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Test Drive: Japanese Chef’s Knives

In the market for a new chef’s knife? These are our five new favorites

Fine Cooking Issue 108
Photos: Scott  Phillips
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There has never been a better time to upgrade to a new chef’s knife, whether as a gift to yourself or for someone who loves to cook. The marketplace has exploded with an array of high-performing (and gorgeous-looking) knives, some of the most innovative coming from Japan. Japanese chef’s knives (called gyuto knives) tend to be lighter, thinner, and notably sharper than their European counterparts—qualities that explain why they’re becoming the next big thing. Unlike santoku knives, which have a shorter, snub-nose shape, these knives have a more typical chef’s knife profile, with a longer blade and a pointed tip.

A knife is like a pair of jeans: Every cook will prefer his or her own style and fit. Each of these options has something unique to recommend it, so you’re sure to find the right one for you (or the cook you’re shopping for).

For the novice

Dojo 7-1/2-inch  gyuto knife
$100 at justknives101.com
Weight: 4-7/8 oz.
Blade dimensions: 7-3/8 x 1-7/8 inches

This knife powered its way through our tests, receiving praise for its light weight and compact size; its short blade will put even the most diffident cooks at ease. The super-sharp blade is made of both carbon steel and stainless steel and is rust resistant. It has a no-frills handle that may not match the quality of the blade, but it’s a small price to pay for a great knife.

For the bargain hunter

Fujiwara FKM 210 mm gyuto knife
$75 at chefknivestogo.com
Weight: 5-3/4 oz.

Blade dimensions: 8-1/4 x 1-3/4 inches
The stainless-steel blade and handle on this knife are well balanced and of moderate weight. The blade itself is narrow, fairly straight, and holds a very sharp edge. It sails through potatoes and onions with ease. For those who tend to grip the blade between the index finger and thumb (a pinch grip), the angle of the heel and bolster may feel a bit awkward, but most should find this knife easy to use and a terrific value for the price.

For the nonconformist

Takeda AS 210 mm gyuto knife
$260 at chefknivestogo.com
Weight: 5-1/2 oz.
Blade dimensions: 8-1/4 x 2-3/8 inches

Handcrafted by Shosui Takeda and his two blacksmiths, this knife is rustic and thoroughly unique. Its octagonally cut rosewood handle is lightweight and beautifully unadorned. The wide carbon-steel blade has an uneven texture that is naturally nonstick (even potatoes slide off easily) but not naturally rustproof; it requires proper care. The cutting edge of the blade is straight, reminiscent of a cleaver, and performs best with a straight up-and-down chop versus a more typical forward-slice motion. Most notably, this knife is seriously sharp and holds its edge better than any of the others.

For the design lover

Shun Premier 8-inch chef’s knife
$188 at surlatable.com
Weight: 7-5/8 oz.
Blade dimensions: 8 x 1-7/8 inches

This is a stunning knife. Its high-carbon stainless-steel core is coated with Damascus steel, creating a rippled look on one half of the blade; the other half features a lovely hammered texture called tsuchime. (The dimpled area supposedly minimizes sticking, but we didn’t find any benefit in that regard.) The knife’s impressively fine edge glides through onions and easily shears off parsley stems held in mid-air. Because the cutting edge of the blade has a slight curve to it, it readily rocks back and forth when chopping herbs or mincing garlic. Its extra-thick and heavy wood handle may be comforting to some but awkward for others. For those who use a pinch rip, though, this knife is a natural.

For the connoisseur

Miyabi 600MC 8-inch chef’s knife
$330 at bloomingdales.com
Weight: 67/8 oz.
Blade dimensions: 8-7/8 x 1-7/8 inches

This knife is insanely sharp, and with a nearly 9-inch blade, flies through piles of greens and whole melons. Although some may find its size and weighty handle a bit unwieldy, others may view the long, exceptionally hard stainless-steel blade and slender handle as sleek and racy. We like how the heel of the blade arcs away from the handle—for those who tend to use a pinch grip, this design keeps fingers a safe distance from the cutting edge. The gorgeously finished wood handle and softly rounded spine add a luxurious feel.

Anatomy of a Japanese chef’s knife

What makes a Japanese chef’s knife different from a European-style knife? Here are a few distinctions between the two:

Spine This is the top edge of the blade (opposite the cutting edge). Spines tend to be narrower on Japanese knives than on European knives and may be squared off quite sharply or rounded and polished, which we prefer.

Heel The heel is the bottom corner of the blade that’s closest to the handle. It’s usually pointed and sharp on Japanese knives, allowing the blade’s cutting edge to be sharpened right through to the heel. On European knives, it’s typically thicker and blunt.

Bolster This is the section of blade between the heel and the handle. Most European chef’s knives have a thick wedge of steel for a bolster; the bolster on Japanese knives is very thin, making for a lighter knife.

Cutting edge The smaller the angle along the cutting edge, the sharper the knife. The angle of the blade edge tends to be narrower on Japanese knives than on most European knives, typically giving them a sharper edge.

How we tested

After combing the marketplace and speaking to several knife experts, we chose 20 knives for testing. We sliced, diced, and chopped our way through mounds of onions, tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, garlic, and parsley. We evaluated each knife’s size, shape, weight, balance, handle, and performance. Above all, we noted each knife’s sharpness, which we assessed by cutting through paper, creating ultrathin slices of potatoes and lemons, and cutting into the skin of a tomato with the least amount of pressure.

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