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Knives are the backbone of a kitchen arsenal. If you are cooking anything at home, you must have a reliable blade to slice and dice ingredients. There are two styles to choose from; Western knives are predominantly made in Germany and France, or Japanese knives, which are made in Japan. Western-style knives are known for their durability and heft, but Japanese knives are lauded for their razor-sharp edges, nimble precision, and lightweight handling. Japanese artisans have been perfecting blades for hundreds of years, back to the time of samurais, wielders of deadly-sharp swords.
But, the landscape of Japanese knives can be confusing—should you start with a nakiri or maybe a santoku, should you look for a single or double bevel, can you sharpen at home, are all questions for consideration as you shop. "A knife set starts with a great gyuto (chef's knife) 210-240mm are the perfect home sizes, or a santoku if you want something a bit smaller," says Kevin Kent, founder of Knifewear and author of "The Knifenerd Guide to Japanese Knives." "After that add a smaller blade for small jobs, a boning knife for butchery, a nakiri for vegetable prep, a bread knife, and a sujihiki (meat slicer) for carving that Sunday roast."
Japanese knives can be strong allies in the kitchen as you make sushi at home, chop through mounds of herbs, and debone whole poultry—they hold their edge, feel comfortable in hands of any size, and provide balanced precise cuts. From stunning Damascus-patterned gyuto knives that slice through steak like butter, to sets that include all the blades for a working kitchen, these are the best Japanese knives.
Best Overall: Miyabi Birchwood SG2 8-Inch Chef's Knife
What We Love: Razor-sharp, durable edge retention, attractive handle
What We Don't Love: Pricey
If you need just one kind of kitchen knife, you should go for a gyuto. The gyuto, or chef's knife, is probably the first type of knife purchased by most cooks, and stainless steel is easier to find (and easier on the wallet). "Look for an easy-to-care-for stainless steel knife," says Kent. "Many traditional Japanese knives are made with carbon steel (which stays sharp longer and is easier to keep sharp but can rust), but for ease look for a stainless steel knife."
The Miyabi is not only stunning with its Karelian birch handle intricately stamped with mosaic pin and engraved endcap, but it is also scalpel-sharp. Miyabi blades are finished using traditional Japanese Honbazuke honing, blades are sharpened and polished by hand in three stages to ensure maximum sharpness.
The blade is crafted with 101 layers of steel layered on top of a MicroCarbide steel core yielding a hard surface that will retain edge for a long time. And, the blade is pretty as the hammered Damascus pattern lends a delicate elegance to the ergonomically-designed kitchen workhorse.
Blade Length: 8 inches | Blade Material: Stainless steel | Type of Knife: Gyuto
Best Budget: Mac Knife Series 8-Inch Hollow Edge Chef's Knife
What We Love: Durable, good for righties and lefties, affordable, three size options
What We Don't Love: Too lightweight for some tasks
If you are looking for an affordable Japanese knife that works for both right and left-handed users, check out Mac Knife. The Mac Hollow Edge Chef is crafted from high-carbon steel by Japanese artisans in Seki City, Japan. The blades are rust-resistant, hand-ground, hand-sharpened, and hand-cooled to create razor-sharp blades that retain their edges for a long time. They are also double-beveled making them easier to sharpen.
The hollow edge affords this knife advantages over non-dimpled models—it reduces the friction when cutting moist ingredients like potatoes, creating a cleaner cut with less food sticking. The handle is comfortable, and the taper of the blade calls to traditional Japanese gyutos. The Mac Knife Hollow Edge Chef is a thin, lightweight, affordable option for those seeking a workhorse Japanese knife.
Blade Length: 8 inches | Blade Material: Molybdenum high-carbon steel | Type of Knife: Gyuto
Best Steak Knives: Shun Classic 4-Piece Steak Knife Set
What We Love: Storage box included, razor-sharp, elegant design
What We Don't Love: Pricey
Like its kitchen counterparts, Shun Classic steak knives are handmade in Seki, Japan, with VG-MAX steel that is proprietary to the company. Known as "super steel," it contains higher levels of tungsten which creates a strong, finer grain with a razor-sharp edge. Slicing through a thick Cowboy steak could not be easier.
This 4-piece set boasts durable black pakkawood handles and blades coated with a 34 micro-layer Damascus wrap that not only renders the knives elegant but resistant to corrosion and staining. Unlike others on this list, the Shun knife set has traditional Japanese straight handles, which add to the modern aesthetic. Not only are they a stylish addition to the dinner table, but they come with a presentation box, making an excellent gift option.
Blade Length: 4.75 inches | Blade Material: VG-MAX steel | Type of Knife: Straight-edge steak set
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Best Santoku: Global G-48 7-Inch Santoku Hollow Ground Knife
What We Love: Good for small hands, well-balanced, comfortable grip
What We Don't Love: No blade cover
If you are a fan of Anthony Bourdain, you know Global. He praised their knives as reliable and attractive in books, travel shows, and documentaries, and remained a loyal fan of the brand throughout his cooking career. I added the Global Santoku to my kitchen collection a couple years ago, and really can’t believe I waited so long. The grip is comfortable in my small hands, and it slices through squash like a beast.
"A santoku is especially good for people with smaller hands, as the shorter length of the blade (usually 165mm) is easier to handle," says Kent. "For people who are less confident with knives, santokus are great for building knife confidence."
The santoku knife is known as a multipurpose blade in the field of Japanese knives. The Global’s stamped blade is crafted from Cromova 18 high-carbon stainless steel which makes it hard enough to retain sharpness after repeated use, but soft enough to sharpen at home with a whetstone. It is also ice-hardened to increase corrosion resistance.
Global departs from fully Japanese craftsmanship by grinding the edges straight on both sides of the blade for sharpness, but then the point is ground to a single bevel rather than traditional double bevels of Western knives. They utilize the best of both styles of knife craftsmanship to deliver a blade that stays sharp for a very long time and provides well-balanced performance.
Blade Length: 7 inches | Blade Material: Molybdenum/Vanadium stainless steel | Type of Knife: Santoku
Best for Vegetables: Yoshihiro VG-10 16 Layer Hammered Damascus Stainless Steel Nakiri Vegetable Knife
What We Love: Razor-sharp blade, real Damascus steel, comfortable handle
What We Don't Love: No blade cover
Yoshihiro may not be a brand that is widely recognized, but they have been crafting knives since the 14th century in Sakai, Japan, utilizing techniques adapted from swordsmiths who created the Samurai Katana. The Yoshihiro Nakiri is forged and hammered with 16 layers of VG-10 stainless steel in the Damascus style. This nakiri is double beveled with a flat edge, allowing the entire blade to make contact with whatever produce you are chopping.
"If you're doing lots of plant-based cooking, look for the rectangular, flat-edged nakiri knife," says Rachael Narins, chef and recipe developer. "It makes slicing vegetables a dream." Though the type of knife may not be familiar, the mahogany-handled stunner is Western-styled with full tang for maximum comfort. It is well-balanced and creates thin cuts with its push-pull motion. And, the hammered texture of the blade surface keeps food from sticking.
Blade Length: 6.5 inches | Blade Material: VG 10 steel/Damascus steel | Type of Knife: Nakiri
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Best Set: Shun Classic 6-Piece Slim Knife Block Set
What We Love: More affordable than buying individually, free sharpening for life, comfortable grip, elegant design, storage included
What We Don't Love: Includes more than you may need
The word shun delineates the moment ingredients are at their flavor peak. This Japanese tradition of eating food at its freshest is the inspiration for Shun Cutlery—the artisans behind the brand produce tools that honor the concept of seasonality and thoughtful eating.
Shun Classic knives are handmade in Seki, Japan, with VG-MAX steel that is proprietary to the company. The blades include more carbon for strength, chromium for corrosion resistance, and tungsten to keep the blade edge fine, but sharp. The handles are crafted from pakkawood that is comfortable to grip. Shun knives are reliable and beautiful.
The set includes a 3.5-inch paring knife, a 6-inch utility knife, an 8-inch chef’s knife, 9-inch honing steel, and kitchen shears. It all comes in an attractive block that has room to grow your collection. The knives in this set are not meant for frozen foods or cutting through bones, but Shun does offer a Western-style cook’s knife that could easily be added to this collection and is wider-angled for tougher jobs.
Blade Length: Assorted | Blade Material: VG-MAX steel | Type of Knife: Block set
With a razor-sharp edge and attractive handle, the Miyabi Birchwood SG2 8-Inch Chef's Knife (view at Amazon) is definitely an investment, but a worthwhile one if you want one Japanese knife to use for years to come. If you're looking for a full knife set, you can't go wrong with the Shun Classic 6-Piece Slim Knife Block Set (view at Williams Sonoma).
What to Look for When Buying Japanese Knives
Gyuto (Chef's Knife): The go-to knife in most kitchens, a gyuto can perform most tasks. Generally, they are lighter, have thinner blades, and higher-degree angle than a Western chef's knife.
Santoku (Multipurpose Knife): This is probably the most familiar type for Western cooks. "Santoku" translates to three virtues or to solve three problems, and aptly can be utilized for multiple purposes like slicing, dicing, and mincing. They are typically more compact than the gyuto and great for people with petite hands. It is ace for smaller, more delicate work.
Nakiri (Vegetable Knife): Translating to "cutting greens," the nakiri is an obvious choice for precise cutting and julienning of vegetables. The flat edge ensures a clean cut with no straggling tomato skin. They are crafted specifically to cut vegetables, and they are really good at their job.
Petty (Paring Knife): The more diminutive sibling of the gyuto, a petty is the right choice when tasks call for a smaller blade, like slicing garlic or hulling strawberry stems.
It can be confusing when shopping for knives and you are confronted with carbon and stainless steel. First, all knives have carbon since it is part of the alloy in stainless, carbon, or otherwise steel blades. Usually, it is designated with the word high, as in "high-carbon stainless steel." Carbon knives are steel knives, but the addition of stainless to the mix aids in longevity. Carbon steel blades maintain sharp edges longer and are heavy-duty, but they can corrode and rust. Adding stainless steel to the mix mitigates the issue of discoloration or rust by virtue of the chromium in the alloy. Chromium also gives blades their silver shine and helps them stay beautiful longer with less upkeep.
Caring for your Japanese blades takes a little more work than their Western counterparts. Hand-washing is the way to go as most blades are ice-hardened and may become brittle or chip when exposed to strong detergents or spray from the dishwasher. It is also really important to dry them right after cleaning. This ensures they won’t pick up rust or water spots. Handles can also crack when exposed to the heat and steam commonly associated with a dishwasher. And you want to keep those knives you invested in beautiful.
A dull knife is a useless knife and Japanese knives require a little extra care in that arena. You can learn to sharpen them at home using whetstones, but you need to understand the higher angle Japanese edge requires. It takes practice. Some brands and retailers include sharpening with purchase, and you should take them up on it. Even if a shop does not offer free sharpening, it is a good investment to keep your knives in working condition.
If you buy a set, storage is not an issue, the block is included.
If individual knives are your path, there are a few options. Some come with sheaths that protect the blade. But, if your knives are destined for a drawer, an organizer might be a good solution so they are not loose. In-drawer organizers come in a variety of materials and sizes, and keep your blades secure.
Magnetic strips you can affix to a wall are a great choice if you have the space. They come in a wide variety of attractive materials for any kitchen design, and the convenience of having them near your prep area cannot be ignored.
How often should you sharpen Japanese knives?
If your knife smushes a tomato, it is a good sign it is time to sharpen, but don’t let it get to that. Regular maintenance ensures your knives will be up to whatever task you have when it presents itself. When to sharpen knives is always dependent on the frequency of use. If you cook daily, you will need sharpening more frequently, maybe every few months. If you are just an occasional cook, you can wait longer, but get them at least sharpened annually.
Are Japanese knives double bladed?
There is a misperception going on that the words "blade" and "bevel" are the same. They are not. The bevel is the surface that has been ground to form the knife's edge. That is where the confusion comes in, edge is part of the blade so a knife can be single-edged or double-edged, but not double-bladed.
Now to get the nitty-gritty of the question, are Japanese knives double-edged/double-beveled. Traditionally, Japanese knives were always crafted as single beveled. If you look closely, you can see only one side of the blade has an edge. This construction allows for a steep taper with a very fine edge, the hallmark of Japanese knives. Single beveled blades are usually task-specific, very precise, and not universal, meaning you have to buy either a left-handed or right-handed model.
Even though traditional Japanese knives are single-beveled, many Japanese knifemakers have dipped into the double-beveled realm of Western knives. Many Shun lines, for example, are double-beveled blades. Double-beveled knives are sharpened and ground on both sides of the blade, and are typically easier to use. The big advantage is they are good for righties or lefties and cut in a straight line rather than at an angle.
Japanese knives stay sharper longer than any other knife you've used because they are made with harder steel, says Kent. Get a ceramic honing rod to keep it sharp longer and either learn to sharpen knives with waterstones or find a shop to do it for you, he adds.
Always wash, dry, and put away your knives, says Narins. And keep them sharp. A sharp knife is a safe knife, she adds.
Why Trust Simply Recipes?
Carrie Honaker is a food writer who has wielded many knives over the years. As a restaurateur and avid home cook, she knows the importance of finding the right knife for your grip and needs. Her Global santoku is prized in her collection for its comfortable handle and sharp edge. Her work has appeared in many publications including Bon Appetit, Allrecipes, and Wine Enthusiast.
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