Choosing a kitchen knife
There’s a huge amount of variety when it comes to Japanese kitchen knives and selecting a blade can be quite daunting, especially to the first-time buyer. This is our basic guide to help you in finding the right knife.
- What shape should I start with?
- Which brand should I go for
- Carbon steel, stainless or powdered steel?
- Single layer or laminated/Damascus
- Double bevel or single bevel?
What shape should I start with
The most important knife to start any set is a multi-purpose knife as it will be the knife you use the majority of the time, ideally between 165mm and 210mm to begin with. You can use these shapes to cut a huge variety of different ingredients making them extremely versatile.
- Santoku’s and Bunka knives are favoured by home cooks as the blade is more compact making them easier to wield.
- The 210mm Gyuto is the best starting point for the professional or serious cook, the longer blade is better suited to cutting larger vegetables and efficiently portioning meat and fish.
Once you have a multi-purpose blade, a petty or paring knife should be next on your list. Petty knives/paring knives are perfect for tackling smaller ingredients and are indispensable for off board work.
- Petty knives between 120mm and 210mm are great for slicing and dicing small ingredients, filleting small fish and light butchery tasks. These blades are extremely versatile and are often used by chefs during service as the compact size takes up minimal space on the board.
- Paring knives around 80/90mm are also used for cutting small ingredients, they are particularly useful for off board work when cleaning and shaping vegetables.
Once you have a multi-purpose knife and a petty you can start to expand your collection based on the ingredients you cut most frequently, by building up a set like this you will tailor it to your own demands and ensure your tools are practical.
It’s well worth having a cheap, heavy duty western knife amongst your set for rough work. When making stocks and sauces and tackling shellfish its best to have a knife that’s made of softer steel that can take a bit more punishment, this way you can efficiently tackle the job without worrying about damaging your knife in the process!
What Brand should I go for?
The design, weight, fit and finish, steel type, sharpness and performance will vary from maker to maker. Some craftsman produce several different series using the same steel, however the performance characteristics and feel can be dramatically different. We highly recommend coming in to the store or contacting us if you are uncertain so we can help steer you in the right direction.
Carbon steel/stainless/powdered steel?
Carbon steel due to its minimal alloying is dramatically easier to sharpen than stainless and powdered steel cutlery; high levels of Chromium and other carbide forming elements found in stainless steels tend to clog up whetstones quickly during sharpening, sometimes they may require special ceramic stones to cut them efficiently. The fine micro-structure of a properly heat-treated carbon steel knife will be capable of the very highest levels of sharpness whilst maintaining good edge retention, this is generally why top level single sided knives are made predominantly using this steel type. The main trade off is that carbon steel will oxidise, with some being more prone to discolouration than others.
- Kurouchi knives have the firescale from the forging left on the top of the blade, this will not discolour as easily as the ground area making them easier to maintain.
- Some makers produce stainless clad knives with a carbon core, giving you the best of both steel types.
- Wiping a drying these knives after cutting is essential. A light coat of Tsubaki oil before storing them will help prevent them from rusting
The quality of stainless steels used in Japanese cutlery has improved dramatically over the past few years, there are now many high performance stainless steels available with marked improvements in their microstructures and resharpenability. The carbide forming elements used in these steels can often greatly improve edge retention and the high chromium contents makes them highly corrosion resistant.
- Stainless means exactly that, stain-less, not stain-proof. If you don’t clean and dry your knives properly they can still potentially discolour
Powdered steel/PM/High-speed steels
High carbon tool steels can be put through a special sintering process which drastically refines the micro-structure of the metal increasing toughness, edge retention and hardness potential. These steels have the very best edge retention with some being capable of hardness up to 67 Rockwell!
- This is the hardest metal to sharpen due to the extremely hard carbides present in the steel; we highly recommend buying ceramic stones to tackle their resharpening.
- High hardness means increased brittleness so it’s best to exercise some caution if you’re a first-time buyer.
Single layer or laminated/Damascus
The main advantage of laminated cutlery over the more common single layer construction is that soft cladding is easier to grind than the hard core-material, this means it’s easier to fine tune the edge geometry of your knife or repair the blade if its damaged. Damascus is a way for the craftsman to exercise his creativity producing blades of astonishing beauty; its best not to get hung up on layer counts as it’s not necessarily a performance enhancing feature.
- The ultimate traditional Japanese knife is the Honyaki. This single layer carbon steel blade goes through a process called Tsuchioki where mud is applied to the blade in different thicknesses before heat treatment, this allows the craftsman to produce a knife with an extremely hard cutting edge but with a softer and stronger spine. As a product you can observe a temper line or Hamon on the blade, similar to that found the Japanese sword. It takes an extremely high level of skill to produce knives in this manner and they are by far the most expensive knives on the market.
Double bevel or single bevel?
Double bevel knives are extremely versatile and easy to get to grips with. Single bevel cutlery is specialised for individual cutting tasks in Japanese cuisine making them highly efficient for their intended purpose, however they require more practice for you to tune into them and demand a higher level of sharpening skill to maintain properly.
Selecting a single bevel knife
Most single bevel knives are task specific so choosing the appropriate shape is relatively easy as it will depend on the element of preparation you wish to use it for. Many chefs and enthusiasts can be very particular about the steel which their knife is made from, this is obviously an important factor in the quality of the knife however the quality of the grind and heat treatment are factors which are often overlooked especially when buying a knife online.
If a knife is poorly ground or the heat treatment is not to a high standard then the knife generally will inspire more frustration than anything else, a badly ground knife is extremely difficult to reshape especially with hand tools and its quality is hard to determine by examining a photo online as the finishing processes can often conceal it. All the single bevel knives KATABA sells are from established factories with many years of experience, they are often more expensive than other models available from other retailers however the high standards of our suppliers leads to tools fit for the most demanding professional kitchen. A well made single bevel knife should last for many years if properly cared for.
Most Japanese craftsmen have their own preference of materials when forging cutlery, the method and skill of the knife maker is more important than the materials so buying a knife from an established workshop should be a priority over buying a knife made from a certain steel type.
Common steels used and their characteristics:
Kigami: A straight carbon steel very similar to shirogami but not as pure. When heat treated properly its capable of taking a very fine edge and holding it well.
Shirogami 1,2,3: The purest commercial straight carbon steels used in Japan and an excellent material for sushi knives. The number refers to the carbon content in the steel with number 1 being the highest and the most expensive. Water quenched knives tend to be harder than oil quenched knives so in theory a knife made of shirogami number 3 could be harder than shirogami 1 depending on heat treatment.
Aogami 1 and 2: Aogami 1/2 are identical to shirogami 1/2 only they have added tungsten, chrome and manganese. This additional alloying tends to give knives made from aogami better edge retention and a little better corrosion resistance but they can be more challenging to sharpen and sometimes more brittle.
Aogami Super: Higher carbon than Aogami 1 with added molybdenum and vanadium. Aogami super has excellent edge retention but is often more challenging to sharpen and more brittle.
Ginsan: This is a minimally alloyed stainless steel than is capable of taking a fine edge and holding it well.
Please feel free to drop into the store or contact us if you need assistance
Telephone: 0207 836 5553