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Essential Japanese Knives to Have in Your Knife Collection

By George Steckel
Apr 22, 2021
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We know, we know. Your kitchen is only so big. You only have a limited amount of counter space, and every item you decide to add to your collection of kitchen tools must absolutely earn the valuable culinary real estate it occupies. So, if you're not a Japanese cuisine fanatic, why would you have any Japanese knives in your knife collection?

While you might not need to acquire all the traditional Japanese knives (unless you love collecting kitchen tools like the neighbor kid loves collecting stamps), many Japanese style knives are both useful and versatile tools for every kitchen. You'll be surprised to find out how well they can work for you when cooking a whole range of cuisines including, of course, Japanese.

Why Japanese-Style Knives Are So Effective

Japanese knives have a long history of high-quality craftsmanship that extends back to the Nara Era (710 to 794 AD) with use in both ceremonies and everyday life. Plus, the blades of Japanese knives were strongly influenced by the advancing technological development of Samurai sword blades.

In the late 19th century, Japan banned the production and ownership of weapons. As a result, many of the artisans that specialized in the craftsmanship of swords transitioned into designing and crafting kitchen knives, applying their traditional knowledge to a new trade. The history that all Japanese knives share has resulted in superior blade design, weight, and a variety of useful applications.

Essential Japanese Knives to Add to Your Collection

Yes, there are countless varieties of Japanese knives each with a special design for a specific job, but you don't need one of each – unless you're a professional chef in a Japanese restaurant. For most cooks, a couple of the most versatile Japanese knives work wonders in a home kitchen.

1. Santoku

Similar to a chef's knife, the Santoku knife can handle a wide variety of jobs in the kitchen. Santoku means "three virtues," and the Santoku knife gets its name because it's designed for cutting meat, fish, and produce. This knife is a perfect almost-all-use kitchen utensil, and can easily replace both the Usuba and Deba knives mentioned later in the list. Santoku knives are also perfect for slicing garlic, chopping onions, and dicing carrots.

2. Nakiri

The Nakiri style knife is the one you picture when you imagine a sushi chef vigorously chopping vegetables. It has a rectangular-shaped, thin, straight, and flat blade that features a double bevel (v-shaped) blade that's perfect for chopping, peeling, and slicing.

3. Usuba

The Usuba knife has a similar shape to the Nakiri, but it features a single (rather than a double) bevel. This knife is perfect for peeling and slicing with precision. If you want to achieve extremely thin slices of anything, this is the tool for the job. The only drawback of the Usuba is that its single bevel can be tricky for beginners to get used to. It's also a more challenging blade to sharpen.

4. Deba

If you fancy yourself a pescatarian, then the Deba is a must-have for your kitchen. This Japanese knife is designed especially for dealing with fish. It has a chunky design that gives it the weight to break through tough fish bones. It can be used for both scaling and chopping.

Sharpening and Caring for Your Japanese Knives

Dull, rusted knives are actually more dangerous than sharp, shiny knives. So, caring for your knives will keep them performing well in the kitchen and your fingers safe for another day of cooking.

Although high-quality Japanese style knife blades have stainless steel exteriors, they can still rust, and this will diminish their performance. To prevent rusting, you should clean and dry your knives immediately after use. They're best hand-washed with mild soap in warm water. Use a thick towel to dry and keep the blade facing away from your fingers.

After chopping up a storm, you might find that your blades grow dull. While many knives can be sharpened using a honing blade, Japanese knives are different. They require sharpening on a whetstone. You can purchase your own whetstone and dive into the world of online how-to videos to learn how to sharpen your particular style of Japanese knife. If you prefer, you can also take your knives to a professional knife sharpener for upkeep when they start to grow dull.

With proper care and maintenance, the Japanese knives (and all their sharp friends) in your chef knife set will continue to slice, dice, and chop with the utmost speed and precision. So, as they (Who's they? Chefs we suppose.) say, keep your knives sharp, your veggies sliced thin, and your fingers poised for picking in some of the tastiest dishes you've ever made!

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