A Comprehensive Guide to Japanese Cooking Knives for Home Chefs Part 2

How to Choose Your Japanese Cooking Knife

In part 1 of this post I talked about the different types of Japanese kitchen knives.  They’re versatile and offer a sublime cutting experience, though they do require somewhat more attention for regular maintenance. Today, let’s talk about how to choose the right Japanese cooking knife for your home kitchen!

How to Choose the Perfect Japanese Cooking Knife

After you figure out which knife type you lack in your kitchen, it’s time to find the perfect model. There are so many fantastic brands of knives from Japan that it can be a tough choice.
My advice is to decide on the type of steel you prefer and the handle style that will fit your hand nicely before opting for a particular brand.

Steel – How Metal Type Affects Your Cutting Habits

The quality of steel you choose for your next kitchen knife determines its durability and ease of maintenance.
First and foremost, you need to decide between carbon steel and stainless steel.

  •  Stainless steel is a name of a range of steel alloys that contain molybdenum, chrome, or other elements that prevent steel from rusting. Stainless steel blades are very resistant to corrosion and less likely to chip, which makes these knives easier to maintain – you just wash them and let them dry on their own. However, stainless steel knives don’t stay as sharp and retain their edge as well as carbon steel ones do, so you must sharpen stainless steel knives regularly.
  • Carbon steel is tougher and sharper than stainless steel, but it comes with a caveat – it requires meticulous maintenance to avoid rust. Japanese knife makers often use a traditional type of high-carbon steel called Hagane (鋼). Often combined with iron to form a multi-layered knife, carbon steel is a hard material that retains its edge for a long time, so carbon steel knives require less frequent sharpening. While the blade stays sharp for a long time, hagane knives do chip when they encounter hard fish bones.
    Japanese craftsmen also make a difference between White and Blue steel. White steel knives have the highest carbon content and thus remain sharp the longest (and get sharpened easily), but rust and chip easily. Blue steel is a high-carbon steel with an addition of chrome, tungsten, molybdenum, or vanadium to the alloy. These metals make the metal less prone to corrosion and give it amazing edge retention, though they also make the blades harder to sharpen.
A "Made in Japan" white steel knife
A white steel knife blade

Handle – Find the Perfect Balance

The handle plays a large part in your overall cutting experience. The handle will determine how comfortably the knife sits in your hand, and how much precision and pressure you can put into your cuts, slices, and dices.

Japanese knives come with either Western style or traditional Japanese handles.

  • Western-style handles probably feel familiar. The angular, ergonomic shape is suitable for both right and left-handed users. The handle is sturdy and heavy, and the metal typically passes all the way through the handle. In addition, Western-style handles sometimes have rivets that add to the weight.
A Japanese cooking knife with a Western-style handle and a Japanese-style blade
A cooking knife with a Western-style handle and a Japanese-style blade

  • Traditional Japanese handles are always made of wood.
    They’re typically cylindrical or octagonal. A D-shaped handle (shinogi handle) is also common – it’s a round handle with a flat side that makes it sit in your right hand perfectly (yet gives headaches to most lefties).
    Compared to western-style handles, the lighter Japanese handle makes the balance different and enhances agility. Traditional Japanese handles are very light since they lack rivets and the metal material of the knife only goes partway into the handle. That makes Japanese knives a bit front-heavy (as the blade weighs more than the handle), but once you get used to this new balance, chances are you won’t want to go back.
A Japanese knife handle is made of light wood
Japanese Cylindrical Knife Handle

Japanese Cooking Knife Brands

Many Japanese kitchen knife manufacturers continued following the ways of sword and knife masters of yore. They take the traditional approach to knife-making, paying meticulous attention to detail and hand-crafting most or all parts of their knives in-house. While those aren’t the most affordable, each of those knives is a handcrafted work of art, which will grace your kitchen for decades to come.
While not all brands make equally good models, Japanese cooking knives are top-quality knives and you won’t go wrong with any well-known brand. Since many of these companies remain family businesses, there’s plenty of choice out there. Here are some big Japanese knife brand names to get you started:

  • Seki Kanetsugu – famous for their heavy-weight, super durable knives with blades that can withstand almost anything. They offer a variety of individual knives and entire sets to choose from.
  • Misono – Used by many professional chefs in Japan, Misono knives are an exclusive, premium choice. That’s because the 50-worker factory only produces about 150,000 units a year. They focus on Western-style knives with uniquely Japanese design and manufacturing.
  • MAC Knives – MAC knives are loved by professionals and amateurs around the world. This brand makes their knives with a unique Straight-Cutting MAC Edge, a hybrid between the single and double bevel. MAC knives rock a somewhat off-center double-beveled edge, which makes their knives super versatile and suitable for both thin slicing and straight cuts.
  • Other notable brands include Shun, Sakai Takayuki, Kiya, Masahiro, Kanetsune, Masamoto, Miyabi, Iseya, and more.

Maintenance and Use Tips for Japanese Cooking Knives

  • Japanese cooking knives are typically made of high-carbon steel which is prone to corrosion. Always wipe your knives dry after washing.
  • Don’t wash Japanese cooking knives in a dishwasher.
  • If you want to use your knife to slide your chopped food off the cutting board, make sure you use the spine of the knife, not the blade.

Honing vs. Sharpening

  • Honing should be done frequently – its purpose is to re-align the blade’s edge, and it’s done with a honing steel.  Never use honing steel on a single-beveled blade (kataba). Very gentle stainless steel or ideally ceramic honing steels are recommended for your double-beveled knives.
  • Sharpening grinds off small amounts of the metal from the blade to make it sharper. Don’t use standard pull-through sharpening machines for your Japanese blades since they can cause damage. Learn how to use a sharpening stone (whetstone) instead – it’ll keep your Japanese blades in mint condition.
A whetstone is the right tool to sharpen your single-beveled Japanese cooking knives
Sharpening a knife with a whetstone

それじゃ!

That’s it – all you need to know to choose the perfect Japanese cooking knife for your kitchen. Your new knife will enhance your cooking experience and bring your food prep to a brand new level.
I hope I helped you find that perfect knife with my buyer’s guide. If you have something to add, share, or ask, feel free to do so in the comment section below!

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