Japanese knives are known for their unparalleled strength and sharpness compared to other kitchen knives, allowing you to make precise cuts of fish, vegetables, fruit, or sushi rolls. However, Japanese knives come in many shapes, sharpness levels, and sizes, and every type has a specific purpose. We outline the Japanese knife types, the uses for each design, and how to sharpen and care for them. Equipped with the perfect knives, you are well on your way to delighting your guests with perfectly crafted sushi.
One of the most common Japanese knife types is the Santoku knife, a multi-purpose knife perfect for sushi operations. Because of their general-purpose usage, Santoku knives can easily be confused with chef's knives. Both kinds usually have a double bevel and feature a Granton edge. Santoku and chef knives have several anatomical differences that set the Santoku knife apart from its western counterpart.
Santoku knives are thinner and shorter than chef’s knives, allowing for more precision while slicing food items. As a result of these features, santoku knives are lighter and more balanced than their counterpart. It also does not have a tip or a bolster.
Unlike Santoku knives, chef’s knives have a tip that allows the user to rock the blade as they cut ingredients. The design is heavier and longer than the sushi knife, with a broad blade and a thick spine. It also has a bolster and options for a serrated edge.
Japanese knives traditionally feature a high-carbon steel construction refined by acclaimed Japanese swordsmithing techniques to make them sharper, lighter, and more solid than stainless steel knives. Smiths crafted many Japanese swords using this same high-carbon steel.
Japanese knives have a high rating on the Rockwell Hardness Scale (HRC), the industry standard for measuring the hardness of steel. Therefore, you can sharpen Japanese knives to a much sharper and finer angle. The sharp edge also leads to greater ease in cutting, thus minimizing pressure on the muscles and joints in your hand. For this reason, many chefs prefer Japanese knives to stainless steel alternatives. Japanese knives' sharp bevel and thin construction make them ideal for making precise slices of vegetables, fish, and sushi rolls.
Figuring out which Japanese knives to implement in your kitchen can be confusing. We break down the various types of Japanese knives so you can make an informed decision.
The Japanese word “Santoku” can be translated as “three virtues,” as this knife is ideally used for three main functions: chopping, slicing, and dicing.
With a rectangular blade, the Nakiri knife slices and dices fruits and vegetables into thin, uniform slices to add to sushi rolls.
Sharing many similarities to chef knives, a Gyuto knife's light, thin construction allows it to make clean slices of fruits, vegetables, or meats.
Also used to chop vegetables and cube meats, chefs commonly use a Deba knife to carve cuts of fish. Its versatility makes it a valuable addition to any sushi restaurant.
Translated from Japanese as “thin blade,” the Usuba knife chops vegetables into uniform slices. The thin blade causes minimal cell damage to food, thus reducing the discoloration and change in flavor resulting from oxidation.
One significant difference between Japanese and German knives lies in the hardness of their blades. Japanese blades have a higher Rockwell Hardness Scale rating, ranging between 58-66 HRC. This rating means they are harder than German knives but more brittle and prone to chips and breakage. On the other hand, German knives have softer steel with a lower rating between 52-56 HRC. These blades are more resistant to damage, but they require frequent sharpening.
While they share several anatomical qualities, Japanese knives are characterized by a fine edge for delicate slicing and making precise cuts of tender foods like fish. Their high-carbon steel construction is honed and refined by hand.
More familiar to Western culture, German knives are crafted from stainless steel with durability in mind. The thick blade handles tougher cuts without getting damaged, making them ideal for butcher shops. Typically, these knives are finished with a machine rather than by hand.
Because high-carbon steel is harder than stainless steel, Japanese blades require less frequent sharpening than Western knives. When sharpening your Japanese knife, use a whetstone, and avoid honing rods, steels, or any other kind of sharpening device. Follow these steps to achieve a clean, sharp edge:
Note: Single-beveled Japanese knives, such as Deba knives and some Santoku knives, are only sharpened on one side.
The high-carbon steel blades of Japanese sushi knives are more prone to rust than stainless steel alternatives, which affects the life of the knife and your ability to use the knife safely. To avoid rusting, wash and dry the knife immediately after use. If needed, add a small amount of oil to the blade for an added layer of protection.
Also, remember that Japanese knives are not dishwasher safe, as the heat, water, and chemicals can damage the blade and handle. To preserve your knives, hand-wash them with mild soap and warm water. Here are some additional tips for your Japanese knives: