The Perfect Cut: Techniques for Using Japanese Kitchen Knives Like a Pro

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Japanese kitchen knives have gotten popular as more people become fascinated with international cooking techniques and traditions. Many of the world’s best knives are made in Japan. Owning a quality knife, however, is only one step on the road to becoming a skilled chef. You also have to know how to use and care for your knives. 

Hold Your Knife Like a Pro

Holding a knife properly is essential for safety as well as efficiency. Novices often make the mistake of covering the knife’s handle with their entire hand. You’ll have far more control over the knife if you grip the blade with two fingers. One of the most common grips is to guide the blade with your thumb and index finger while your other three fingers grab the handle. Some chefs prefer to use their thumb and middle finger to grip the blade. 

Find the Balance Point

Professional chefs, as well as skilled amateurs, understand the value of locating a knife’s balancing point. Balancing points differ depending on the size and style of the knife. For example, a heavy knife such as a cleaver will have its balance point close to the front of the blade. The same is true for a Nakiri knife. On the other hand, a lighter knife such as a Gyuto or a Yanagiba will have its balance point in the middle.

To identify the balancing point,  hold the knife gently by the blade with your fingers. Find the point where the blade and the handle remain steady. Knowing the balance point helps guide your motions as you cut. In general, the closer to the handle the balance point is, the more control you will have, making it safer and easier to use, especially for those with less experience.

Use the Appropriate Knife For the Task

There are many varieties of Japanese knives. For best results, make sure you are using the correct type of knife for the task at hand. The following are some common purposes for Japanese knives.

  • Cleaning and fileting fish: Deba knives are commonly used in Japanese kitchens to prepare and cut fish.
  • Cutting vegetables: Some Japanese knives, such as the Nakiri, are made specifically for cutting vegetables.
  • Boning and cutting meat: You wouldn’t want to use a general purpose knife for boning as it could damage the blade. Instead, use a knife made for this purpose, such as a Honesuki. 
  • Multi-purpose: Some knives, such as a Santoku, which means “three virtues,”are equally effective for cutting meat, fish, and vegetables. 

Use a Quality Cutting Board

When cutting anything with your Japanese kitchen knife, be sure to have your food on a solid cutting board. Wood boards are the best for durability and maintaining the blade’s sharpness.  Certain materials, such as hard plastic, marble or glass can damage the knife. Additionally, make sure the cutting board is large enough to comfortably hold whatever you are cutting. 

How to Use Popular Japanese Knives 

Photo by Arron Choi on Unsplash

The technique you apply will differ depending on the knife. Here are some tips on the best techniques when using some of the most popular Japanese knives.

  • Santoku knife – This multi-purpose knife is extremely sharp and also quite fragile. It’s excellent for cutting foods into very thin strips. It’s generally best to cut with an up-and-down motion due to the knife’s high bolster. 
  • Honesuki knife – A sturdy knife made for boning and breaking down meat. It’s ideal for tasks such as cutting a whole chicken for grilling.
  • Usuba knife – A traditional Japanese knife made for cutting sushi, vegetables and fruits, especially those that are served raw.The name translates “thin blade,” and the sharpness and thinness of the blade not only cuts through vegetables easily but retains their flavor. Using a push-pull motion will allow you to slice through vegetables with ease. 
  • Bunka knife – A short, all-purpose knife that can make a variety of cuts. You can use an up-and-down or push-cutting motion to cut vegetables. The triangular tip can be used to cut meat and fish. 
  • Nakiri knife – A cleaver type knife that is very efficient for cutting vegetables, including harder vegetables such as potatoes and eggplant. Use a smooth up-and-down push cutting motion. 
  • Deba knife – If you frequently cook fish or prepare sushi, a Deba knife is a good investment. Its thick blade and single edge can perform a variety of tasks, such as skinning and cutting through or around bones. As this is a heavier than average knife, use a firm grip. While a Deba knife resembles some Western cleavers, it’s not meant to be used in a chopping manner. The back of the knife can be used to break down bone while the tip is perfect for skinning, scaling, and carving.
  • Gyuto knife – An all-purpose knife that is comparable to a typical Western chef’s knife. It’s a very thin knife with a curved edge that supports cutting in a rocking motion. Don’t use a Gyuto knife for hard chopping as this can cause damage. 
  • Kiritsuke knife – This type of knife is mostly used by chefs and experienced cooks as it can be challenging for beginners. It’s a single-sided knife that can be used for chopping, pull-cutting, and push-cutting. Its long blade and angled tip makes it more difficult to control than other knives. 

How to Care For Your Japanese Kitchen Knife

A quality knife demands proper care if you want it to provide you with years of service. Keep the following points in mind.

  • Never use your knife to cut anything inedible. A quality kitchen knife should never be used for tasks such as prying apart frozen foods or cutting hard materials such as wood or metal. 
  • Clean your knife thoroughly after each use. The knife should be cleaned immediately after use with a soapy cloth or sponge. Always hand wash your knives as a dishwasher can damage the knife as well as other items. Carbon or stainless steel blades are prone to rust, so be sure to towel dry the knife after washing.
  • Store your knives in a safe place. If you store your knife in a drawer with other kitchen implements, it can get damaged. One way to prevent damage is to use blade guards. However, it’s best to store your Japanese knife in a knife block or attached to a magnet. 
  • Keep your knife sharp. Your knife needs to be sharp for safe and effective use. A kitchen knife needs regular sharpenings, whether you have it sharpened professionally or use your own sharpening tool. You can keep it sharp in between sharpenings with a honing rod.
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