How to choose my Japanese knife?
Want to know how to choose the best type of knife for your needs? It’s over here! After this article, you will know everything about the use of each family of Japanese knives. And you will be able to make the right choice at your favourite knife shop!
What is a Japanese knife?
The reputation of Japanese blades comes from ancestral times and the swords of the Samurai warriors. These blades were among the sharpest in the world! For the record, in the 19th century the Japanese government banned katanas. The numerous forges of the time had to recycle themselves by making kitchen knives.
When selecting a good Japanese knife, 3 elements should be taken into consideration:
- the shape of its blade, which defines its use(s)
- the composition of its blade, which will indicate its hardness and therefore its sharpness
- the shape and composition of the handle
Let’s look at these 3 aspects in detail to make your choice easier.
Which blade shape should I choose for my Japanese knife?
There are Japanese knives with two cutting edges, but also scissor-type knives with only one. You should therefore be careful when choosing your knife if it is a scissor type (bevelled blade). Asymmetric knives make sense! Choose a right-handed knife if that is your preferred hand, and a left-handed knife if your left hand is the most skilled.
Single-edged blades are used to cut fish or meat very finely. They also ensure that the ingredients are not spoiled by the one-sided slicing.
These blades are also used for :
- cutting fish heads
- removing the skin from fish
- lifting fish fillets
Compared to the symmetrical V-shaped blade which presses on the 2 parts of the product and can « damage » it (a bit like an axe that pulls apart a log to imitate). The asymmetrical blade (or chisel) separates the parts without « damaging » the piece with a clean cut.
In Japanese culture, the quality of the cut shows the respect you give to your guests. The cuts are therefore made by hand to preserve the taste of the ingredients as much as possible and to show great respect to your guests.
How do I select the right alloy for my blade?
Japanese blades are mostly made of steel (an alloy of iron and carbon). The percentage of carbon in a blade determines its hardness (and therefore the longevity of its edge). Try to get a steel with a carbon content between 0.4 and 1.3% maximum.
Beware, however, that blades with a very high carbon content (greater than or equal to 0.8%) will be much more difficult to sharpen. They should therefore be reserved for professionals and enthusiasts.
The hardness of the steel can also be expressed in Rockwell degrees (example: 58° HRC). I give you the link to an explanation from Chroma France which explains it better than I can.
How do I choose a good handle for my knife?
The handle of the knife must allow a good grip and a good balance. You should therefore choose a comfortable handle. Test it! Even if you want to buy it on the internet, try it in a shop first if possible. Or a similar knife with an identical or similar handle. Be aware that handles can also have a meaning, there are handles for right-handed and left-handed people. The shape of the handle is D-shaped, with the rounded side in the palm of the hand for more comfort.
The material of the handle is also important! If it is made of wood (e.g. ebony, bubinga, cedar, maple, etc.), choose a rot-proof wood or a treated wood. For metal, stainless steel is preferable. Handles can also be made of synthetic materials, in which case the properties can be varied. Beware of certain low-end plastics that will wear out quickly or break at the first impact.
Some handles are dominated by one side. So be careful if the model of your choice is marked right-handed/left-handed. The same applies if the knife has an asymmetrical or scissor-shaped blade.
Which Japanese knife will cut my vegetables like a Master?
Cutting fruit and vegetables is a tradition in Japan. There is even an art dedicated to this discipline: Mukimono. Japanese knives are therefore perfect for cutting vegetables. I will detail the different types of knives to choose according to their use (peeling, cutting, carving, slicing…).
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Which knife should I use to cut/seed my vegetables?
Several types of knives can be used to cut or slice vegetables. I will present them from the most precise to the most generic.
The Usuba is the knife used by chefs for cutting vegetables. Its chisel-like blade (with a single edge) makes it possible to make very fine cuts. It is rectangular in shape.
The Nakiri is similar but has an ambidextrous V-shaped blade. It is therefore accessible to a wider audience. It can be used to make a variety of cuts. Here is a short (but not exhaustive) list of the types of cuts available in Japanese cuisine:
- Arare-giri (in small cubes)
- Sainome-giri (diced)
- Hangetsu-giri (half-moons)
- Tanzaku-giri (chopsticks)
- Sasagaki (shaved)
- Sen-giri (in strips)
- Wa-giri (sliced)
- Hyoshigi (in strips)
- Hanagiri (flower-shaped)
For more details on the different cuts, I suggest this great article on Zoom Japan: the art of cutting vegetables.
The Santoku is a versatile knife, it can slice vegetables, but also cut meat or fish. If you can only buy one Japanese knife to start with, this is the one you need!
Which knife should I use to peel and clean my vegetables?
The three knives mentioned above will do the trick. However, for certain cuts, such as cutting radishes into long transparent strips. You will need a bevelled Usuba-type knife.
The Nakiri with its V-shaped blade can also be used. It will allow you to peel large vegetables and fruits thanks to its imposing blade.
The Santoku can also be used to peel or clean your fruits and vegetables because it is really versatile. The blade is V-shaped, so the cut will be less clean than with a Usuba, but still more than enough. If you want to know which knife to choose for which dish, click on the link.
Which knife should I use to carve my vegetables?
To carve vegetables or fruits, different models of Japanese knives are used. In videos found on the internet, chefs often use Sashimi or Yanagiba. These knives are basically for cutting fish, but their bevelled blades allow extremely precise cuts.
Example with this chef explaining the art of Katsuramuki:
Or this chef cutting up an apple:
Small paring knives or utility knives can also be used for carving thanks to their pointed blade.
Honesuki knives, usually used for boning meat, can also be used for carving vegetables or fruit.
When carving vegetables or fruit, take knives that are easy to handle. Preferably with a sharp blade, so that you can be precise.
Which knife should I use to slice my meat like a Japanese butcher?
To slice meat, several types of Japanese knives are suitable:
- The Santoku
- The Deba
- The Gyuto
Let’s discover them in detail!
What is a Santoku used for?
The Santoku is the all-purpose knife par excellence! If you can only have one Japanese knife, choose this one. It is better to pay the price for one good multi-purpose knife, rather than several mediocre ones.
This type of Japanese knife will slice meat, fish and vegetables equally well. This is the knife to have in your kitchen! Discover our article on how to find the ideal Santoku knife.
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What can I cut with a Deba?
The Deba was originally used for cutting fish heads. Its heavy weight allows it to cut effortlessly. It has a bevelled blade to prevent blood from spilling into the fish when the head is cut (to preserve the taste and colour).
When cutting meat it is perfect for mincing meat and preparing tartars. Its weight makes it easy to work with and reduces fatigue during prolonged use.
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What is the Honesuki used for?
The Honesuki knife is used for boning meat. It separates the meat from the bones, but is not designed to break bones. Be careful! Otherwise you risk breaking the blade. Its triangle shape allows you to make precise cuts in meat or poultry.
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How to use a Gyuto?
The Gyuto is basically a meat knife, its name meaning « beef knife ». Unfortunately I have not been able to find the precise etymology of its meaning. If you have it, don’t hesitate to contact me!
This knife is used to slice large pieces of meat. It allows to cut the portions of meat in a rather neat way. Its blade is long and sharp.
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Which Japanese blade should I use to lift my fish like a Daizen-Shoku?
A little history: the Daizen-Shoku was the cook of the Japanese emperor during the Nara period (710 to 784). At that time, Nara was the capital of Japan. He is considered the inventor of sashimi.
Let’s get back to the point, for cutting fish, Japanese knives are perfect. However, you have to choose the right one because they do not all have the same use:
Which knife to slice my sushi and sashimi?
To slice fish finely you will need a bevelled blade (with one edge). The Yanagiba knife, also known as a sushi or sashimi knife, is ideal for this task. It allows you to make very thin slices of raw fish.
The special feature of the chisel blades is that they allow for extremely fine and precise cutting. These blades can also be used to lift fillets or remove the skin from a fish, keeping the loss of flesh to a minimum.
So choose a Yanagiba knife for cutting your sushi and sashimi. Pay attention to the side on which you use the knife. If you are right-handed, choose a right-handed knife! It may sound silly, but it is a common mistake when buying a Japanese knife.
Here is a short video to help you understand the importance of a good cut on a fish:
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Which knife should I use to cut my makis and californians?
To cut maki or Californian (inverted maki with the rice on the outside), choose a Yanagiba. As with sashimi, its bevelled blade will be an asset for a clean and precise cut.
You can also cut your maki with a versatile Santoku type knife. It will be a little less precise but this model will do the job. The important thing is to moisten your blade after each cut so that the rice doesn’t stick to it and you keep a good cutting edge.
Here is a video to teach you how to make makis and Californians:
Which Japanese knife to use to lift my fish fillets?
Thanks to its rigid and very sharp blade, the Yanagiba is also the most suitable for lifting fish fillets. Its scissor-like blade allows you to slice as closely as possible so as not to lose any material. It is therefore the perfect Japanese knife for removing the skin from fish, but also for lifting fillets.
Bonus: how to choose a left-handed Japanese knife?
You are left-handed and want to buy a Japanese knife? It’s easy! Here are the 2 essential steps to remember:
1) Is the blade of the model of Japanese knife you want to buy scissor-shaped (bevelled blade with only one edge) or not?
2) Yes, the knife has a direction and you will have to choose a left-handed knife (the profile of the blade is on the left).
2)BIS) No, the knife is ambidextrous with a V-edge, no need to select a left handed knife.
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Special case: some knives can have a V-shaped edge and still have a preferred direction. In this case the V of the blade has a side bigger than the other. Each brand of Japanese knives has its own specificities, so be careful from one brand to another.