Japanese Knives

Traditional Japanese kitchen knives are best considered living objects. They are still handmade, and are priced accordingly. These aesthetically pleasing pieces of equipment require more care and awareness, but reward you with superior sharpness and performance.

First of all, they are made with a high-carbon steel, which is extremely hard and relatively inelastic, yet easily rusts when not kept dry. This type of steel also requires more frequent sharpening than stainless steel used for knives popular in the West and, more recently, in Japanese homes. However, Japanese professional chefs of any standing would never think of using anything but the authentic tool.

Traditional Japanese knife makers have developed a hybrid version in which a high-carbon steel blade is laminated between two layers of stainless steel. While the cutting edge is still high-carbon steel, the sides are stainless. This makes the knife a bit more elastic, while greatly reducing the amount of surface area prone to rust. However, the cutting edge still must be kept dry and sharpened regularly. It's best to care for these knives in the same way you would a traditional knife.

There are a wide range of traditional Japanese knives for specific processes in Japanese cooking. Some are designed for filleting fish, while others are designed for chopping large, leafy vegetables. However, a number of traditional Japanese knife makers are exporting versions of their high-carbon steel knives in conventional multi-purpose Western styles.

There are also two types of cutting edges. With the single-sided edge, you only sharpen one side of the blade. This type is generally preferred because it can slice more thinly and usually leaves a smoother surface on the food being cut.

When you first start using a traditional Japanese knife, take a little time to become accustomed to it. It will probably have a different balance or "feel" than a Western knife, as well as less "give." Many cooks find Japanese knives more responsive, with a heightened sense of control. It's like trading in the family car for a sports car. Since they are more brittle, never use them to cut hard things like bones or frozen foods - use a serrated stainless steel knife instead.

Proper sharpening, cleaning and storage will assure sharpness and longer life. Sharpen and hone Japanese knives only with a special type of stones available from the same place that sold you the knife. Follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. Do not use coarse sharpening stones or steel sharpeners as they can damage the surface of the cutting edge. When you are finished, wipe the knife clean and rub the blade with a tiny amount of cooking oil, wiping off any excess.

Wipe the knife clean after each use. Before you put it away, clean thoroughly with soap and water, then dry it completely. Keep each knife in a separate holder or slot in a knife block, and do not store them together with other knives in a drawer. Never put a Japanese knife in a dishwasher.

Treat your Japanese knife with respect, and it will serve you well.


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