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Japanese Kitchen Knives Buying Guide

Japanese made kitchen knives or hocho are the finest knives you can buy. The cutting edges are made from much harder steel than European kitchen knives allowing the blades to be thinner and lighter, take a more acute bevel angle and, ultimately, be much sharper. A sharp knife is far safer to use than a dull one as it does not require any force from the user when cutting; it should cut under its own weight alone.

Japanese made knives are favoured amongst chefs worldwide because the fine, sharp blades cut, chop and slice without tearing, crushing or damaging the food. The impact on the final dish is two-fold. The presentation of the food is far neater, something incredibly important in Japanese culture and the food retains more of its flavour as fewer of the oils and juices are squeezed out and lost in preparation.

Anatomy of a Japanese Kitchen Knife

Anatomy of a Japanese Kitchen Knife

Any type of knife can be divided into two sections; the blade and the handle. How these two work together greatly affects how the knife performs. The handle should be well sized to fit comfortably in the users hand and the blade should feel secure when used. Most importantly, the knife should be perfectly balanced to avoid user fatigue and to give fine, consistent cuts.

There are many different shapes of blade designed to fulfil the various tasks the knives are expected to perform from the long tapering shape of the sashimi blade for filleting and carving to the broad, curved shape of the general purpose santoku knife. Every blade, despite its shape, has the same recognisable features. The top of the blade is known as the spine and on premium quality knives should be the thickest part of the blade. Opposite to this at the bottom of the blade is the edge and this is the sharpened part of the blade. The point is the very sharp apex of the knife where the spine and the edge meet and this is often used for piercing. The edge of the knife just behind the point is known as the tip and the other end of the edge next to the handle is called the heel. The edge of the knife may be convex allowing it to be used with a rocking motion, or it may be straight meaning it should be used with a slicing motion.

Between the blade and the handle and usually forged as part of the blade is the bolster. The bolster is a common feature on European and American style kitchen knives and adds extra weight improving the balance of the knife in use. Traditional style Japanese knives do not have this bolster as the overall design of the knives is balanced without requiring the additional weight.

Running along the inside of the handle is the tang. This is a section of metal that starts where the blade stops and is forged with the blade in one piece. This can either run along the entire length of the handle and is referred to as a full length tang or it can run only part of the way along the handle. Knives with full length tangs tend to feature wooden cheeks or scales rivetted to either side of the tang to form the handle. Knives with shorter tangs have single piece solid or laminated wooden handles with the tang either fixed with rivets or, in the case of the traditional style knives, with a buffalo horn ferrule. The very end of the knife handle is called the butt. ©

Types of Japanese Kitchen Knifes

Santoku

The Santoku is a general purpose knife and can be used to prepare and cut meat, fish and vegetables. Santoku translates roughly as the three virtues representing the three main cutting functions of mincing, dicing and slicing this knife is usually used for. The spine of the blade curves down towards the relatively straight cutting edge meaning the point is virtually in line with the rest of the edge. For reference, this blade shape is very close to that of a French style chef's knife. ©

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Gyuto

Equivalent to a traditional Chef's knife in European and American culture, the gyuto is an excellent all purpose knife. Gyuto translates approximately as "cow blade" illustrating its recent origins in preparing raw meat as well as fish. The gently curved edge with increasing curvature towards the point allows the knife to be used with a rocking motion and makes it a good choice for fruit and vegetable preparation. ©

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Sashimi

Getting its name from the Japanese delicacy of raw fish that it is used to prepare, the sashimi knife is designed for use in the extensive preparation of raw fish from filleting to portioning and slicing. Traditionally, this knife is bevelled on one side only which gives the knife an exceptionally fine, sharp edge and a flat back for better support when cutting. This back is often hollow ground to assist the knife's passage through the raw fish. Due to the shape of the blade these knives are sometimes referred to as "Yanagi", which translates as willow leaf. Sashimi knives have long tapering blades with straight edges that curve only along the tip to the point and are best used cutting with a pull stroke. A useful addition to any collection of knives, the sashimi makes an excellent carving knife for cooked meats such as ham. ©

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Usuba

Although at first glance the usuba looks like a standard meat cleaver, in reality nothing could be further from the truth. Usuba, translated literally, means thin knife and it is its exceptionally thin blade that makes it perfect for use in the preparation of vegetables and fruit. Whereas thicker blades with large bevels would easily break and split tough or firm vegetables and fruit, the usuba's thin blade with very acute bevel gives perfect slices without damage; ideal for use when appearance of the prepared food is important. Not only suitable for hard fruit and vegetables, the usuba is capable of slicing soft fruits such as over ripe tomatoes without squashing or crushing. ©

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Deba

The deba is used in the cleaning and preparation of fish. Named according to its shape, deba means pointed knife due to its sharp point formed by the meeting of the curved tip and the curved spine. Single bevelled, the deba has a flat back face which makes it more efficient when filleting. The blade is considerably thicker than that of other Japanese kitchen knives and the bevel on the blade is more obtuse. This gives the knife the strength to chop through the larger bones encountered when beheading fish. The curved cutting edge makes it ideal for mincing and can also be used in the preparation of meat and chicken. Not suitable for use on chicken and larger bones as these may damage the cutting edge of the knife. ©

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Features to Consider When Buying a Japanese Kitchen Knife

Features to Consider When Buying a Japanese Kitchen Knife

1. Type of Steel

The type of steel a blade is made from is an important consideration when choosing a knife. Each type of steel has its own unique properties that have a direct effect on the performance of the knife. The steels used within the range of knives we offer are all favoured for their fine grain structure and ability to harden way beyond the hardness of a European or American manufactured steel. The finer structure and greater hardness means that the blades can take on a far sharper edge with a finer bevel angle both of which improves cutting performance.

The steels used within the kitchen knife range fall into two distinct categories; stainless steel and those steels that are not. VG-10 stainless steel is a Japanese formulated and manufactured premium quality cutlery grade high carbon steel that has a fine microstructure and is much harder than standard stainless steels. Ideal for producing very thin blades with acute bevel angles, VG-10 will take an exceptionally sharp edge. The non-rust proof steels used are white and blue paper steel. White paper steel is high carbon steel in its very purest form and will take the finest, sharpest edge of any steel. However, white paper steel will damage relatively easily if not handled correctly as it will not stand up to abuse. Blue paper steel is a high carbon steel that is alloyed with chromium and tungsten making it tougher and more durable than white paper steel although not as hard but still capable of taking an exceptionally sharp edge. ©

2. Layers

Japanese knives are made from layers of steel. Depending on the local traditions and culture of the manufacturing blacksmith, these layers can number anywhere between 2 and 33 and is influenced by the types of steel used and also whether the knife will be single or double bevelled. Regardless of number of layers, the blades all have a similar composition of exceptionally hard steel such as white paper steel or VG10 stainless steel for the core, which forms the cutting edge of the knife surrounded by layers of a softer, tougher steel that gives support to the hard steel core. This composition gives the knives the perfect combination of immense sharpness and greater durability. Blades made up of many layers of steel are usually forged and ground to expose the multiple layers of steel giving the highly attractive suminagashi or damascus steel patterns. ©

3. Handle

Handle shape has an immense bearing on how the knife performs. A knife that feels uncomfortable to hold will, ultimately, give a poor performance regardless of the quality and sharpness of the blade. When selecting knives, it is important to look at the shape of the handle as well as considering the size of the handle. Handles that are too big or too small for your hands will cause discomfort and may make the knife difficult to control. ©

4. Usage

Consider how the knives are going to be used before buying. If you are looking for a knife for a specific purpose such as for the filleting and preparation of fish then your selection process should be straightforward. If you are looking for something more general purpose then there are many details to consider before making your choice.

Many knives can be used for more than one task and their ability to perform those tasks are greatly influenced by the shape and size of the blade. A blade with a curved edge is generally used to cut with a rocking motion; useful when chopping or slicing vegetables. A straight edged blade is used to cut with a pull or push stroke and is better at producing thin slices of raw fish and raw and cooked meats. Smaller, shorter blades are useful when working with small food items and are also easy to control when trimming. Longer blades are used when preparing large pieces of meat or fish. ©

Tips From the Experts

1. Only use wood, bamboo or plastic chopping boards with your knives. Glass, ceramic, granite and marble boards are extremely hard and will cause damage to sharp knife edges, blunting them very quickly and reducing the working life of the blades. ©

Chopping Board

2. When chopping or slicing, it is important to keep the finger tips of the hand holding the food away from the blade edge. By curling the fingers around so that the food is held with either the finger tips or first knuckles, you are much less likely to sustain injury. This holding technique has added benefits as the first or second knuckle, depending on how you choose to grip the food, can be used as a guide to keep the blade in line during cutting for fine, consistent results. ©

Chopping

3. Always use the correct knife for the job. Preparing large pieces of meat or fish require a much larger blade than is required for fine trimming and paring work. By matching the blade to the size and nature of the task, you will find you work much faster and more efficiently. ©

Brands

Sandalwood Hocho

These knives are made by a fourth generation blacksmith whose family has been noted for their fine quality blades for well over a century. Apprenticed to a master knife maker in Tafeku, the manufacturing blacksmith is now a highly respected knife maker in his own right. Each blade he forges bears his signature and is made from 32 layers of steel with a VG10 gold steel cutting edge.

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Ironwood Hocho

Each blade in this knife range is laminated from 32 layers of steel and as it is forged, the different layers emerge to give a marbled effect which is known as suminagashi. The cutting edge of the blade is VG10 gold steel hardened to Rc-60 which not only hones to an incredibly sharp edge, but is also rust proof. Each knife has a laminated exotic hardwood handle and is hand engraved with the makerís name.

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Black Hocho

Black hocho are hand forged by a third generation master blacksmith. For over 70 years, his family have been producing high quality tools with skills passed down through the generations. The knives produced feature 32 layers of steel with a core of VG10 gold steel. Due to the hardness of the steel, these knives take an exceptionally sharp edge. Each blade is engraved with the makerís name and is mounted in a black, laminated wooden handle.

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Traditional Hocho

These have to be the epitome of traditional Japanese kitchen knives. Made using traditional hand forging processes from only two layers of steel, the cutting edge is white paper steel which is a very pure carbon steel that is not only exceptionally hard but also has a very fine structure to it. This structure allows it to be sharpened to a razor sharp edge. Over the top a softer steel gives support to the super hard cutting edge. Traditionally, knives were bevelled on one side only for either left or right handed use and this range is no exception. Each knife is engraved with the name of the master blacksmith who created it and features a magnolia wood handle and horn ferrule.

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Chef's Hocho

These knives are made by a fourth generation blacksmith whose family has been noted for their fine quality blades for well over a century. Apprenticed to a master knife maker in Tafeku, the manufacturing blacksmith is now a highly respected knife maker in his own right. Each blade he forges is hand engraved with his signature. These knives have a solid magnolia wood handle and horn ferrule.

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Sharpening & Maintenance

Sharpening

Always sharpen your knives the moment you notice a drop in the cutting performance of the blade. This will ensure the knives are kept in the best possible condition, prolonging their working life considerably and reducing the time required to sharpen them. ©

Never attempt to sharpen your Japanese kitchen knife with a steel. Japanese knives have much harder blades than those of European and American made kitchen knives and the steel will have little or no effect on your knife. ©

The best way to sharpen a kitchen knife is with a Japanese waterstone. If the blade is damaged, start with a coarse waterstone to remove any chips or nicks otherwise start with a medium grade waterstone and progress to a honing waterstone ©. View our Range of Japanese Combination Waterstones

It is important to maintain the bevel angle of the blade and ensure it is consistent across the entire length of the edge. Japanese kitchen knives with their harder steel can hold a more acute bevel angle than the European and American made knives which are produced from softer steel. Get a feel for the bevel against the stone before attempting to sharpen. ©

Maintenance

Japanese kitchen knives should be washed by hand, never in a dishwasher. The combination of high temperatures, prolonged contact with moisture and harsh detergents in the dishwasher environment will cause damage to wooden handles and cause non rust proof blades to corrode. There is also the risk of the knives moving around in the dishwasher and contacting other items that may chip or otherwise damage the delicate blades. ©

Store your kitchen knives in a wooden or bamboo knife block. Using a knife block offers greater protection to the sharp blades and keeps the knives to hand when you need them. Never store sharp blades in a cutlery drawer without protecting them adequately. Not only will this reduce the life of sharp edges, it could also cause injury to anyone reaching into the drawer. © View our Range of Japanese Kitchen Knife Blocks

When cleaning non rust proof blades, always ensure the knife is completely dry before putting away. We recommend that you give the blade a light coating of non-flavoured food grade oil such as sunflower oil to further protect the blade from rusting in the high humidity of the kitchen environment. ©