When we came up with the idea of writing earnest recommendations for our most beloved kitchen tools to help our readers shop for the holidays, I knew immediately that I would want to write about two things: my mandoline and my Japanese poultry knife. While a mandoline is unarguably useful for every cook of every skill level, I realize that a specialty knife, one that is essentially a unitasker, might seem like a niche kitchen tool for most people.
But it shouldn't be because I know for a fact that a whole lot of you out there eat a whole lot of chicken. And if you cook chicken at least a couple of times a week at home, then I believe you should purchase whole chickens and break them down rather than buying them in parts. And I think anyone who breaks down whole chickens with any regularity would love to use and own a Japanese poultry knife.
Called a honesuki, the Japanese poultry knife is small, with a short blade that has a distinctive, triangular shape, and it is typically single-beveled (for more about the differences between single- and double-beveled blades, read here). The blade is heavy for its size and rigid. At one end, it tapers at the tip to a fine point while at the other it expands to a relatively large heel. Similarly, the blade's spine is thinner at the tip and grows thicker toward the tang, which puts most of the knife's weight closer to your hand. All of these features are designed with one goal in mind: to make the most efficient tool for taking apart and deboning a bird. The fine, light point is easy to maneuver between joints and against bone; the heavy, stiff blade means you don't have to apply so much force to the cutting tip, which, combined with its single-beveled edge, makes the task of cutting through flesh and, most importantly, skin, like cutting through butter. The wide heel gives you a lot of room on the knife edge to scrape flesh from bones, but it also can be used to make quick, deep cuts in the bird, as when you split the breast halves away from the breast bone.
That description should fill you with confidence about the honesuki's ability to efficiently dismember any poultry carcass, but I fully acknowledge that no one in the world needs this knife. Anyone who's cut up a chicken knows it's less a matter of actual cutting than knowing a few simple techniques, such as how to maneuver and snap back the legs and wings to pop bones out of their sockets, or where to slide your knife so the breast halves can be cleanly separated from the carcass. I've taken apart many, many chickens using a wide variety of knives: a chef's knife, a petty knife, a Western boning knife, a santoku...it doesn't matter. Even a sharp paring knife will do in a pinch.
So if there's so little cutting involved in breaking down a chicken, then why buy a knife designed specifically for cutting up chickens?
My argument is twofold: Buy a honesuki because it's a pleasure to use and because it both rewards and demands good technique.
The first one is self-explanatory. While unitaskers get a bad rap because they can only do one thing, there's something to be said for a tool whose sole purpose is to execute a single task better than any other. And the honesuki truly excels at taking apart birds! Something about the knife's design makes it entirely intuitive to use; you're able to make precise cuts from a variety of angles, due to its small size, and it comes to feel as if it's a natural extension of your hand.
The second argument is a little more nuanced. First of all, the fact that you own a poultry knife means you're committed to buying whole birds and taking them apart, which is a very good habit! Second, the pleasure of using a honesuki is directly correlated to how sharp you keep it, so you have to be comfortable with sharpening the blade, lest it be utterly useless.*
*On the one hand, this may sound arduous, since sharpening knives isn't as common a skill for home cooks as it should be (it's really easy!); on the other hand, because a poultry knife does very little heavy cutting, it doesn't need to be sharpened as frequently as general-purpose kitchen knives or even other task-specific knives like a deba, a fish butchering knife.
Finally, the honesuki is terrible at tasks it's not designed for, so it forces you to do things correctly. The best examples I have for this are the joint that connects the drumstick to the thigh and the joints between the wing's drummette, flat, and tip: All of these joints can be separated using brute force, by pushing a knife blade through the connecting cartilage. The tip of the honesuki isn't really designed to do that (although the heavy heel can be used to cut through cartilage), so it's far easier to take the time to cut away skin and flesh and expose the joint so you can slide the point of the knife between the bones.
There are some tasks that a honesuki makes even easier, like deboning legs and thighs. And, of course, the honesuki really shines when it comes to fussier work, such as butterflying wing flats or shaving the skin off areas of the back, like the bit just beneath the oyster, which, when removed with the oyster, can be wrapped around the morsel of meat, skewered, and then broiled or grilled to make one of the tastiest bits of chicken in the world.
Finally, since the knife is designed for poultry, it will obviously work for duck, turkey, quail, or other birds. But that sharp, thin knifepoint is great for a lot of small meat-butchering tasks, like cutting a rack of lamb into chops or splitting up a rack of ribs, and that heel is good for Frenching the bones, too.
At home, I use a Fujiwara blade that isn't a true honesuki—instead of a single bevel, it has an asymmetric bevel, which I chose because, at the time, I wasn't quite comfortable with the idea of sharpening a single-bevel blade. I've since used the single-bevel Tojiro DP honesuki we have in the test kitchen many times, and I can recommend both, both as a gift to buy for yourself this holiday season or as a gift for anyone you know who cooks a fair amount of chicken and likes to use beautifully designed tools.