Did you ever wonder why Japanese knives are the best? Well, they have been making Samurai swords for centuries, and with more than 600 years’ experience of sword and knife-making, they’ve had plenty of time to perfect their craft.
Nothing beats a well-balanced, really sharp knife in the kitchen, and Japanese knives will fit the bill, with many different shapes and sizes available with traditional names that are widely recognised by those who have an interest in cooking or are cooking professionally.
The main differences that make Japanese knives better than their French and German counterparts are the weight and the steel used. Generally, Japanese knives feel lighter and have a higher carbon content, which makes the steel harder, thinner and able to hold an edge, feel more balanced in the hand, and are perfect for the precision tasks chefs do every day. Japanese knives are designed with a specific task in mind - the right knife for the right job. Weird fact, some Japanese knives are designed for a right-handed person, so ‘lefties’ might have a problem (although, to be fair, I think you can probably special order a left-handed handle). But even if the handle is neutral, the blades of some specialty Japanese knives are ‘single bevel’, meaning sharpened only on one side. Typically, because most people cut from the right side, the left side of the blade is flat while the right side is sharpened at a fairly steep angle.
Now some technical stuff – whether it is a precision Japanese knife or one from your bargain store - your humble knife has 10 distinct parts, and each part has a name and a purpose. Starting from the handle, it has a butt (that’s at the end), a tang (the bit inside the handle), handle fasteners (the rivets which fix the handle on the knife), a scale (the actual handle), a bolster (the start of the blade where it comes out of the handle), a spine (the non-sharp length of the knife), a heel (the start of the blade at the handle end), a point (the absolute end of the blade), a tip (the first few inches down from the point of the blade), and an edge (the rest of the main cutting edge).
There are many different types of steel for the blades of knives - steel, stainless steel, molybdenum vanadium stainless steel, Damascus steel, 3 Ply - with the ultimate being VG-10, the name standing for V Gold 10, literally meaning ‘gold quality’. It is cutlery steel containing 1% Carbon, 15% Chromium, 1% Molybdenum, 0,2% Vanadium, 1.5% Cobalt and 0.5% Manganese, and this is considered the ultimate steel for kitchen knives..
There is a chart for measuring the hardness of the material, and hardness for knife ratings follow the Rockwell C scale, and you will see this on the specs of some knives. The higher the number on the RC scale, the harder the steel is, and the lower the RC scale number is, the softer. Typically knives range from the mid 40’s to the low 60’s depending on the material used in the blade and the manufacturing method. Harder blades ultimately can hold a sharper edge, and Japanese knives are typically 55-62 on the Rockwell scale, and are far harder than their European counterparts, meaning they are sharper and will hold their edges for much longer.
Good quality Japanese knives should be washed by hand with mild soapy detergent immediately after use and dried with a towel. Never use a dishwasher, as this changes the chemistry of the material, and the harsh salts, extreme temperatures and movement of items in the dishwasher combine to be quite destructive on high end knives, and may nullify any manufacturers’ guarantees.
If you’re in the market for some good knives, like any product, there will inevitably be different degrees of quality, even among the various Japanese manufacturers. Do your research, and work with those who guarantee their merchandise. However, it’s generally a safe bet that an investment in equipment made with Japanese steel will be worth the added expense, but mind your fingers!