When I was young, I bought Wusthof knives because, of course, they were so much superior to Henckels. I knew there were better knives in the world, especially from Japan, but they seemed to cost my firstborn, and I didn’t really know how to buy them in the first place, so I was happy with my selection. Soon after (but not soon enough to return the Wusthofs) the Japanese invaded a Bed Bath and Beyond near you with a little help from Alton Brown. I had a strong case of Shun-lust, but being the practical, thrifty person that I am, I made do.
Fast forward *cough* years, and I needed a second chef’s knife for when someone else is helping me cook. Naturally I knew that this was my chance to acquire a Japanese knife. So a week of underslept nights later, I purchased my first Japanese knife. (Review to come.)
I will be documenting what I found in a series of posts, so that I don’t have to do it again, and perhaps it will help you, dear reader, acquire a Japanese instrument of cutting joy more quickly than I did.
Most of the advice below will focus on a “single go-to” knife for the largest variety of kitchen tasks. Generally, this will be a replacement for a chef’s knife (or santoku for those of you who have bought into the hype).
I am synthesizing a huge amount of reading, much of it gleaned from forums. As forums are volatile things with a tendency to go belly up—Fred’s Cutlery Forum, one of the highest rated knife forums, died about a year ago, taking most of its knowledge with it—I will quote directly from some of the posts I deem most helpful.” I will link back to the forum (if still in existence).
What’s wrong with my Wusthofs or Henckels?
- The main problem with them is their country of origin. German knives are known for two things in general.
- The German profile has a large curve in the blade that prevents most of the cutting surface from touching the board at the same time. It also makes it so that you have to lift the handle very high to get the tip to touch the board. (That said, plenty of very good cutters prefer the German profile, and the German profile is considered more forgiving of bad technique.)
- The second problem is that they tend to be made from a very tough, relatively soft steel that can stand up to a lot of punishment but doesn’t get exceptionally sharp or stay sharp.
- Most of the retail sets come with 8 inch chef knives that are just too short for some tasks. A 10 inch would probably be a better choice.
So what are the alternatives?
- The French profile chef knife is much flatter, allowing for more efficient cutting motions. The classic brand is Sabatier who’s older knives are legendary but seem to have lost some quality in more recent years.
- The other alternative is a gyuto, the Japanese take on a chef knife with a more French profile. They come as either Wa (traditional handle) or Yo (Western handle). The wa-gyutos have a reputation for being lighter.
- The general recommendation is a gyuto in 240mm (9.4 inches) or 270mm (10.6 inches).
What to look for?
- The main thing to look for is a quality steel. You want something around 60 or a little higher on the Rockwell scale. Much below 60, and the knife won’t take or hold the edge you want. Too high, and the knife becomes too brittle for the general kitchen use we’re after (although not inappropriate for special use knives). So look for 60 plus, and then the look at the reputation of the knife for being brittle. Not all steels at the same hardness are equal in terms of strength and brittleness.
- When it comes to raw performance, carbon steel is generally regarded as the best, but it is prone to rust and pit without proper maintenance and can impart a metallic taste to some acidic foods. Not all carbon steels are created equal, so you still have to do your homework. As for “proper maintenance”, mainly, wipe it off as soon as you use it, especially if you’re cutting acidic food such as limes. Carbon steel will also form a patina that can protect the steel from corrosion but some people think it’s icky.
- Stainless steels are easier to maintain, but can’t quite match the edge that carbon steels have. Stainless blades can be clad (san mei) or monosteel. Clad blades have a core of a harder steel sandwiched between two plates of softer steel. The harder steel provides the edge, while the softer steel provides additional strength. Some people think that sandwiched knives feel flat or dead on the cutting board, as though you’re wearing thick gloves; others don’t notice at all or notice but aren’t bothered by it.
- There used to be a big quality difference between forged and stamped knives. However, modern heat treatment and hardening has rendered the difference largely moot. In fact, stamped can be better because it is lighter, causing less fatigue when used for longer periods of time. (Please note this is only for higher end knives. At the low end, forged is still probably better than stamped.)
Anything else I should know?
- The harder steels of Japanese knives require a more refined sharpening system–using waterstones. Be aware that stones take practice, and if you only cook in your home and care for your knives, you might not be sharpening very often, so it may be difficult to get enough practice in to become good. One suggestion is to get a “beater knife” made from carbon steel and practice sharpening it. There are also guided sharpening systems out there that take some of the art out of sharpening but don’t require much skill. Whatever you do, do not send your Japanese knives to any commercial sharpener who uses a grinding wheel on them. Sharpening and waterstones are such a big topic that I’m going to do two separate posts on them.
- Any steel above 60 HRC may be damaged by steeling (even with a super fine steel), so 1) consider not steeling, or 2) make sure you have a very fine steel; 3) be VERY gentle when/if steeling and don’t bang the knife against the steel.
Can’t you be bevel-headed about this?
- Japanese knives come in two major forms: single and double bevel.
- A double beveled knife is sharpened on both sides of the blade. This is also how most Western knives are sharpened. Double bevel knives may sharpened symmetrically, with even amounts of sharpening on both sides, or they may be beveled unevenly, so that one side has received more sharpening than the other. In addition to changing perceived sharpness, it may also affect how long the knife will stay sharp, and may favor left vs right hand cutters. Changing the asymmetry is as easy as sharpening one side longer than the other.
- Single bevel knives are only sharpened on side, and the other is straight or even slightly concave. Single bevel is also called a chisel edge, because—well—it looks like a chisel. Single bevel knives can cut extremely flat because one side is completely flat, and are usually sharper than double bevel knives. Most single bevel knives are cut for right handers, so if you’re a lefty, you may have to pay a premium for a single bevel knife that will work for you.
- Primary, secondary, and microbevels: These are actually sharpening topics and will be covered in another article.
Just to refresh your memory, we’re looking at Gyutos (all purpose chef knives). One small caveat. Because of the hardness of Japanese steel and thinness of most of these knives, cutting through bone is generally not recommended with most of these knives. So they’re really “most purpose” not truly all-purpose.