This guide is to help you select the best Japanese knives suitable for your needs.Although we all like to have choice, majority of work (~70%) you do in the kitchen is done on one or two knives – usually these are the gyuto (chef’s) and petty (utility) knives.Knowing that will guide you to focus on selecting and trying your must-have. Next time you are in the kitchen notice that whenever you need to use a knife, you probably have and choose between one or two of your favourites.When buying a new knife, it’s not a wise idea to go for a set of knives because of their aesthetic value. Also, quality always trumps quantity. Rather than buying a set of knives – some of which are either used very rarely or at all, it’s best to buy a couple of really good knives that you enjoy using all the time.Once you feel like it’s not enough, you’d like to experiment with different knives for a particular purpose (sushi anyone?).We always advise our clients to select the knives they need and are comfortable with. Life is about choice and preferences, so while majority of people like Guyto (chef’s) knife of 210mm, you may prefer a knife that is longer, shorter or bit narrower than the one with “bestseller” tag. Or, you may find a slightly different paring or utility (petty) blade more comfortable.
First things firstOnce you establish your priorities, it will be easy to choose the best knife. These are the most important questions you need to answer yourself:
- Budget – what’s the maximum you want to spend for a good quality, long lasting knife/knives?
- Steel type – Does your knife definitely have to be stainless or you don’t mind a little more maintenance?
- Sharpening – Have you ever sharpened or are you able to sharpen the knife at home? If not, are you willing to learn how to sharpen the knife at home?
- Length – Based on your past experience, what is a comfortable length for you?
- Application – Are there specific jobs you want the knife to perform (e.g boning, filleting fish, chopping herbs etc.)?
General rules for choosing the knife shape
- Knife designed for vegetables and fruits has a much broader blade than knife designed for cutting raw fish – these have very narrow blade.
- The more curved the edge, the more it is designed for slicing and cutting with a rolling action (as you see some professionals doing) and for chopping (with the tip on the board). The straighter the edge, the easier it is for slicing (with a lateral action as in slicing smoked salmon), dicing (as you would potatoes or hard vegetables) and chopping with a straight vertical cut.
- Narrow blades are not suitable for cutting fast or with a traditional rolling action. They are also not suitable for chopping.
- Wide blades generally tend to be longer than their narrower cousins and therefore difficult to use for pairing, peeling and general cutting in the hands. The only exceptions are the Kodeba, Kobocho & Houcho.
DesignUnsurprisingly, the basic design of a knife almost hasn’t changed in the last 10 000 years – it’s a blade with a handle. What has changed, however, and is constantly changing, are the materials used in the making of knives and the handle shapes.In very general terms, the price and quality of the knife are determined by:
- The quality of steel or alternative material used to create the blade. (For more info, read our guide to find the best knife steel for your needs: VG10, Blue Steel and others)
- The balance and feel of the knife
- The method used to create the shape of the blade. (hammered, stamped, roll forged, drop forged, hand forged etc.)
- The sharpness, the longevity of the edge and ability to prevent rusting (determined by steel and a production method)
- Frequency of resharpening (determined by the above – though some very fine knives with razor sharp edges may require more maintenance)
- Quality of a handle, manufacturing and forging
Multipurpose / chef’s knivesThese are generally between 165mm and 240mm in length, wide at the handle end. You can comfortably and safely use a chef’s knife for chopping and cutting with a rolling action. The blade has slightly curved edge with a straight part at the handle end, so that it is easier to roll the blade. Slicing right through the cut is also immensely easy with this knife. This type of edge profile also facilitates clean cut chopping with the back end of the knife, with the tip on the cutting surface during the chopping action.When you wish to be preparing more raw meat and fish than fruit and vegetables, look for a blade that is narrower at the tip end – a Gyuto or Bunka are a good choice. Gyuto also makes a very good carving knife, that can double as a multipurpose knife for everyday use.If preparing more vegetables than raw meat and fish then the Santoku or Funayuki are the best choice. Santoku is also an excellent in chopping herbs and small greens.
Pairing / utility knivesThese are the most commonly used knives in most home kitchens. The blade is normally between 100mm & 150mm in length, has a narrow slim blade and can be used for peeling, paring and slicing. This style for blade is known as Petty in Japan.The longer the length, the larger the food you can cut. Longer blade makes it also easier to use for slicing. This knife type should not be used for chopping because the hand knuckle holding the knife will stop the back end of the knife edge and you will not be able to get perfectly clean cuts. The same situation will happen if you try to use a classic rolling cut action. Be careful as there is a danger of cutting your knuckle, as the knife needs to be guided and controlled by the hand knuckle holding the food in a claw with the finger tips – well away from the knife edge. Worth noting: If you want a knife that is extremely sharp, choose one with a very thin edge. It’s important that you never use such knife with force, heavy impact or on cutting frozen food & bone. If you do so, the knife’s edge may chip and you may hurt yourself.
General differences between the steelMost stainless steel knives do not hold their edge well, unless they have been heat treated or hardened by some other method, so that the steel has achieved a Rockwell rating of at least 56:58. Anything less than this will make the knife loose its edge fairly quickly. It is also harder to resharpen stainless steel than high carbon one (both stainless and staining).The more Chromium the blade has the harder it is to maintain a good edge. Shall you consider buying a stainless steel knife, look for one that has Molybdenum and Vanadium rather than just Chromium, and one that’s been hardened to 58 or more on the HRC scale (the seller should know the hardness of the knives she/he sells).General guideline: The higher the carbon content of the steel, the longer the edge will last and the easier it will be to resharpen. For more detailed information about the difference between steels and how to choose the best one for your desired purpose – please read this article.
Blade material guide
|Material||Carbon Content||Edge Retention Capacity||Initial / First Sharpening||Frequency of re-sharpening||Ease of Sharpening||Guideline Cost of a 165mm Chef’s Knife|
|Stainless steel||< 0.5%||Poor||2/3 Months||After every use||Very Difficult||£5 – £15|
|Stainless steel + Molybdenum Vanadium||< 0.5%||Adequate||3/4 months||Every week||Difficult||£25 – £55|
|High carbon stainless steel||< 0.8%||Good||5/6 months||Every 4/6 Weeks||Moderate||£35 – £80|
|High Carbon Steel (non stainless) Eg AUS 8, AUS 10 & MBS 26||> 0.8%||Good||5/6 months||Every 2/3 Months||Easy||£35 – £75|
|High Carbon Steel E.g. Yasuki Steel, Aogami No1 & No 2 Blue VG10||> 1%||Very Good||6/8 months||Every 2/3 months||Very Easy||£50 – £100|
|High Speed Steel E.g. HRS 15||> 1.5%||The Best||12/18 months||Every 4/5 months||Moderate||£100 – £180|
|Zirconium Ceramic||NA||Very, very good||12/18 months||Every 6/9 months||Moderate Only Diamond||£140+|
|Titanium||NA||Varies||Variable *||Every 4/6 months|