Despite the popularity of kitchen knife sets we have at home, the major part of work is usually performed using only one, maximum two knives. When purchasing your first quality, Japanese kitchen knife you should concentrate on only buying one knife – such that fits our hand comfortably and is easy to use. If a different blade is necessary in your kitchen, you can buy an additional, more purpose-specific kitchen knife later and create a personal set of knives.
Before purchasing a kitchen knife consider the following:
- What kind of a knife you want to have (taking into consideration the dishes you prepare),
- Size of the kitchen knife to be able to use it in a relaxed manner,
- If the blade has to be made completely of stainless steel, and if you can tolerate some patina,
- If you want to learn how to sharpen a knife yourself,
- How much money you are prepared to pay for a good knife.
Design and material
The basic design of a kitchen knife has not dramatically changed in the last 10,000 years, thus a knife remains a blade with a handle. In the field of materials (especially steel) and their treatment there has been great progress.
The quality and the price of a kitchen knife are nowadays determined by:
- the quality of steel,
- the method used for transforming steel into a blade and hardening,
- how sharp the blade is and how long it maintains its sharpness if correctly handled, which primarily depends on the first two points,
- how frequently it is necessary to sharpen the knife and how demanding this process is,
- the balance between the blade and the handle and how the knife feels in hand,
- the quality of the handle and the manufacturing.
A kitchen knife is an indispensable kitchen tool, with two main features: functionality and ergonomics. In everyday kitchen tasks it has to “cut the mustard”. Besides the simplicity of cutting, the aesthetic aspect is another feature to take into account.
General rules in choosing the blade design
The wider the blade, the more it is designed for cutting vegetables and fruit, and less suitable for general tasks, such as paring. Narrow blades are more suitable for cutting raw meat or fish and are not suitable for fast chopping.
If you want a multi-purpose knife for cutting larger quantities of meat, fish and vegetables, Gyuto (Chef's knife) or Bunka are an excellent choice. If you prefer a bit shorter blade type, Santoku knives are the way to go. Even more vegetable-oriented models are Nakiri and Usuba. Kitchen knives suitable for large pieces of meat and fish are Yanagiba, Sujihiki and the wider Gyuto.
Click on logos to see which knives will best handle different types of food:
For simple cutting without using force, sharpness is of key importance for the major part of kitchen knives. These blades are usually thinner and more sensitive for more difficult tasks, such as cutting bones, fish slicing (filleting), or opening a coconut. For more difficult kitchen tasks we need a suitably thicker kitchen knife, such as Deba or a heavier Cleaver.
Our recommendation? Well, we've been in the knife business for a while and we get this question quite often. So we decided to answer it by designing our very own Japanese kitchen knife, combining the best materials and blade type for Western-style of cooking. We named it ZDP-189 Bunka - a perfect multi-purpose knife that is easy to maintain and will stay sharp for a long time.
To learn more about different knife types read our article on Types of Japanese kitchen knives.
Basic differences between different types of steel
The majority of present-day stainless kitchen knives do not maintain their sharpness for a long period of time, because the blades have not been tempered or treated using techniques of steel hardening. HRC or Rockwell scale is currently the most common way to determine the hardness of steel. 56 HRC is the lowest hardness level of steel in a decent kitchen knife. A stainless knife under the level of 56 HRC will not only lose its sharpness fast, but it will also be more difficult to resharpen.
Kitchen knives marked as “stainless” have a very high content of chromium (Cr) and a low content of carbon (C), and are therefore not a good choice. If you want a completely stainless kitchen knife, choose a blade made of steel with a lower level of chromium (Cr) with the addition of vanadium (V) or molybdenum (Mo), which has been tempered to at least 56 HRC. If you cannot find data on the type, the quality and the hardness of steel when buying a knife, it is usually stainless steel with a high content of chromium (Cr) and a too low content of carbon (C < 0.5%).
Steel with a high content of carbon (C > 0.8%) remains sharp for a longer period of time, its sharpening is easier, but the blade develops a patina because there is no addition of chromium (Cr). Stainless steel with a high content of carbon (C > 0.8%) and chromium (Cr > 10%) stays sharp for a long period of time, but is slightly more difficult to resharpen.
The top of the present-day offer is presented by technologically perfected tool steel, which can contain an extremely high content of carbon (C<3%) and at the same time a sufficient content of chromium so that it does not rust. Kitchen knives made of this kind of steel remain sharp for the longest period of time, but are more difficult to resharpen.
To read more about different types of steel, read our article Steel: The Heart of Japanese Knives.
Advantages of laminated steel blades
The blades of these kitchen knives are made of two or more different kinds of steel. Usually, the core is made of very hard, quality steel covered with an external layer of softer, stainless steel. The advantage of laminated steel kitchen knives is that due to their hard core they remain sharp for a very long period of time, and due to their softer external layer they are easier to resharpen. The softer external layers protect the core steel from external factors, as well. In case of formation of some rust, it usually appears on the tip of the blade where the core comes out and where it can be easily removed by light sharpening. Kitchen knives which are covered or laminated in different kinds of steel have a special look – bending layers look like growth rings; this pattern is called Damascus. Damascus patterns make every knife unique and will attract many looks, but it will not add to the strength or better characteristics of the blade. Beautiful examples of Damascus pattern knives are Shikegi Tanaka's Santoku 3D or Santoku Wa.
Chisel ground or double-bevel blade
A classic German or French main kitchen knife is ground on both sides of the blade, usually under the same angle of approximately 20 to 30 degrees. This kind of a kitchen knife has a satisfactory, not too sensitive edge and is suitable both for left-handed and right-handed users.
Japanese kitchen knives (Gyuto, Santoku, etc.) are ground under a smaller angle, between 12 and 18 degrees, and very frequently the center of the edge is moved slightly to the left or to the right (e.g. in proportion 70/30). This kind of a kitchen knife is much sharper, but at the same time much more sensitive to strikes, chipping or rough use. Moving the center of the edge to one side makes the knife suitable for the use by left- or right-handed users.
Traditional Japanese knives are ground exclusively on one side; a long flat bevel of approximately 12 degrees on one side, and a slightly concave surface on the other side. This kind of geometrics enables a half-size, much sharper angle, and consequently higher sharpness of the knife. The knife is easier to resharpen, and at the same time, it is suitable for use by either left-handed or right-handed users.
How much does a good kitchen knife cost? The price of medium-sized kitchen knives (18 cm blade) with a simple handle and a blade from decent steel starts at approximately €50-60. A longer blade means more steel and therefore a higher price. 1 cm longer blade usually means €5-15 more for the same knife. See our Kuro-uchi series if you would like to own a good, entry-level Japanese knife that won't hurt your wallet.
A more elaborated and balanced handle adds a few more Euros to the price. Hand-forged kitchen knives made of exotic laminated steel with perfectly elaborated handles made by well-known manufacturers arrive to the price of several thousand Euros. A good kitchen knife will follow and highlight your entire culinary career. Less is more – it is better to have one good knife than a set of bad knives. A good, well-balanced, wooden handle with a medium-sized, approximately 18-20 cm long, laminated blade made of good, verified, VG-10 or ZDP-189 steel will cost between €150 and €270, for example this Etsu Village Damascus Santoku or ZDP-189 Bunka Black.
We will conclude with a quote by Japanese chef Morimoto: “A good kitchen knife will not make a good chef”. In your kitchen there is only you and your kitchen knife, but even an excellent knife cannot make up for the lack of cutting skills.
We suggest to tackle cutting in a concentrated manner, to practice different cutting, chopping and filleting techniques, but above all to watch your fingers! ✌️