Japanese Kitchen Knives – A Cut Above

you have ever watched a Samurai epic, you know that Japanese warriors paid a great deal of attention to their swords. That same attention has gone into the making of Japanese kitchen knives, whose sales have skyrocketed in the past 10 to 15 years.

The popularity of Japanese-style knives has caused American and European knife manufacturers to produce them. German-based Wusthof, a premier producer of kitchen knives, has two complete lines of Japanese-style knives as well as santoku Japanese knives (the popular all-purpose knife) in two other collections.

Unfortunately, the rush to get on the bandwagon has led to many poor imitations. There are dozens of Japanese-style knives, most commonly the santoku, that are as worthless as $50 espresso makers. You often get what you pay for—expect to shell out at least $150 and frequently more for a good chef’s knife—but there are factors other than price to consider.

Japanese knives are divided into two categories, traditional and Western-style.Traditional Japanese knives are used almost exclusively by Japanese chefs. Western-style Japanese knives fuse some of the elements of traditional Japanese knives with aspects of Western or European knives or German knives because many are made in Germany.

For example, the bevel or the angle at which the two sides of the blade come together on the knife’s edge is 50/50 on a traditional Western knife, meaning the same angle on both sides of the edge. On a traditional Japanese knife, it is 90/10. On a Western-style Japanese knife, it’s 70/30. This gives them a more precise, cleaner cut like traditional Japanese knives but with the styling of Western knives, from the handle to the shape of the blade.

In addition to the bevel, Western-style Japanese knives are made of harder than Western knives, which enables them to hold an edge longer. It also means that Western-style Japanese knives have thinner blades, which generally makes these knives lighter than Western knives. These two qualities have created converts among many cooks, such as Sarah Jay, author of Knives Cooks Love (Sur La Table). “I’ve moved from German to (Western style) Japanese knives,” she says. “I have small hands and the Japanese knives are less fatiguing.”

Hold on, says Norman Weinstein, author of Mastering Knife Skills (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). Weinstein is a long-time advocate of the Western-style and especially German-made knives. “There is a mystique about Japanese knives,” Weinstein says. “They are made of excellent steel and they are thinner. But the idea that Japanese knives cause less stress makes no sense to me.”

Weinstein says heavier knives make it easier, not harder to cut. He demonstrates this by asking students of his knife skills classes at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York (which included me on one occasion) to cut first with an 8-inch Western-style chef’s knife, then with a heavier,10-inch knife. Students almost universally preferred the heavier knife.

So, East or West? I tried out three different brands of the Western-style Japanese chef’s knife, called a gyutou in Japanese, from Korin, a Japanese knife shop in Manhattan. All three, the Togiharu ($156.50), Masanobu VG-10 ($345), and Misono UX10 ($210), had 9.4-inch blades. All had good balance but the Misono’s larger wooden handle felt more comfortable in my hand than the smaller resin-based Togiharu handle, even though my hands aren’t particularly large. The Mansanobu had a more traditional Japanese cylindrical handle, which necessitated choking up closer to the blade to feel more in control.

All three cut like a dream, better than any European chef’s knife I’ve ever used. The Togiharu and Misono cut onion slices so thin, it reminded me of Paul Sorvino slicing garlic with a razor blade in Goodfellas. Despite the reputation of Japanese knives for being light, all three weighed in between 8 and 9 ounces, about the same as my Wusthof 10-inch German-made knife. The combination of heft and sharpness made cutting harder vegetables, like fennel, a breeze.

I also tried a Togiharu santoku, which, at 6.4 inches was in between the Chinese-made Analon santoku (7.75 inches) and the German-made Kuhn Rikon (5.75 inches) I own. While neither Analon nor Kuhn Rikon are considered top-of-the-line knife makers, they illustrate how widespread the popularity of the santoku style knife is. Not surprisingly, the Togiharu ($110) ran rings both, even though the Kuhn Rikon had a nonstick coating. Still, if faced with a choice between the santoku and gyutou styles, I’d choose the latter, which gives you the sharpness of Japanese steel with the heft of a European chef’s knife.

There are some caveats, however. Unlike European knives, Western-style Japanese knives have no bolster, the thick band of smooth, unsharpened steel that runs along the heel of the blade. Without a bolster, your forefinger can bang against the unprotected heel, which can cause soreness or blisters. This, of course, depends on how you grip the knife. I’ve always pressed my middle finger  against the bolster when using a chef’s knife. But with the Togiharu, I pulled my finger back a bit and squeezed a little harder with my thumb and forefinger on either side of the blade. That might be a problem for those with smaller or arthritic hands.

A more important issue is how to maintain the sharpness of the knife, something that far too many amateur cooks don’t pay enough attention to. “People think that because they paid $125 for a knife, they don’t have to do anything,” Weinstein says. “It’s like buying a car and not thinking you need to put gas in.”

Western knives can be sharpened three ways: 1)with a stone, though few people do it properly; 2)a manual or electric knife sharpener (which I use); or 3)by sending them to a knife sharpening service. Western-style Japanese knives can also be sharpened with a stone, but not with a manual or electric sharpener because of the uneven bevel. The bevel also makes it difficult to hone the edge on a honing steel (which sets the edge but doesn’t sharpen). However, there are fine and super fine stones that hone Japanese knives as well as remove surface scratches. If you use a knife sharpening service, it should deal specifically with Japanese knives, such as Korin.

Take care of your knives and they’ll take care of you, just the way they did for Samurai warriors.

How to Get It

  • A Cook’s Wares, Beaver Falls, PA, 800-915-9788, www.cookswares.com
  • Chefknivestogo, Madison, WI, 608-232-1137, www.chefknivestogo.com
  • CHEFS, Colorado Springs, CO, 800-338-3232, www.chefscatalog.com
  • Country Knives, Intercourse, PA, 717-768-3818, www.countryknives.com (offers sharpening service)
  • Korin Japanese Trading Co., New York, NY,  800-626-2172, www.Korin.com (offers sharpening service)
  • Sur La Table, Seattle, Wash., 800.243.0852 www.surlatable.com

(This article first appeared in Wine Spectator magazine.)

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