The Beauty of Japanese Knives April 29 2015, 1 Comment
With the popularity of fine dining at home showing no let up, the allure of Japanese knives is growing. Japanese knives are a big budget item and should be bought with care. This article looks at the following areas:
- The difference between Japanese and Western knives
- Types of Japanese knives
- Single and double bevels
- The components of Japanese knives
- How Japanese knives are made
What's the difference?
Steel is harder
Firstly, the steel in Japanese cutlery is usually harder than in Western cutlery. This means the knife edge will not bend easily and therefore the knife stays sharper for longer.
Under a microscope, a knife edge has saw-like teeth. For softer steel these teeth will bend, for harder steel they will eventually break off. For softer steel a process called honing (also known as steeling) bends the teeth back in line with the blade. Eventually the teeth will break off and the knife will be blunt until the knife is sharpened by grinding the metal to a new edge.
So, the difference between Japanese and Western knives is that Japanese steel will hold an edge longer, but you are less likely to be able to extend the life of the knife through honing.
To cut with softer steel you need more supporting material than a harder steel. The result is that Western cutlery is thicker than their harder steel Japanese counterparts. Having a thin edge means you can cut cleanly without splitting the food and it's much easier to use because the knife will be lighter to use.
Is it possible to harden steel? The answer is yes, and it is called heat treatment. There is lots of value in using high grade steels. The harder and thinner the steel the less tolerant it is and the more expensive it is to produce. A great analogy is building a wall. If you want a thin wall to stand up, the stones need to be precisely cut and carefully laid, but a very thick wall could be made just out of rubble. This is why Japanese knives tend to be quite expensive, although the premium Japanese knives are not made in large factories with all the accompanying overhead of a large organisation.
A good Japanese knife can be very precisely ground, producing a razor-sharp edge. The combination of a very sharp edge with a light, thin, well-balanced blade provides a knife far superior to any mainstream Western cutlery.
Japanese Knife Types
Walk into any Western kitchen shop and you will quickly become familiar with the common knife types; chef's, paring, slicer, bread and boning. Japanese knives have different names and are less well known by many retailers. The main ones are the chef's knife, gyuto, santoku, Asian chef's knife, nakiri, petty knife, deba, yanagiba, and possibly usuba and kiritsuke.
Gyuto – Double Beveled
The word Gyuto means something like "cow blade," and it is simply equivalent to the French-style chef's knife. The knives are double-beveled, meaning that both sides of the edge are ground at an angle to the center-plane of the edge.
Santoku – Double Beveled
The term "santoku," means "three virtues" and is essentially marketing speak. It simply means the knife is intended to be an all-rounder, doing more or less everything the housewife would usually want from a knife. It has precisely one virtue by comparison to the chef's knife: it's short. If the ideal range for the chef's knife is 8"-12", the ideal for the santoku is about 6.5", which makes it less frightening to use especially in a very small kitchen area.
Asian chef's knife- Double Beveled
This catch-all name doesn't mean a great deal to any professional knife supplier. It is probably a santoku knife.
Nakiri – Double Beveled
This is an old-fashioned Japanese housewife's knife and has been superseded by the santoku. This knife is slightly better for chopping vegetables but the santoku is better for all other purposes. Nowadays you may see them being used on Japanese TV in historical settings. In Japan the santoku and the nakiri can be bought for very little money, although trying to do the same outside of Japan would be very difficult.
Petty – Double Beveled
This is basically a slightly longer paring knife. They're quite useful, but expensive in comparison to standard paring knives.
Deba – Single Beveled
This is a massive fish butchering knife. The fish-cutting technique using this knife is completely different from the French system, so unless you are planning to re-learn your technique it is best to avoid this knife.
Yanagiba – Single Beveled
This knife is also known in the Western world as a yani, yanagi, yanigaba or yanigiba. It is a slicing knife just for slicing raw fish to make sashimi. The ideal length is about 300mm, but for home use they are normally about 195mm. Normally home chefs find the knives very interesting to use and will appreciate the superior cutting performance of this single beveled knife.
Usuba – Single Beveled
This is a vegetable knife for professionals. The edge is completely straight and it comes in square tipped (Tokyo-style) and sickle tipped (Kyoto-style). For many it is an awkward, impossible-to-use knife, but if you really must buy one make sure you spend the money and get a good one otherwise you will never manage to get it sharpened properly.
Kiritsuke – Single Beveled
This is Japan's answer to the all purpose chef's knife and as an all rounder the serious knife people will judge this as a knife which is designed for most cutting needs in the kitchen as it will work well for meat, fish, veggies etc. Some people love them. They are a hybrid design combining features of Japanes usubas and yanagibas. A good length is about the same as a chef's knife at between 240-300 mm. The Kiritsuke is usually a single beveled knife which will surprise with its superior cutting performance. A number of makers now produce double bevel Kiritsukes for Western users who love the look of the knife, but want the versatility of a double bevel grind to be handled by left and right handed users.
In modern Japan the use of these knives depends on the type and location of the kitchen. For example, Sushi chefs in Tokyo will often use the petty knife and chef's knife (gyuto), and retain the usuba primarily for peeling sheets of daikon, carrot, and cucumber (katsura-muki).
Single and Double Bevels
If you look at a knife point you can imagine a line passing through the edge and running parallel to the core of the knife, in a plane. This plane is the bevel and if it is flared both sides it is double, if it is one side it is single. A double-beveled knife can be ground symmetrically or asymmetrically. Usually Japanese knives are ground asymmetrically but there is some debate as to whether this improves the knife in any way.
There are some advantages and disadvantages though to a single bevelled knife:
- Easier to sharpen so you can achieve a very sharp knife. Your hand does not need to be so stable.
- The hollow knife back is less likely to have food sticking to it and the shape provides a strong knife.
- Single-beveled knives are very tricky to set up .
- Expensive to buy.
- Left handed knives are very expensive.
Knife experts develop a preference to carbon or stainless alloy. Carbon sharpens more smoothly and easily, but the life of the edge will be shorter.
Japanese Steel Types (Carbon)
The steel comes in 3 grades:
- 1 White – High
- 2 Blue – Mid
- 3 Yellow - Low.
The colours refer to the wrapping paper for the steel when it arrives at the knife makers. If you want a professional knife then avoid the yellow steel. Yellow steel knives, often marked kairyo-kasumi, should be relatively cheap. White steel is slightly more flexible than blue and it comes down to knife preference which you prefer.
Unlike stainless steel, carbon steel can rust easily. Over time and by contact with onions and other acidic foods the knife will turn a dull, blue-gray colour. To take care of the steel simply wipe it with a damp cloth every time you switch ingredients and once finished rinse the knife in hot water and dry thoroughly.
Japanese Forging Styles
There are several forging styles. The Kasumi (means "mist") forging style refers to a misty line on the blade where the knife steel is welded to a sheet of softer iron. The knife edge is steel and from the misty line upwards is iron. Knife makers often make a distinction between kasumi and hon-kasumi. This normally just means that hon-kasumi is using higher grade steel, there is no change in how the knife is forged.
Honyaki means something like "true forged". It means the whole knife is made of steel rather than steel and iron welded together. Honyaki knives are a lot more expensive, but hold their edge fractionally longer. There are some professionals who will only work with honyaki knives because they retain their edges for longer. There are other professionals who prefer the consistency of kasumi knives.
A clad knife has a core of carbon steel surrounded by another metal. They are easier to look after than pure carbon steel and harder than pure stainless steel knives.
Damascus, Suminagashi Processes
Going back a few hundred years, some blades were made using a complex process of folding. The process was supposed to make the blade stronger. These days if you see a knife labelled Damascus or Suminagashi it is very unlikely it has been made using this process, it is simply a reference to etched cladding. The etching produces the swirly appearance. These knives are very difficult to sharpen without scratching the cladding.
An attractive effect is polishing the entire surface of a knife with such fine abrasives that it is impossible to see the scratches. The resulting surface looks like a mirror.
There are 3 types:
- Wa Handles – Japanese handles are normally made of ho wood which does not become slippery when wet, and has little or no maintenance. The term "wa" in some knife names means it has this type of handle e.g. wa-gyuto is a chef's knife with a Japanese handle.
- Yo Handles – Western style handles are normally shaped, grip-formed handles. Sometimes the term "yo" attached to a knife title refers to a Western style handle, but not always. For example the term yo deba means a very heavy, tough knife it doesn't necessarily mean it has a western handle.
- Custom Handles – Some knife enthusiasts like custom and often elaborate handles. They can be made from rare woods and lacquers. The knife maker will bear in the mind the weight, the feel of the material and durability. Often custom handles are very expensive.
How Japanese Knives Are Made
There are several factory brands, e.g. Shun, Global which make their knives in the same way as Western branded knives. It is more interesting to understand about how handmade knives are made.
There are several brands of handmade knives; well known examples are Masamoto Souhonten, Sakai Takayuki and Aritsugu. There are also many individual knife makers and finally there are knife dealers.
Most of the brands have contracts with several individual makers. They are mostly in Seki, a suburb of Osaka. Knives made this way by an unknown maker under contract to a brand, are known as OEM knives. Some of these makers also sell their own knives direct. Seki is known as the centre for factory knife-making.
There are also knife makers dotted around the world. Terrier Blades is one of these professional knife makers.
Japanese knives provide an exciting alternative to Western style knives, but you need to be careful you buy the right knife for your kitchen and be prepared for the high price tags.