How to Use Your Japanese Kitchen Knives

How to Use Your Japanese Kitchen Knives

Posted by Shannon Dolman on

Every professional chef has a Japanese kitchen knife somewhere in their toolkit. The perfect combination of beautiful aesthetics, use of top-quality materials, unique craftsmanship and skillful finishing make these a must-have tool for any avid cook.

Having a striking, ultra-thin and ultra-sharp Japanese kitchen knife is one thing. You’ve got to know how to use them correctly. Japanese knives are not only striking to look at and super-functional but they are also durable. With correct usage and maintenance, these are kitchen knives that should you serve you for a lifetime.

In this article, we take you on a quick overview of how to use some of the popular Japanese kitchen knives that are found in Australia.

Gyuto Knife

The gyuto knife is the quintessential all-purpose Japanese kitchen knife. It is probably the most recognizable of the Japanese kitchen knives and also one of the most adopted globally thanks to its many similarities with the traditional Western-style Chef’s knives.

You can do pretty much anything with the gyuto kitchen knife and they are particularly good at slicing and dicing your produce. The gyuto kitchen knife will handle everything that you would do with a Santoku or a Western-style chef’s knife.

It is a real kitchen workhorse and it is not particularly delicate. The gyuto is often a great starting knife for any chef who would want to immerse themselves into the world of Japanese kitchen knives. They have a nice bolster that enables you to use them in a rocking motion.

The gyuto kitchen knife is safe to use, even for a complete novice. However, when buying a gyuto knife, it is always recommended that you go for one that is suited for your hand size as this will be easier to wield and won’t feel too big or too heavy for your hands. A knife that matches nicely to your hand size allows you to work with relative ease and precision.

The gyuto knife is also ultra-thin so you can use it to slice and dice your ingredients quickly. The slightly curved edge allows you to use this knife in rocking motion. Like other Japanese blades, the blade is made from high hardness steel which is good for edge retention. However, it can also chip easily when the gyuto kitchen knife is used on relatively hard produce such as frozen meat. Don’t use it to whack your bones! There are specialized Japanese kitchen knives for that.

Gyuto knives will easily lend themselves to most cutting techniques in the kitchen except the following: -

  • Hard chopping uses: The gyuto knife is fashioned from hard steel that will be more prone to chipping so hard chopping uses are a big NO.
  • Cutting very hard produce: While the gyuto knife is a multipurpose kitchen knife that should handle most kinds of produce, it’s not suited for hard produce for the aforementioned reasons. Despite its hardness, hard produce will rapidly blunt the edges of the gyuto knife, eventually damaging it.
  • Cutting movements with high force on the edge: Any cutting motion where you have to apply a large force on the knife’s edge is not suited for gyuto knife. You shouldn’t use them to carve pumpkins, for example, as you may end up fracturing the edge of the gyuto knife.

Santoku Knife

Like the gyuto knife, the santoku is a highly versatile chef’s knife that you can put to multiple uses in your kitchen. It is a reliable multipurpose kitchen knife.

Santoku itself means “three virtues” and these three virtues is that you can use this Japanese-style chef’s knife to cut meat, fish and vegetables. The “three virtues” may also allude to the dexterous ways in which you can use this knife to cut, slice and chop.

A key difference between the santoku and the gyuto kitchen knife is that it has the sheepsfoot design with a blunt tip as opposed to the sharp tip of the gyuto knife. Some gyuto knives might also have a K-tip or Kiritsuke tip, a ‘reverse tanto’ tip.

Another main point of divergence is that the santoku has a flat edge compared to the edge of the gyuto kitchen knife that curves gradually from the midsection towards the tip. The santoku knife can therefore be used in an up and down motion but not in a rocking motion. Santoku knives also tend to have taller bolsters that allow you to effectively use it in an up and down motion as opposed to rocking motion.

The traditional santoku knife, commonly used in Japanese cuisines, are sharpened on one side. However, with the adoption of the Japanese knife styles across the planet, there are now lots of two-sided santoku knives on the market.

The santoku blade is ultra-sharp and very delicate and must therefore be handled with extra care in order to avoid getting yourself hurt.

The santoku knife must be used with great care and delicacy. It’s a multipurpose kitchen knife so you can use it to cut, slice and chop. For slicing applications, you can use it to make very thin slices of either the beef tartare or fish. You can also use it to chop up your vegetables, spices and other produce. It is also an excellent knife for making dices and a constellation of other knife cuts.

However, watch out for the bones when using your santoku. It might have been fashioned from hard steel but it will be no match for the hardness of the bones and the blade is most likely going to chip off when it is used on stiffer produce. Also, keep in mind that the santoku knife does not have a tip and will not work when making precision cuts around tiny spaces.

Kiritsuke Knife

The kiritsuke is an all-purpose kitchen knife that is usually only used by the executive chefs. Its mastery is something of a status symbol among insiders who know a thing or two about traditional Japanese kitchen knives.

The kiritsuke is a single-sided or single-bevel knife so it comes with a handedness in its use. It slices smoothly with the cut pieces falling on the bevel sides of the kitchen knife.

The single-beveled kiritsuke kitchen knife is generally tough to master and use on Western cuisine. However, there are some chefs willing to put in the time and effort through the steep learning curve to master this knife.

The blade is also relatively shorter so you will have to watch out for your knuckles, particularly if you are speed chopping your produce. If you are going for this knife, you must be willing to invest time to develop a good and efficient technique.

Bunka Knife

The bunka is a general-purpose kitchen knife that you can use to handle a wide range of cutting tasks in your kitchen although it is most commonly used to cut, slice or chop vegetables. Like other Japanese kitchen knives, the blade is ultra-thin and easily glides through the food.

It is not too long, has a wide blade and a slanted or triangle-shaped tip that you can use to scour the food to make it cook faster. The bunka is a short and easily maneuverable knife that you can use to make a wide variety of cuts, including the most delicate of cuts.

The ‘reverse tanto’ or K-tip in the bunka knife adds some dexterity and sensitivity to its usage. The k-tip can be used on meats and fish. The flat profiles of the bunka knives lend themselves easily to push-cutting or up and down chopping uses rather than for rock chopping.

This being an all-purpose kitchen knife, you can easily use the bunka knife in place of a santoku knife or gyuto knife. The wide blades of the bunka knives can also be used to scoop up ingredients from a chopping board into a bowl or frying pan.

Nakiri Knife

The nakiri knife is a square vegetable cleaver that is better suited for cutting or slicing the harder-skinned vegetables such as eggplants, squash or potatoes and also for fruits and leafy greens. The blade surface features hammered dimples known as tsuchime which are not only good to look at but which also ensure that the harder skinned vegetable being sliced does not stick on the blade. When you slice your tougher skinned veggies with a nakiri knife, the pieces will simply fall off the edge of the knife which remains largely neat throughout the cut.

Unlike the general-purpose kitchen knives we have covered above that tend to be delicate, the nakiri knife has some weight to it that enables it to slice through the harder skinned vegetables. You can use it in an and up and down push-cutting technique. With its flat edges, it is certainly not a knife that is amenable to a rocking motion.

The balance of the nakiri knife is well-suited for putting down the weight on the harder skinned vegetables.

Usuba Knife

Usuba in Japanese directly translates to “thin blade” or “thin slice”. This is a single-beveled Japanese kitchen knife that is mostly used by high-level Japanese chefs for decorative knife work. You will find the usuba knife being used by professional chefs to make decorative cucumbers for sushi rolls.

The usuba has a blade that goes all the way to the heel of the kitchen knife. This ultra-thin slicer can also be used in finishing julienne or making the thin strands of cucumbers that are used in the sushi rolls.

The usuba knife is often wielded by professional chefs than by home cooks in their daily use. The usuba is one of the specialty kitchen knives used in commercial Japanese kitchens alongside the deba and the yanagiba knives.

The straight edge of the usuba knife lends itself easily to precise chopping and push cutting uses on the cutting board. This is a nimble and versatile kitchen knife that you can also use for making controlled and fine cuts. 

Deba Knife

The Japanese deba kitchen knife is the true deba knife and a common feature in commercial Japanese kitchens.

You will mainly use the deba knife to clean and fillet your fish. This is a heaver knife so it is also used in dressing and breaking down chicken.

The deba is a single-bevel Japanese kitchen knife with a thicker spine and considerable weight that you can bring to bear to crack a few bones.

The weight of the deba knife is really important in its use. If you are cutting fish, you can use this weight to behead your fish and cut all the way through. It is this weight that also makes the deba knife ideal for breaking down or dressing your poultry.

In spite of its apparent robustness, the deba still isn’t suitable for hacking through the large bones. When using this blade, take care not to apply sideways forces as this might result in the cracking or chipping of the knife.

The spine might be thicker but it tapers along the length of the knife so you still have a knife tip that is sensitive enough to be put into more delicate cutting uses. This can come in handy in filleting fish, for example.

The taper of the deba blade tips the balance towards the heel of the blade which further gives the deba knife some good agility that can come in handy when doing some delicate work on your fish or meat.

Deba knives are available in a variety of sizes to suit the multiple species and sizes of fishes and seafood used in Japanese cuisine.

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