How to Choose a Japanese Kitchen Knife

April 08, 2021 8 min read 0 Comments

How to Choose a Japanese Kitchen Knife

So you’re interested in getting a new knife? Awesome, New Knife Day is the best day! There’s a lot to choose from out there, so let’s stop and think. What do you actuallyneed out of a kitchen knife? What do youwant? 

When I think about what I need my knife to do, the answer is simple: I want it tocut the things. I also want it to be able to do the cutting of the things for a long time before it needs sharpening. 

Japanese kitchen knives are really good at doing both of these things, because they’re made from very hard high-quality steel. The harder the material a knife is made of, the better it can hold its edge. The better it can hold its edge, the thinner you can grind the knife. The thinner you grind the knife, the sharper it feels. Simple. Hard steel = thin knife = sharp! Harder steel not only gets sharper, but it stays sharp longer.

Have you ever used cheap knives before? Of course you have. You can easily pick up a massive set of knockaround knives at Canadian Tire for a couple hundred bucks or less, so everyone and their mom has got a few kicking around. They’re somewhat sharp right out of the block, but don’t stay that way for long. They’re also frequently sold in a gargantuan set - chef’s knife, santoku, boning knife, paring knife, utility knife, bread knife, slicer, four steak knives, scissors, garden shears… Is all that really necessary? I would argue that having two to fourgreat knives is way better than twelve to fourteen “ehhhhh… knives. When you’re choosing a knife, there are three main things you should consider:

  1. What shape do you need?
  2. What kind of steel do you want?
  3. The wow factor - what kind of looks will get you excited to use it?

A good knife kit needs a variety of different shapes and sizes, each designed to perform a different function in your kitchen.

When building a set, it’s important to think about what you enjoy cooking and what you cook often. Most people really only need a great chef’s knife (gyuto), a veggie knife (nakiri), and a utility blade (petty). Here’s the order we suggest building your set in, and some basic info on each knife shape.

The Must Haves

Fujimoto Hammer Tone 210mm Gyuto

Fujimoto Hammer Tone 210mm Gyuto

Gyuto

The go-to knife in most kitchens around the globe, a gyuto can do almost anything, but it does have a bias towards larger food and meats. They range in length between 150mm all the way up to an impressive 360mm, with 210mm and 240mm being the most common lengths. If you’re minimally minded and only want one knife, get a gyuto! Learn more about Gyutos.

Moritaka Ishime 130mm Petty

Moritaka Ishime 130mm Petty

Petty

This is the Japanese word (via French) for a paring or utility knife. It’s perfect for hand peeling fruits and veggies, but is equally as handy on a cutting board for tasks that require greater articulation - trimming fat and silver skin off meats, or de-coring a mango come to mind. Pettys can be as small as 75mm, and as large as 180mm, so there’s something to fit any hand, big or small. 

Haruyuki Shiso Nakiri

Haruyuki Shiso Nakiri

Nakiri

The naikiri isn’t the most well known shape in the Western kitchen, but they are hands-down the best tool for the job they’re made for. With their flat edge they make chopping vegetables a breeze. The push chopping technique which the nakiri makes incredibly easy to do reduces those annoying accordion cuts. You know, when your onions are strung together like a string of paper dolls? Do yourself a favour and Google a solid French onion soup recipe and go to town with your nakiri. Learn more about nakiris.

 

Masashi Koi 165mm Santoku

Masashi Koi 165mm Santoku

Santoku

Santoku means “three virtues,” or “to solve three problems.” With this aptly named knife, these jobs will be that much easier. Slicing, dicing and mincing. If you can master these cuts, you can pretty much attack any recipe launched at you. The santoku starts flat at the heel, exceptional for cutting vegetables, and eventually curves upwards towards the tip, giving it more versatility for slightly finer work. Learn more about santokus.

 Masashi Shiroshu 165mm BunkaMasashi Shiroshu 165mm Bunka

Bunka

The bunka is a more badass santoku, with a dramatic sloped tip. It carries the same functionality of its cousin. While the bunka was actually invented first, the santoku has since become the more popular choice. Maybe the general public just can’t handle how rad they are. 

 

Fujimoto Nashiji 270mm Sujihiki

Sujihiki

Christmas, Thanksgiving, or just a casual Sunday dinner, this long, thin “flesh slicer,” is exactly the tool you want to carve those fine cuts of roast beef, turkey, fish and raw meats. If it’s fleshy, a “suji” will slice through it with buttery elegance. Learn more about Sujihikis.

 

Bread Knife

It speaks for itself! With a serrated edge, bread knives offer exceptional toothiness for cutting through both the softest and crustiest loafs. Look for one made of super hard steel - they’ll keep their aggressive little teeth the longest! Check out our bread knife comparison guide.

 

The Fun-to-Haves

 

Fujimoto Hammer Tone Honesuki

 

Honesuki

Specifically designed for poultry butchering, the honesuki’s flat profile and dropped tip makes it perfect for navigating around the flesh and bones of chicken and other birds. The tip is thin and precise, while the heel is robust for cutting through cartilage. Learn more about honesukis.


Oul Sakai Ginsan 210mm Kiritsuke

Kiritsuke

A chef’s knife with a sloped tip, like the bunka, a kiritsuke can come in single or double beveled varieties. The double bevel ones are a great substitute for a gyuto if you prefer its flatter edge.

Yanagiba

Yanagibas are long, thin, single-bevel knives ground and sharpened on one side. They excel at delicate preparations like sashimi and skinning fish fillets, but can be an excellent alternative to a sujihiki.

https://knifewear.com/products/sakai-takayuki-uzushio-deba-180mm?variant=32109199786032

Sakai Takayuki Uzushio 180mm Deba 

Deba

The deba is an essential knife in a sushi chef’s kitchen, perfect for filleting and butchering fish. We’ve also seen them used to butcher poultry, much like a honesuki. The edge is razor sharp, but the thick spine allows for robust cutting of fish bones.

Sakai Takayuki Suigyu Kasumotogi 165mm Usuba

Usuba

Aptly translated to “thin blade,” an usuba (oo-soo-ba) is a single-bevel knife ground and sharpened on one side, making it perfect for slicing vegetables super thin. Another must in the sushi-chef’s arsenal.

 

You’ll know better than anyone what knife you need first, second, etc. so trust your gut, but don’t be afraid to ask our opinion. We always have opinions, it’s what we’re here for. 

How hard should the steel be?

The harder steel gets, the more brittle it can get. Consider a slice of carrot and a slice of peanut brittle: one is harder, but it is more likely to snap when bent. This is an extreme example, but the theory behind it is similar when we talk about steel. Some steels are more likely to bounce back from being handled roughly, and some are more likely to chip. On our site you’ll see knives ranked with a Rockwell Hardness. “Lower” numbers like 60 mean softer steel that won’t chip as easily, higher numbers like 65 mean the knife will stay sharp longer, but is more fragile.

The Fujiwara Denka is made out of some of the hardest steel in the knife-making world - in fact, it’s the hardest hand-forged knife we’ve got in the store. Nothing holds an edge as well as one of these bad boys, but that means that it’s one of the most damage-prone knives around if mishandled. Half way down the spectrum the Fujimoto Nashiji is also made out of nice hard carbon steel, but it’s not so hard that it’ll get damaged super easily. It’s a nice happy middle ground where you can dip your toe into the world of carbon steel knives. At the other end you can get into steels like VG10 which is only marginally more brittle compared to a western knife like a Henckel or Victorinox, but holds an about edge twice as long. 

Regardless of which knife you pick, we always recommend you abide by the golden rule:If you think it would hurt to bite it, don’t try to cut it! Kitchen knives are designed to slice up meats, veggies, fish, and other stuff for you to put in your mouth. They’re not hammers or screwdrivers. Always avoid cutting through bones, frozen food, pits and stems. That said, if you do chip your knife, we’ll always have your back! We sharpen and repair knives, and the first time on any knife from us is free.

Carbon Steel or Stainless Steel?

Most modern knives won’t rust. Stainless steel is the industry standard for commercial knives in the west, but many of our blacksmiths prefer the performance and tradition of more old-fashioned steels. The majority of our blacksmiths who forge knives by hand prefer to work with carbon steel. Why is this? 

For starters, most carbon steel is quite a bit harder than stainless steel. That means, as you’ve just learned, that it can hold a keener edge for much longer. It is also easier to grind and sharpen, which means less sharpening work for the manufacturer and the end-user. It also just kindafeels sharper. It’s tough to describe the sensation, but the Japanese actually have a word for it - 切れ味 (kire aji) - which roughly translates into “the taste of sharpness”. There’s a reason that we allow our customers to try their knives in our shops. We want them to feel that taste of sharpness. It sounds weird, but it’s real.  

If this is your first knife, you’ll probably want stainless steel that doesn’t rust or chip easily. The more ambitious foodies or cooks might try a carbon steel knife that is “clad” - protected - in a layer of stainless steel. Serious knife junkies might go straight to pure carbon steel. Feel free to choose based on your comfort level, there is no wrong answer. 

If you want to learn more about choosing steel types, check out the Non-Nerd’s Guide to Knife Steels.

The Wow Factor

So far, we’ve just been talking facts. Shapes, rust, brittleness, you know, boring stuff. The fact of the matter is that knives can besexy. Don’t believe me? Ka-PLOW!

 

The Masakage Kumo and Masakage Zero Kamagatas. Two very sexy knives.

The Masakage Kumo and Masakage Zero Kamagatas. Two very sexy knives. 

See? 

There is no shortage of variety in terms of feel, balance, and overall aesthetic. These knives are art! They’re designed to evoke emotion, both when you look at them and when you cut with them. It’s no coincidence that the best selling knife here at the shop just so happens to be a STONE COLD FOX.

HARUYUKI SHISO GYUTO 210MM
The Haruyuki Shiso 210mm Gyuto, our best-selling knife.

This is all a lot to absorb, I know. But hopefully, you’ve got a little something to work with now. To boil it down: 

  • Quality over quantity. A handful of well made knives are worth more than a gaggle of cheap ones. 
  • Don’t be afraid to choose with your eyes. We've done a lot of hard work to carry what we consider to be some of the best knives on the planet in terms of empirical quality. It’s perfectly OK to be picky-choosy based on how they look. You shouldn’t invest in knives that don’t speak to you. And... 
  • Don’t buy anything you don’t want!If you don’t want a fussy carbon steel blade, don’t talk yourself into buying one. We have plenty of kickass stainless steel beauties, or even carbon steel knives with stainless cladding that can hold their edge just as well as their fussy-panted cousins. 

From here, you can start your knife-choosing journey, or check out more relevant reading below. Happy new knife day!

Articles on Choosing Knives

Shop for a knife

Owen Whitinger
Owen Whitinger

Owen is another ex-chef among our ranks. he has been Chef-ing in Edmonton for around 12 years but gave it up to be a human being again! An avid music lover, he plays guitar, loves Radiohead, and has probably been to about 500 concerts. Oh, and he can most definitely beat you in a game of Street Fighter. come chat with him about football, and steel!



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