If you’re in the market to purchase a Japanese kitchen knife, you might be looking for a timeless, meaningful gift, interested in the culinary arts, a chef, or simply wanting to cook a delicious meal for your loved ones.
There are many different Japanese knives, so much so it can be a little overwhelming to make a choice. Here, we cover a few main points to consider when choosing the right Japanese chef knife for you.
Taking the maker of your knife into account can give you an idea of the overall quality you will be receiving. The manufacturer will influence the design, balance, performance, and price of the knife.
Different blacksmiths will also prefer to use particular steel, which may have some benefits over other knife steels available. As the craft of knifemaking is a traditional art form passed down through generations, it is something Japanese blacksmiths hold very dear.
Through the application of these varying techniques, each blacksmith continues the traditions of their forefathers, producing a knife that is unique to that families history, a culmination of (sometimes) hundreds of years of tradition. Some people prefer to have matching sets from one blacksmith, while others do not mind mixing and matching different blacksmiths to create a set that they are happy with. This is personal preference.
The style of knife you buy depends largely on what you’re looking to do with it and what you are preparing. Whether you’re preparing sushi or peeling vegetables, the process of chopping and slicing is very different and a different knife will be required.
Make sure you know how you are primarily looking to use the knife so you can select the correct style. A home cook that would just like to own a high-performance knife might lean towards a Santoku between 160-180mm, whereas a professional chef with a wide variety of tasks to complete may opt for a Gyuto of 210mm length or more, and a petty or small utility knife to cover the smaller tasks at hand.
Blade Material/Steel Combinations
We could write an entire article just about this! (In fact, we might just do that!) The type of steel used in a Japanese chef knife may not seem overly important, (as long as it’s sharp, right?)
The blade material will impact many things; how long your knife lasts, how easy it is to sharpen, the overall look, and more. You may consider getting a knife made of the simpler AUS8, Molybdenum Vanadium, or VG1 steels if you are just entering into this market and feel overwhelmed by the choice. This type of knife is more chip resistant and a little tougher than other options.
If you’re a more advanced user of knives and you’re comfortable putting more care and effort into them, consider using some of the higher hardness, more complex stainless steels like VG10, R2/SG2, SRS-15, AEB-L, HAP40 or ZDP-189.
Then you must consider the carbon steels. They have a higher maintenance requirement, but they can be used by all skillsets. Most Japanese blacksmiths will prefer to use the traditional Japanese chef knife steels, made by Hitachi Metals. These are the White Paper Steels (Shirogami), Blue Paper Steels (Aogami). There are some slight variations of Blue and White paper steels, but they are essentially about as close to the samurai sword steels of hundreds of years ago we have today.
They are high in carbon content, resulting in the steel being harder than almost all other knife making steels, ensuring they will stay sharper for longer.
They are, however, what is called ‘reactive steel’. This means they will oxidize (rust) and form a ‘patina’ (a discolouration of the steel) and also develop rust spots if they are not kept dry between uses.
In some cases, 15 minutes left wet will be all it takes to form early rust spots. This is avoided by proper care and maintenance, but also by a blade construction technique called ‘san-mai’, which uses a core or cutting edge of high carbon steel, with a softer stainless steel clad on either side. This results in exceptional performance with minimal maintenance.
A larger knife generally means you can perform more work with it, however, your workspace should also then need to accommodate a larger knife. The knife you purchase should not be longer than your cutting board is wide.
That being said, you don’t want your knife to be too small, or too large to perform everyday tasks. A general purpose knife for most like a Santoku of 160-180mm is, therefore, a great place to start. Once your Santoku becomes either too large or too small, it's time to expand! Look for petty knives around 100mm for smaller delicate tasks, and Gyuto's up to 240-300mm for larger tasks like carving meats, but beware of bones!
The handle material may impact how you grip the knife, how sturdy the knife feels as you use it, as well as the appearance of the knife.
A steel handle, a feature of many western knives may slip or not feel as comfortable in the hand and a timber handle crafted into the shape of an octagon. The octagon handle shape is one of the marks of a traditional japanese chef knife, as it allows the edges of the octagon to fit into the grooves of the fingers once the handle is grasped in the hand.
Chefs Edge has a preference towards the octagon handle, and as such we partner with craftsman worldwide to create stunning unique handles made from exotic timbers such as the range of Kaishin Bunkas.
Bevel Angle Ratio
The traditional Japanese chef knives (Yanagiba, Sujihiki, Deba etc) are designed to have a single bevel. This one-sided bevel angle is perfect for sashimi slicing, but is not well suited to everyday cooking at home or in a professional kitchen for general use.
The Japanese blacksmiths have realized this, and almost always craft the Gyuto/Santoku/Nakiri/Bunka with an even 50:50 bevel to accommodate the western chef with a varied set of kitchen tasks.
The HRC of a knife refers Rockwell Hardness Scale. A knife with a higher HRC, in general, will retain its edge for longer, but can be more brittle.
This is why a Japanese chef knife should never be used to chop bones, frozen objects, or hard foods (sometimes a big sweet potato is a no no!) It’s also important to remember that not all steels behave the same at higher hardness, and higher hardness is not the sole determining factor of knife performance.
Just because something has a high HRC rating doesn’t make it a better knife. A regular European chef knife made from a softer steel may be hardened to 55-56 HRC, but a Japanese knife made from Aogami Super or ZDP-189 may be hardened anywhere up to 67-68 HRC.
At the end of the day, there are a wide number of factors to take into account when choosing the right knife for you. If you get stuck, please don’t hesitate to get in touch by any of the channels on our website, or send us an email to [email protected]!