How to Select the Perfect Japanese Knives
by Samantha Cubbison | CRAFT
Anyone who’s serious about food knows the value of a good knife. And none are more highly valued than Japanese knives!
Over centuries, Japanese metalworkers perfected the art of a strong sharp blade. These days the samurai market has somewhat dried up, but the skills that were used to make samurai swords are still in use, creating some of the mostly highly prized kitchen knives in the world.
So whether you’re just curious about what makes traditional Japanese knives so special, or your looking to get your hands, carefully, on your own kitchen blade, we cover everything you need to know about the best of Japanese knives.
1. How Are Japanese Knives Made?
Knife forging starts with iron and charcoal. Japanese steel knives are created using by using a sandwiching technique of steel and ferrite. After heating and softening the metals, a groove is created for the strip of steel to be inserted into the ferrite. Iron sand is then utilized to fuse the metals together. The outer layer of metal offers protection while reinforcing the sturdiness of the blade. The combined metal is then welded to be shaped, and the hammering makes the piece stronger by forcing the reduction of particles, before the the knife is finally quenched by being rapidly cooled in water. This step is one of the most important, as it determines the knife’s cutting ability. The last few steps are for cosmetic purposes; straightening, tempering and grinding make the blade both pliable and sharp.
2. The History of Japanese Knives
The skills to make traditional Japanese kitchen knives have their roots on the battlefield. Despite their small size, Wakizashi (side inserted sword) like you see above are closer to being a sword than a knife. Starting from the 15th century, samurai often wore these to accompany a Katana (Japanese sword). The pair was called Daisho, or Big-Little. The wakizashi was used as a backup weapon, or to better the odds during close combat. At first, there was no set size of such a blade. It was during the Edo period (1603-1868) when sword regulations became stricter that official lengths for both katana and wakizashi were set.
After the Meiji Restoration in 1868, both the creation and the possession of katana (Japanese swords) was banned. Overnight, this took away the jobs of many artisans who knew no other trade, often stretching back many generations. Many swordsmiths quickly learned to put their skills to another use, however, creating knives for domestic use, as kitchen knives could be sold for high prices and without limitations. The impeccable pedigree and skills of their creators is why Japanese knives are still the world’s most highly prized today.
3. Types of Japanese Knives
What kind of cuts are you looking to make? The answer to this question will determine which knife is the perfect fit for your hand. For example, a Yanagi is a sushi chef’s best friend, as its length and sharpness allow for smooth cuts of raw fish. Then there is the Deba, which is for gutting said fish. For meat and poultry, the thick blade of a Honesuki gets the job done. Its pointed tip allows for the smooth separation of bone and cartilage. For home cooks, the double-bevel of the Nakiri makes for crisp veggie slices without any fuss.
You should also consider whether you are looking to make Japanese or Western style cuts. Western knives are often curved for easy rocking chopping, while Japanese knives rely on the sharpness of their single-bevel to make quick cuts.
Japanese knives differ by more than just their uses in the kitchen. Various styles of craftsmanship have evolved in different parts of the country.
In centuries past members of the royal family were buried in kofun (burial mound) monuments made of stone and other natural materials. Comparable to the pyramids in Eygpt, these monuments were immense and costly in labor to complete. Metalworkers and blacksmiths were often hired for the task of producing hoes and spades to complete the project. After work was completed on the tomb of Emperor Nintoku in Sakai City in 450 CE, many of the craftsmen decided to stay. From swords to kitchen knives, Sakai became the go-to spot for all things metal. Even to this day, the area is known to produce some of the finest blades in all of Japan. Soft iron and steel are combined using a hammering method to produce the extremely sharp blades of Sakai.
Echizen, on the other hand, is a city located in the Fukui Prefecture. While Sakai is known for their rigorously hammered blades, Echizen specialty cutlery is identified by a Double-Layering knife technique. This type of metalwork, otherwise known as Echizen-Uchihamono, was created during the 14th century. A well-known metalworker from Kyoto set up shop in Echizen City, where he forged items for locals. The Double Layering technique allowed for a stronger, thicker blade, as well as a more even surface on the finished product.
Tosa blades, created in Kochi Prefecture, take a completely different approach to knife making called Free-Forging. This involves the molding of cherry-red metal into basically any shape or form, allowing for creative freedom. This method makes mass-production difficult, as each knife will have its own unique structure, but they are considered among the best Japanese chef knives.
While you’re thinking about Japanese cuisine, you can check out Everything You Need to Know About Bento Boxes!
4. Buyer’s Guide to Japanese Knives
Now that you are more informed on the different types of knives, you may be asking, “But what about the handle?” Well, Japanese Magnolia wood is the go-to for many blade forgers due to the fact that it won’t become slippery when wet. These wooden dowels are carved into oval, octagon or D-shapes to strengthen the wielder’s grip. Handles made of this material are often made in the Wa, ‘Japanese’, construction; meaning it is rather simplistic and lightweight in design.
If you are a lefty, there’s no need to throw in the chef’s hat just yet! Considering the handle and bevel of a knife will make your life (and slices) much better, a Yo or Western handle, works great, regardless of dominant hand. This is due to the stable and crisp nature of the handle. Aside from handles, left-handed chefs should utilize a single-beveled blade that has a left-facing grind. Otherwise, working against the cutting edge may prove difficult.
Chances are, after all this research, you aren’t buying a cheap blade from a ¥100 shop! Therefore, you have to treat it well to maintain its value. Routine sharpening will prevent chipping and keep the metal in prime condition for years to come. 1000 and 6000 grit is the standard, and they should be sharpened at a 15-degree angle. This is slightly more dramatic in comparison to Western-style blades, due to the harder material used during forging. It’s best to use a Japanese whetstone when using a Japanese kitchen knife. Tojiro carries specialty whetstones to cater to the most chop-happy cooks out there.
Despite having the word for cow in the name (gyu), the gyuto knife is the most versatile and useful knife for your kitchen, whether you’re preparing beef, fish, or vegetables. For beginners or connoisseurs alike, the gyuto makes the ideal starter knife. Known as a classic Japanese kitchen knife, it is the combination of several Western and Japanese style blades, and be used to slice vegetables, fish and meat. Its blade is particularly long, and the lightweight construction allows for agile push chopping. One reputable brand you might consider is Yoshihiro Cutlery, who have been producing Japanese kitchen knives from their base in Sakai for over 100 years. Each knife is individually handcrafted by skilled artisans. You can buy this gyuto knife from Yoshihiro online on Amazon. Check out how these knives are forged in the video below!
5. Where to Buy Japanese Chef Knives in the US
If you’re not in Japan at the moment, do not fret. There is still a high-quality knife out there with your name on it. MTC Kitchen in New York is authentic as they come, providing a variety of tools and a guaranteed slice of perfection. Japanese Knife Imports has got you west-coasters covered, and with a selection of classes and knife-services available, novices need not be shy.
For more recommendations on Japanese-made things you can buy online, check out 50 Irresistible Made in Japan Products to Buy Now!
6. Where to Buy Chef Knives in Tokyo?
Tokyo is a totally different beast. Searching in the metropolis for the best Japanese knives can be quite overwhelming with all of the different buying options. But don’t worry, you’ll be chopping like the pros in no time. If you looking are for spots to get a pointy companion of your own? Tsukiji Masamoto is one renowned store near the old Tsukiji Shushi market, while Kappabashi, or “Kitchen Town,” has a ton of options in a broad range of price and quality, such as the century-old store Kamata.
Have you ever used Japanese knives in the kitchen before? Let us know your experience in the comments below!
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