Knife Knowledge Basics: How to Choose a Japanese Kitchen Knife

August 14, 2019 5 min read 0 Comments

Mcusta Zanmai Classic Pro Flame

Knives pictured about are from the Mcusta Zanmai Classic Pro Damascus Flame line.

What’s the Real Difference?

So you’re interested in getting a new knife!

Awesome, New Knife Day is the best day! However, it can also be daunting. There’s a lot to choose from out there. It’s almost like browsing through the bloated menus of Netflix trying to decide what to watch. The choices feel overwhelming. Your significant other is scrolling through Instagram offering no input. The butter on your popcorn is congealing at an alarming rate. You just end up watching “The Office” for the thousandth time.

What a waste.

But let’s back up — what do you actually need out of a kitchen knife? What do you want?

When I think about what I needmy knife to do, the answer is simple. I want it to cut the things. I also want it to be able to do the cutting of the thingsfor a long time before it needs sharpening. That is literally what knives are for.

Japanese kitchen knives, like the ones you’ll find on literally every page of this website, are really good at doing both of these things. The Japanese have become adept at making incredibly hard, high quality knife steel. The harder the material a knife is made of, the better it can hold its shape. The better it can hold its shape, 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 can also hold an edge for a much longer time.

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, so everyone and their mom has got a few kicking around. They feel somewhat sharp right out of the block, but don’t really stay that way for long. They are also frequently sold in a gargantuan set - chef’s knife, santoku, boning knife, paring knife, utility knife, bread knife, slicer, four steak knives, scissors… Is all that really necessary? I would argue that having two to fourgreat knives is way better than twelve to fourteen “ehh… knives.

If you have similar needs to me—when it comes to kitchen knives—a modest kit of Japanese blades made out of incredibly hard steel are hands-down the best way to go. When building a set, it’s important to think about what you actually like to cook on a regular basis. Most people only really need a great chef’s knife (gyuto), a veggie knife (nakiri), and a utility blade (petty). These three shapes will cover 99% of your kitchen needs!

So there we are! All done right? Well, almost. A few more factors to consider…

Hard Steel can get brittle!

The harder steel gets, the more brittle it can get. Like the difference between a carrot slice and a slice of peanut brittle, one is harder, but more likely to snap. While this is an extreme example, the theory behind it is similar when we talk about steel. Some are more likely to bounce back from being handled roughly, and some are more likely to chip. 

This is by design. You’ll find a few knives on our shelves that are forged out of pretty outrageous stuff, but we don’t usually recommend the hardest of knives for beginners. The Fujiwara Denka is made out of some 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. On the other end of 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 in which one may dip their proverbial toe into the world of Japanese carbon steel knives. Even further to that fact, 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 purpose-built. They’re designed to slice up meats, veggies, fish, and other stuff for you to put in your mouth. Always avoid cutting through bones - you can ask the butcher to use their saw for that sort of thing. Frozen food can also be fussy. Not only is it very hard, but the sudden temperature your knife goes through can cause the metal to quickly shrink and become very fragile!

Don’t fret too much though… we’ll always have your back! We can sharpen and repair knives in-store, so even if an accident happens we can get your knife good as new in no time!

Not all knives are made of Stainless Steel!

Most modern commercial knives won’t rust. It has almost become a given that stainless steel is the industry standard for commercial knives across the board, but many of our blacksmiths disagree that it is a superior material. In fact, the majority of our blacksmiths who forge knives by hand prefer to work with carbon steel. Why is this?

Well, 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 work for the manufacturer and for the user. It also just kindafeels sharper. It’s tough to describe the sensation. The Japanese actually have a word for it - 切れ味 (kire aji) - which roughly translates into “the taste of sharpness”. Depending on the steel type and sharpening method, there are a whole plethora of different types of “sharp” — but that’s a subject for another post!

The “Want” 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! 

Masakage Kumo Petty 150mm, 135mm, 75mm

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 when they are both being observed and used. It’s no coincidence that the best selling knife here at the shop just so happens to be a STONE COLD FOX. 

Photo taken by Customer Derek S. for his review on the knife.
Masakage Koishi 210mm Gyuto - Photo taken by Customer

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. 

For further reading check out…

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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