Learn when to use these delicate, super sharp knives in your own kitchen.

By Kelly Vaughan
June 24, 2020
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Most home cooks probably have a selection of good-quality kitchen knives including a chef's knife, a serrated bread knife, and a small paring knife, and those knives will all generally be either German-made or Japanese-made. German (or Western knives)—such as those produced by Wüsthof or Zwilling—are sturdy and durable; they're best for chopping tough vegetables such as butternut squash, potatoes, and thick cuts of meat. Japanese knives—such as Shun and Miyabi—are known for being delicate and super sharp, thus making them ideal for cutting vegetables such as tomatoes, cucumbers, or fish. If you're new to the world of Japanese knives, allow us to introduce you. Here, we outline what to look for when buying new cutlery.

The History of Japanese Knives

When you look at a Japanese knife, such as the Miyabi Kaizen II Eight-Inch Gyutoh Chef's Knife ($129.99, zwilling.com), you may notice that it's a bit shinier, flashier, and more detailed than a German knife. Most German knives have a plain, smooth blade and handle while Japanese knives may feature a striking hammered finish and a smooth wooden handle inspired by a samurai sword. "In Japan, the blade is more than a tool; it's a tradition. From legendary samurai swords to the handcrafted culinary cutlery of today, the exquisite craftsmanship of Japanese blades is admired worldwide," says Matt Matsushima, director of operations for Shun Cutlery. However, Japanese knives are much more than a pretty face. They're a sharp powerhouse in the kitchen, too.

Japanese Versus German Knives

The Japanese have always prized sharpness over durability, says Joanna Rosenberg of Zwilling J.A. Henckels. While Japanese knives are delicate and super sharp, German knives are designed for their durability. "German (and other Western-style) knives tend to be heavier and made of 'tougher' but 'softer' steel. Because of the "softer" steel, German steel knives will get dull faster and require more maintenance," explains Matsushima. In general, Japanese knives are popular because they're much more light-weight than German knives, which makes them more comfortable to work with.

Home cooks who are used to using German knives may need to adjust their technique when using a Japanese knife for the first time. "If you're used to simply pressing downward to make a cut with a German type knife, with a Japanese knife you want to make sure you slice by moving the knife forward or backward. This avoids crushing the food, enables the thin, light blade to glide through whatever you're cutting, and helps you make a very precise cut," Matsushima explains.

Hollow-Ground Knives

Whether German or Japanese, hollow-ground knives are made by grinding the blade into an entirely symmetrical, concave shape. Many Japanese knives, such as the Shun Classic Hollow-Ground Santoku Knife ($119.95 for seven-inch, williams-sonoma.com), have oval-shaped indentations, which helps the blade to glide through food with less friction. The purpose is two-fold, according to Matsushima: "This finish gives the knife a look that is reminiscent of the handcrafting techniques of ancient Japan; and it creates tiny pockets of air that act as hollow-ground cavities to reduce drag and quickly release food from the blade."

How to Care for Japanese Knives

Because Japanese knives are delicate, they require far more care and attention than German knives (while a German knife might be able to survive a night in your sink with other dishes, Japanese knives will not). However, the sharp blade found on Japanese knives means that you don't need to sharpen them as frequently. When it is time to resharpen your knife, there are several different ways to do it like a pro. Use a honing steel ($39.95, williams-sonoma.com) or a pull-through, handheld knife sharpener, both of which realign the edge of the blade. An even more precise, albeit challenging, tool is a whetstone, such as Miyabi's Toishi Pro 1000 Grit Ceramic Water Sharpening Stone ($99.99, macys.com). This tool not only realigns the edge of the blade, but also shaves off microscopic amounts of metal, which makes it even sharper. While you should resharpen your knife with a honing steel or handheld knife sharpener after each use, use a whetstone every two to three weeks, as the sharpening process is more time consuming and labor-intensive (but well-worth the effort).

As with all high-quality knives, always wash Japanese knives by hand—instead of putting them in the dishwasher—to extend their life.

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