Japanese knives are globally known for their excellent craftsmanship and a high degree of sharpness. They also bear distinct qualities and a different knife-making philosophy, especially when pitted against the other distinct knife-making culture in Germany. Finding the best Japanese knives for your kitchen requires you to understand a couple of things about them, and this article will help you do that.
History of Japanese knives
Considering how knife making has become such a critical part of Japanese culture and tradition, it is a surprise that in the beginning, steel craftsmanship was dominated by the katana sword. Indeed, the history of Japanese knives follows much of its political and trade influences.
During the Sengoku Jidai period (1467-1568), there was a lot of infighting and turmoil in Japan, and trade was also opened to the rest of the world, especially China. As such, the demand for making swords, especially the Katana, was high, and it gave the craftsmen an opportunity to hone their steel handling skills.
Later in the 16th century, trade with the Portuguese saw the introduction of tobacco in Japan. When the Japanese started growing their crops, there was a demand for extremely sharp Japanese knives that could cut the fresh leaves and shred the dried produce in fine pieces. This demand created a new specialization in crafting tools from steel.
Finally, in the 19th century, with the abolishment of the feudal system, which abolished the golden age of the samurai warrior, the demand for swords waned. It particularly came to an end with the 1876 edict that abolished the carrying of swords in public. The metal craftsmen had to find a new tool to make on a large scale, and this so the shift from mass production of katana blades to Japanese kitchen knives.
A strong feature in the history of Japanese knives is how the tradition developed in different regions. Some of these regions retained their steel craft-making skills to the modern times, and they include;
Sakai is the biggest knife making in the region, and it traces its practice back to the fifth century during the construction of Emperor Nintoku's tomb. It was a large-scale project that led to many blacksmiths moving to the city and settling there permanently.
They refined their skills, especially with the dwindling popularity of swords, and moved into knife making. At one time, the government gave a decree that only knives from the region could be used to harvest tobacco due to their quality. The region has maintained its reputation for producing the finest cutlery.
Seki city grew as a favorite location for blacksmiths because of its abundance of vital raw materials, clay, coal, and plenty of rivers for water. It is also one of the first locations where the technique of blending variations of steel in proportions to create a strong composite meal began.
The blacksmith culture in the region, which is located on Kyushu Island, came from a craftsman who had traveled from Kyoto 700 years ago. It became a center for producing agricultural tools. In recent history, it became famous for its Echizen lacquer which allows it to make some of the most beautiful knives handles in the world.
The region is located on the southern side of Kyushu Island. It is known for its remote geography, which isolated the region, allowing it to develop a unique culture that extends to its knife-making tradition. Their Japanese knives are known for their kurouchi style, where the final blade is left unpolished, giving it a rustic and dark finish.
Japanese knife Steels
The quality of the steel determines the durability and sharpness of the knife. The best Japanese knives come from high-quality steel. If you are looking for the best Japanese knife set, it is likely made from two kinds of steel; high carbon steels and stainless (corrosion resistant) steels. Here is a review of the different kinds of Japanese knife steels.
High carbon steels
A Japanese chef will prefer high carbon steels because their high carbon content allows them to be forged to a high hardness with an HRC rating of 60+ yet still be easy to sharpen. The knives, however, require constant maintenance to prevent corrosion and rust. There are two kinds of high carbon steel used to make the best Japanese knives;
It is the form of steel closest to traditional Japanese tamahagane steel. It has high carbon content with little phosphorus and sulphate impurities. White steel makes knives with one of the best edges though it rusts easily without extra care. They are two types of white steel.
- White steel 1: it has the highest amount of carbon which gives it the hardest and sharpest edge. It has an HRC of 65+
- White steel 2: it has a similar composition to white steel one but has lesser carbon which gives it mild hardness. It is the most common type of white steel used and has an HRC rating of 60 to 61.
You get blue steel by adding tungsten and chrome to refined white steel. The added ingredients give the steel added durability and slightly better protection against corrosion and rust. Blue steel is used to make high-end Japanese knives, and it has three kinds.
- Blue steel 1: it has the best edge in terms of sharpness degree and comes with an HRC rating of 65.
- Blue steel 2: it has similar qualities to the blue steel one but has a low hardness degree, usually 62 -64HRC
- Blue steel super or Aogami Super: it has molybdenum and vanadium on top of the usual blue steel. The added ingredients allow it to hold its sharp edge for a long time and it can be sharpened to maximum thinness if you want a super sharp knife.
To increase steel's resistance to rust and corrosion, you add chromium which forms a protective shield on the surface of the steel. If the levels of chromium are 12 % or more, the steel is known as stainless steel. Some of the best kinds of stainless steel that are used on Japanese knives include;
It is also known as V Gold 10 and contains cobalt which is unique to this kind of steel. It is a tough kind of steel and gives the knives great edge retention ability, and is easy to sharpen. Any chef will enjoy a VG10 kitchen knife as it is a hardy knife and still maintains its sharp edge even after lengthy cutting or tough food items. It has an HRC of 60 to 62.
It is was the predecessor to the VG10 steel, and it contains similar properties of being resistant to wear, rust, and distortion. It, however, lacks cobalt content, which makes it less hard than VG10 steel with an HRC rating of 58.
Manufacturers make R2/SG2 steel form a high carbon high alloy content which they first powderize into fine-grain before sintering it back together. The result is a highly consistent steel grain structure which makes the knife highly durable and resistant to rust. It is also easy to sharpen.
AUS10 and AUS8
These steels offer the best of everything when used to make knives. They are resistant to rust and corrosion, highly durable, easy to sharpen, and affordably priced. Although they are both generally excellent, the AUS10 has better qualities than the AUS8 as it has a sharper edge and retains its edge for longer.
Silver-3 steel or Ginsan-ko
It is made from pure fine-grain components and has a high carbon content. Its high carbon content and other ingredients give it similarity in performance to blue steels, only that this contains chromium. You thus get the cutting performance and ease of sharpening of carbon steels and the corrosion resistance of stainless steel.
This is another form of powdered stainless steel and has a high carbon and chromium content. It has high hardness with an HRC of 66-67. The steel gives the knives excellent corrosion resistance qualities, and it is also super sharp. The blades usually have great functionality though it is hard to sharpen due to the high hardness.
Japanese knife types and uses
There are many types of Japanese knives with varying uses, but often they parallel western knives. Japanese knives are also inspired by their kitchen cuisine. Below is a brief review of the different types of Japanese kitchen knives and their uses.
The Gyuto is the Japanese equivalent of the Chef’s knife. It is an all-purpose knife doing just about everything. The Japanese chef knife is thinner and lighter than a comparative European knife. It has a minimalist design, too, with no obstruction on the edge of the blade next to the handle, so you can also sharpen this end. The knife is made from harder steel and has an excellent edge retention ability.
The Santoku is another multipurpose knife, and its name conveys. Translates, Santoku means three virtues refer to its use for cutting meat, fish, and vegetables. It has a taller blade profile than the Gyotu, but its belly is flatter, meaning you can use it in an up and down chopping style instead of the rocking motion.
The sujihiki is a precise slicing knife. It has a similar general role to the European slicing knife, but its thinner and hard steel give it better edge retention. Further, you sharpen it at a steeper angle which enhances its precision. You can use it for carving, filleting, and other general slicing roles.
Petty is a Japanese word with French origins, a knife that serves as a paring knife. The putty knife can also work as a utility knife. It is an excellent tool for delicate work that calls for greater dexterity, whether it is peeling fruits, vegetables, de-coring mango, or trimming fat and silver skin from meats.
It is the equivalent of the boning, but it is quite different from its western counterpart. For example, it has a very stiff blade with very little flexibility. The blade has a triangular shape, and it often has an asymmetrical edge. Its features make it excellent for cutting through soft meat joints and deboning poultry. It can also be used as a utility knife.
The pankiri is a Japanese bread knife, and it can also cut through other baked foodstuffs. It comes with ridged teeth that allow it to cut through hard crusts and other delicate items without smashing the food.
The Nakiri is a vegetable knife that takes on the western double-edge style. The straight blade allows it to make all the precision vegetable cuts like julienne and allumette. It is also excellent when cutting through hard-skinned farm produce like pumpkins and squash.
The Yanagi is a specialist traditional Japanese knife that is used to get precise cuts of sushi, Crudo, and sashimi. For this function, they are single-edged, which makes them very sharp, and their long length permits the long drawing motion
Difference between Japanese and Western Knives
Japanese knives are different from western knives in four main ways.
First, western knives feature a curved design along the edge while having medium to high tips. This design allows for a rocking motion and allows you to apply pressure to specific parts of the blade. Japanese knives have low tips for a chopping motion.
Thickness and weight
Japanese knives tend to be thinner and lightweight, which makes them sharper and able to retain their edge for longer. It also makes them susceptible to chipping. The western knives are thicker and thus heavier, meaning you need to sharpen them for longer, but they are more durable.
Type of steel used.
Japanese knives tend to use harder steel, making them hold their edge for longer and can be thin, allowing for a sharper edge. On the other hand, Western knives use softer steel requiring more material, and that is what males thicker but more robust.
Traditionally, most Japanese knives had the same approach as their swords, with only one cutting edge. However, several Japanese blades feature double edges, often in a 70/30 balance to allow for steep angles.
There is plenty of Japanese tradition in their knife-making art. A good research helps you find the best Japanese kitchen knife. You also need to find a good marketplace where you can pick a range of knives from material to design. At House of Knives, we offer you all these and an excellent shopping experience. Visit us today and pick up the best Japanese kitchen knife set.