanese knife making originated from techniques used to make samurai swords back in the 14th century. As Japan began to modernize and it became illegal to carry swords, blacksmiths slowly switched from making fighting knives to making kitchen knives.
Similar to sword making, each region of Japan has their own unique design and style of manufacturing their knives. However, the process is roughly the same. Firstly, the knives are forged from a solid block of steel, unlike the Western method of stamping the blade shape out of metal sheets. The blade then gets repeatedly heated in a furnace and then cooled while it gets hammered into shape: this method of heating and cooling is what strengthens the metal. Some blacksmith techniques also include adding additional thin layers of metal every time the blade is heated and cooled: this layering technique is what gives some Japanese knives that classic wavy design along the blade.
The blades are then put into a kiln to heat, set, and reach their final level of hardness. They are then polished and shined according to the factory's preferred design and style. The handles are then attached and blades sharpened. At this stage, it is very important that the blade is kept cool to avoid compromising the integrity of the metal. Therefore, during the sharpening process, the knives are sprayed with cool water to make sure they don't overheat.
There is definitely an art to creating the perfect Japanese knife. Many blacksmiths spend their entire lives perfecting the skill and many knife makers are in high demand once their talent and craftsmanship are recognized in the industry. Of course, nowadays, with the increase in demand, a lot of larger factories are making "Japanese-style" knives that have the same qualities as the traditional knives but lack the true craftsmanship produced by traditional knife makers.
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THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN JAPANESE KNIVES & WESTERN KNIVES
When talking about "Western-style" knives, it is generally referring to designs originating from Germany and France and knives that were constructed to work with their cuisines. For example, Western-style knives are shaped to work with the rocking-style motion of chopping that is commonly adopted by most European chefs.
When comparing Japanese knives to Western-style knives, there are subtle differences in every element of the knife: the steel, the shape of the blade or bevel, and the handle.
Japanese knives tend to be made with a thinner but harder metal compared to Western knives. The method of heating, cooling, and layering the steel is what gives the blade its hardness. Though stronger metal is beneficial it also makes the blade more vulnerable to damage. Because there is little flexibility in Japanese knives, it means if they are treated badly or used incorrectly there are a lot more likely to break and chip compared to the softer, more flexible Western knives.
Traditionally, Japanese knives are made from carbon steel, Hagan, which again, gives it superior hardness and stiffness. Nowadays, more varieties for the household and global market are made with stronger, more durable stainless steel instead.
Often, a distinguishing feature of traditional Japanese knives is that the thin blade is only sharpened on one side, known as a single bevel. Western knives have a double bevel, meaning they are sharpened on both sides of the blade. The single bevel enables more precision and less resistance for finely dicing vegetables, slicing fish, or deboning meat. A Japanese blade also tends to be slightly steeper which enhances its precision plus allows the knife to stay sharper for longer compared to the slightly shallower thicker blade of a Western knife.
The handle of the knife could be considered the most important part of the tool as you want it to sit comfortably in your hand while also feeling like you have complete control of the blade. The piece of steel that protrudes from the end of the blade is known as "the tang" and that is what is used to attach the blade to the handle. Most Japanese knives will hide the tang completely, often in a more circular-shaped handle. On Western knives, you will see that the tang is normally exposed down the center of the handle.
This difference is more of a design choice and doesn't necessarily affect how the knife is used. What is more important is the shape of the handle and what it is made from. There is so much variety of designs now available that it is really down to the chef, what their preferences are, and how much they are willing to take care of their tools. For example, a wooden-handled knife will require more care than a plastic or metal-handled knife.
Photo by Nima Izadi from Unsplash
TYPES OF JAPANESE KNIVES
In Japan, you will find many chefs have a different knife for every different task done in the kitchen. Here, we have selected just the most popular styles that are made and sold to the Western market. There are many more traditional specialty knives that only get used in traditional Japanese cuisine.
One of the first and most commonly used Japanese-made knives designed for Western chefs. It is lighter and thinner compared to a European chef's knife but is very much a versatile knife built for an easy rocking motion of cutting: the more common technique in Western cooking. It is also sharpened on both sides of the blade, unlike more traditional Japanese knives.
This is considered the traditional Japanese version of a multipurpose chef knife. Santoku means "three virtues" which represents the knife being used to prepare vegetables, meat, and fish. The Santoku knife is shorter compared to the Gyutou and is only sharpened on just one side for more precision cutting.
Similar to other paring or utility knives, this knife is a smaller version of a chef's knife, making it ideal for more delicate work such as shaping fruit and vegetables, chopping herbs, or peeling citrus. It is also a good knife for people with smaller hands or who simply find a chef's knife too large.
Another Western-style double-edged knife, similar to the Gyutou. However, this cleaver-shaped knife is designed to chop through tough vegetable skins with ease as well as have the precision for chopping and dicing. This knife is also a commonly used knife in Japanese households.
The Usuba is seen as the professional version of the Nakiri. With the traditionally one-sided blade, it offers a lot more precision which is why it is preferred by professional chefs. If cared for properly, it can be a very sharp blade and so is not recommended for novice chefs or home cooks.
This is a slightly thicker knife compared to other Japanese knives as it is used to butcher fish and cut through small bones. The Deba also has a sharp point, unlike a cleaver, and a single-bevel blade which also makes it a suitable filleting knife.
Unlike European carving knives, the Sujihiki has a much steeper blade which gives the chef more precision when carving meat and fish. With the single-edge blade, the flat edge of the other side of the blade allows for more control and less resistance when filleting and slicing.
Image by Oishii Desu
CHOOSING THE RIGHT KNIFE FOR YOU
Whether you are a professional chef or just an avid home cook, owning a Japanese knife, or even a whole set, could really bring another level of care, precision, and quality to your cooking. The important thing is to be realistic about what you will use the knife for and how able you are to take care of it.
When looking to buy a Japanese knife, have a look at the knives you may already own and gain an understanding of what you like about them. Think about what size and length of knife you like to use and what you like to use for certain tasks. For example, if you mainly chop and prepare vegetables, then maybe it's worth trying the Nakiri or Petty knife. Or if you prepare a lot of fish, then the Deba or Sujihiki is more ideal for you. However, for most people, the overall best knife to get when first trying Japanese knives is the Gyutou. Having a high-quality well-made chef's knife is a versatile, essential tool to have in your kitchen, and having a Japanese-made chef's knife may be all that you need to improve your skills and increase your joy in the kitchen.
Regardless of the different styles and shapes of Japanese knives, you may also want to consider the variety of craftsmanship and quality that is on offer. Nowadays, you can find cheaper "Japanese-style" alternatives that have some of the qualities of more traditional knives but they are likely to be made in larger factories rather than by the hands of a skilled Japanese blacksmith.
HOW TO CARE FOR JAPANESE KNIVES
Regardless of the style and origin, all kitchen knives last longer if they are taken care of and sharpened regularly. However, Japanese knives do require a lot more attention and care than Western-style knives due to the vulnerability of the steel and angle of the blade.
Because of the lack of flexibility in the blade, a Japanese knife is a lot more likely to chip or break if not treated with care. Therefore, it is always best to make sure that the blade has a protective cover and stored in an uncluttered drawer. Also, don't be tempted to use the knife for other purposes than simply chopping and never put it in the dishwasher: both of these things will damage the integrity of the blade.
When it comes to sharpening the blades of Japanese knives, it is often recommended to regularly take your knives to be professionally sharpened. Many cities will have local knife merchants or knife shops that offer sharpening services. This is obviously a slightly expensive way to keep your knives sharp but it can be the most effective way to keep the knife's blade close to its original shape and angle.
The at-home method of keeping your Japanese knives sharp is to invest in a selection of sharpening stones. This is a more effective method for sharpening any knife versus a steel honing rod which doesn't technically sharpen the blade but just maintains the shape of the blade. If looking to learn how to use a sharpening stone for your knives we recommend watching the below video.
Video by Munchies on Youtube
Image by Unique Japan
ARE JAPANESE KNIVES WORTH THE MONEY?
A Japanese knife is definitely a big investment but it is a completely personal choice for the chef about whether that investment will be worth it. It can be said that a Japanese knife may bring more precision and refinement to your cooking. However, they are high-maintenance and so, if not treated well, the benefits they can bring will quickly fade.
As mentioned previously, there is a wide selection of Japanese knives on the market, meaning it is just as easy to get a cheaper "Japanese-style" knife as it is to invest in a high-quality more traditional knife. Though if you are looking to have a hand-crafted personalized knife, why not make it into an adventure and take a trip to Japan to visit one of the many regions known for their exquisite knife styles.
JAPANESE KNIFE RECOMMENDATIONS
This beautiful wooden-handled knife could become your new best friend in the kitchen. With the Gyutou's unique blend of Japanese and Western design, you can benefit from the blade's lightness but with the comfort of the double bevel and curved shape suitable for the rocking-style of cutting. The hammered texture of this blade is not only a nice design but also prevents food from sticking to the knife.
With the classic D-shaped blade, this Nakiri knife is ideal if you want to improve your mise en place and vegetable cutting skills. This knife's contemporary modern design works well with the traditional purpose of the knife, making it suitable for any style of preparation for all types of cuisine.
Having a paring or utility knife can be an essential tool for more delicate tasks such as slicing or peeling small soft fruits. This style of knife is more useful if it is very sharp, thus buying a Japanese version can be a wise choice. This Petty knife has a beautiful rosewood handle and comes with a blade cover to keep it protected when not being used.
Incorporating all the traditional elements of a Deba knife, including the single-sided blade made from high-carbon steel, this knife may just be the tool you need to help perfect your butchering and fish preparation skills. Be aware, because of the high-carbon blade, this knife will be vulnerable to chipping if used to chop large bones.
Traditionally used for filleting and slicing fish for sushi, the length of the Sujihiki blade allows the chef to make long precise strokes. Incorporating a Western-style handle into this knife makes it more functional for more European cuisines and can be used for various filleting and carving techniques.
To make the most of Japanese knives, why not invest in a whole knife set? This set has a Gyutou, Santuko, Nikiri, plus two sizes of Petty: an ideal selection to get you comfortable using a different style of knife. This is a great beginner’s set that you can add to and grow as you start to appreciate and enjoy using Japanese knives in your everyday cooking.
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THE BOTTOM LINE
A chef's knife is a very personal tool and only the chef will appreciate the value of that tool that helps her with her craft. It has to be said that European knives are very-well crafted and many Western chefs will always prefer these knives that they have used and trained with for years, over anything else. However, the uniqueness and craftsmanship of Japanese knife making has captured the curiosity of many chefs. And often, once they try a Japanese knife for themselves, they find it hard to go back.
Ultimately, it is a completely personal choice what knives will work for you and your cooking habits. Having a well-crafted, high-quality Japanese knife in your kitchen may well encourage you to cherish the tools that help you to improve your culinary skills.
The information provided in this article is not nutritional or medical advice. Please read our disclaimer.