There's something to be said for having the right tools
You’re looking for a new knife. If you’re unsure about what you should be looking for, this is a great place to start. We’ll explain several common knife steels and handles. We’ll also discuss the most useful knife shapes in a western kitchen, and what they’re used for. If you’re interested, we’ve written here about knives to avoid. If you’ve got a question, or are looking for a specific recommendation, we’d love to help. Send us a note!
50% science, 50% skills, 100% personal preference
Discussing knife materials can quickly get you into murky water. The two primary reasons for the murkiness are the way the the maker dealt with the materials (heat treating, grind, etc.) and personal preference. The only way to develop a preference is to play with what’s available to you, then try something new. Over time, these preferences will shift. Eventually, you’ll just end up realizing that it depends primarily on how the maker treated the material. Most modern knife-oriented steels have the capability of making a great knife, the responsibility of this result relies largely on the marker. Murky enough?
I can’t describe the inherent traits of each high-end steel without relying specifically on metallurgical terminology and the perpetual reference to necessarily thoughtful heat treatment. I will list some of the reputations of these steels, again, with the reservation that these qualities are not given without quality heat treatment. That said, the most common steels used in high-performing kitchen knife are:
Shirogami 1 – made by Hitachi, also known as White #1, White Paper #1, or Shiro-ko 1. Regarded as one of the most pure carbon steels. Known as taking and holding a great edge, and capable of holding high hardness.
Shirogami 2 – made by Hitachi, also known as White #2, White Paper #2, or Shiro-ko 2. Exactly the same as Shirogami 1 with a ~10% reduction in carbon content. Known as taking and holding a great edge (maybe less so than Shirogami #1, but this would largely pertain to heat treatment and the resulting hardness. Higher hardness can take and hold a more acute (sharp) edge, but higher hardness can sacrifice durability.)
Aogami 1 – made by Hitachi, also known as Blue #1, Blue Paper #1, or Ao-ko. Identical to Shirogami 1 with the additions of Chromuim and Tungsten. These additions add wear resistance, high hardness abilities, a small amount of corrosion resistance, and other metallurgical changes not worth talking about here. A great steel with great capabilities. Less common than the other two Aogami steels.
Aogami 2 – made by Hitachi, also known as Blue #2, Blue Paper #2, or Ao-ko 2. Similar to Aogami 1 with reduced Carbon, Chromium, and Tungsten contents. Thought to be tougher than Aogami 1, but potentially less wear resistant. Having fairly high hardness capabilities, though, reduces these differences to negligible. Another great steel with great capabilities.
Aogami Super – made by Hitachi, also as Super Blue and AS. This steel is exactly what you’d expect. A real beefy version of it’s Aogami siblings. The highest carbon content of any common Hitachi steel. Most closely related to Aogami 1 with higher Carbon and Tungsten contents as well as the addition of Vanadium (another strong carbide former, improving toughness and edge holding). The large amount of carbon in AS and Shirogami 1 can be utilized as a benefit during heat treatment as high hardness can be achieved quickly and through variating temperatures. The problem with this is the allowance this gives as a bandaid for not giving this steel the heat treatment it needs.
01 – from AISI. An American steel most often seen from American makers. This steel has a 2nd cousin similarity to Aogami steels. This is a high performing steel. Potentially less capable of holding an acute edge as long as some Hitachi steels, but hold high wear resistance capabilities. Often used in outdoor knives and some kitchen knives by American makers.
52100 – from AISI. Used often in outdoor knives and is prized for it’s wear resistance. It is, though, a very capable steel when treated properly.
AEB-L – made by Uddeholm. A very pure steel other than the 13% addition of Chromium making it a stainless steel. It was originally developed for use in razors. The performance of this steel will depend entirely on the treatment by the maker. I’ve seen AEB-L make an absolutely garbage knife (I will not mention the house-brand name of that retailer here) and I’ve seen it do incredible things after Devin Thomas developed a masterful multi-step heat treating process specifically for this steel.
GIN3 – made by Hitachi, also known as Ginsan 3, Ginsanko, Silver 3. Similar to AEB-L with marginally higher (still very low) contents of Carbon and Manganese. Similarly to AEB-L, this steel has great capabilities but can also produce garbage knives. There are some great makers utilizing this steel.
HAP40 – made by Hitachi. This is a brutally tough steel often hardened very high. This steel has capabilities of holding a surgical edge for a while and is semi-stainless.
ZDP-189 – made by Hitachi. One of the most recent super-steels. Holding serious capabilities in hardness and edge retention, this steel is also very tough and stainless. Potentially tough to sharpen, but realistically no tougher than other stainless steels.
VG-10 – made by Takefu. VG-10 has, for a while, been the predominant steel seen in Japanese stainless knives. A very capable steel, but one that is often utilized by mass-production makers to make half-hearted knives. Most of my early experiences of frustrating knives came from poorly made VG-10 blades. It does, though, hold the potential for producing great knives.
And where does that leave us? Basically, find a highly-skilled maker or one that at least looks interesting, buy one of their knives. The knife being great or not has far less to do with the steel than it does every single other aspect of making the blade.
I’ll keep this short as it wholly personal preference. Most inexpensive knives, and some knives from makers not emphasizing the handles, come with a simple D-shaped handle made of magnolia with a black plastic ferule. I hate plastic ferules. As, such you will never see a knife in our shop with a plastic ferule. Magnolia is the inoffensive wood of a beautiful flowering tree. Magnolia trees are everywhere in Japan and are an abundant source or wood. Magnolia is also one of the woods traditionally used on Japanese knives for centuries. Traditionally, emphasis was not given to the handles of kitchen knives. They were intended to wear and soften to the users hand. When the handle was worn too far, they just swap out the handle.
In the US, in our current food and knife culture, we’ve taken to emphasizing the handle nearly as much as the blade. This is not to my taste. I am thrilled for people to express themselves in their handles, but all the handles you’ll see here will be a bit more restrained.
There are three basic shapes for Japanese handles (or wa-handles, wa indicating a Japanese origin or style), they are: round, d-shaped, and octagon. See them below.
Styles and Shapes
Before my three week stage at Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, my first real stage, I fretted for weeks about my kit. What if they ask me to break down squash all day and I don’t have the right knife? What if I’ll be making thousands of little cuts, I don’t have a good paring knife! I’ll go into that in another post. We can use more knives to do our jobs better, but most things can be done with just two knives.
If you’re new here, if you’re just starting in the culinary world or starting to take things seriously at home, start with two knives: a 210mm or 240mm gyuto and either a 150-165mm funayuki or 120-150mm petty. Start there, use them, see what you like about them or what you’d like to be different, and start looking at other knives. A big knife isn’t compensating for anything, don’t get a 270mm gyuto.
If you’ve got a couple knives under your belt, now you get to play. Think about what you’d like differently in your gyuto and find one to suit that (or shoot us an e-mail and we’ll work on it for you). A day-to-day working kit for me would be: 180mm gyuto (line knife), 240mm gyuto (primary prep), 165mm funayuki (small prep), semi-flex slight-curve boning knife, 120mm petty (petty/paring), 165mm workhorse nakiri, 270mm yanagiba or 270mm sujihiki (depending on my menu), and a Buttermilk Strop Block.
If you’re real established and want to get into soba-kiri and fugubiki…that’s a talk for another day.
Let’s take a glossary look at some shapes…
The gyuto is the Japanese equivalent to the western chef knife. A gyuto could either be wa-handled (Japanese handle) or western handle (the handle and bolster that you expect on a western chef knife). Gyuto will commonly range in size from 180mm to 270mm, but typically fall at common intervals: 180mm (7″), 210mm (8.25″), 240mm (9.5″), 270mm (10.5″). A couple primary differences are that gyuto are typically thinner (in a good way) and hardened significantly more than western chef knives (also a good thing). Thought to originally have been included in Japanese cooking to fabricate larger cuts of beef; gyuto translates to something around “beef blade”. The gyuto is extremely versatile and is happy tackling most any task.
The petty knife is most similar to the western paring knife. These knives typically have a blade length between 120mm and 150mm, and can be found with both western and wa-handles. Petty knives vary from a traditional paring knife in that the blade is taller at the heel and also their ability to be used both in the hand as well as on a cutting board.
Santoku knives don’t have a western equivalent. This is particularly apparent as santoku knives have begun making appearances in the production line-ups of traditional western knife factories. Santoku translates to “knife of three virtues”, which is to say that it is a multi-purpose knife. This knife is thought to be an ideal knife in the Japanese home. The blade is characteristically tall, relatively short in length, and rounded towards the tip. It is functionally in between a gyuto and a nakiri. This knife doesn’t get a ton of love in western knife culture. I’m not sure of why, but I’d guess it’s because santokus are rarely sexy or dangerous looking. I, too, didn’t have much love for santokus until I found the santoku from Shigehiro. I can now, happily, say that I use a santoku more than any other knife at home.
Funayuki knives are great. They’re between a gyuto and a santoku. They’re typically tall, relatively short in length, and come to a hard and sharp point. They’re primarily seen between 150mm and 185mm, but, honestly, they’re not seen that often. They’re not widely available or common by any means, but we’ve taken to tracking down a great assortment of them. I’ve gone for weeks in the restaurant having only used funayukis.
The vegetable slaughterer. There is no western equivalent to the nakiri. Shaped like a short rectangle, most nakiris fall at either 165mm or 180mm blade length. If you’ve got a long list of veg prep, this shall be your steed. It’s not that other knives are incapable of cutting vegetables, it’s that a nakiri will do more easily and potentially better.
Most closely related to the western “slicer” knife, sujihiki knives are extremely useful for slicing proteins, veg, and can be used to fillet fish. Sujihiki knives, or suji, are typically short in height, thin, and long. They’re typically found in 240mm, 270mm, and 300mm lengths. The idea is being able to pull long strokes through the product and provide minimal surface area to increase friction as you slice. Even if you’re only slicing big meats for family meals twice a year, it’s worth it.
Useful single-bevel knives
The perfect tool for one job
Ok, maybe it’s an exaggeration. Single-bevel blades though (flat-ish on one side of the blade and hollow-ground on the other. If it helps, think of it as being sharpened just on one side) are individually designed to accomplish specific tasks. For this post, I will only touch on a couple types. For the most part, people cooking western food do not benefit much from a heavy integration of single-bevel blades. There are many task-specific single-bevel blades, I’ll explain the ones potentially useful to most people. If you have questions beyond this, we’d be thrilled to answer them for you.
A knife designed around cutting raw fish. Short in height and very long, thick-ish across the spine and thin across the bevel. Yanagibas range commonly from 270mm to 330mm. Yanagiba knives are nearly as nuanced and serious as the beautiful cuts of fish they’re used to create. Yanagibas can also be used beautifully for slicing other (boneless. Please, god, boneless) proteins. If you find yourself wanting to make these cuts, or sushi, at least a couple times a year, this is an extremely worthwhile knife. With a little technique, these knives make the process so satisfying. If you expect your interests will lean towards particularly thin cuts, consider a fuguhiki.
Thick, tall, and heavy, deba knives are designed for butchering fish, and they do it very effectively. Their purpose is to make decisive moves to butcher or fillet the fish quickly and without damaging the flesh. Though built for fish, they can also be effectively used against poultry. They’re commonly seen ranging between 135mm and 300mm. The reason for such a wide variation in size is the widely variable size of fish. Before committing to a deba, figure out what size makes sense based on the fish you’d most frequently be working on.