Straight to the Point
Knives are an essential kitchen tool used to chop, mince, slice, and dice. And the one knife every home cook should have is a chef’s knife. These versatile blades are usually around eight inches long and come in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes. This article focuses on Japanese and Western styles, which have subtle, but important, differences worth knowing about.
But First, a Little History
Chef’s knives, while ubiquitous in both professional and home kitchens today, have murky origins. According to Josh Donald, co-owner of Bernal Cutlery in San Francisco and author of the book Sharp, there’s no way to pinpoint an exact ancient predecessor to the chef’s knife. Instead, Donald postulates the birth of the modern, Western-style chef’s knife is more recent, and had more to do with the origin of the chef than innovation in cooking implements.
“This lands us squarely in post Revolution France, in the days of Marie-Antoine Carême, and the birth of a la carte restaurant cooking that made a chef’s knife (along with a shorter, narrower utility knife, 'office,' or large paring knife) an essential kitchen tool,” he says. The repetitive nature of chopping and cutting large amounts of food requires a larger, sturdy knife that was both versatile and durable.
The Japanese chef’s knife came about in the late 19th century when Japan opened up to trade with the West and, as Donald notes, when Western food and ingredients were introduced to the island nation. “Beef being added to the Japanese diet made for the necessity of a new knife for non-seafood, animal protein processing,” he says. “The Japanese chef knife originated from Western-made chef’s knives as Japanese blacksmiths began to learn Western knife making techniques. Japanese chef knives were often made with Western-style handles until very recently, and the hand forged Japanese handled chef knife that looks very traditional is actually a recent phenomenon, though it still draws on traditional craft.”
The Blade Angles Are Different
As we've written here, "Traditional Japanese knives come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, which are designed to perform specialized tasks, such as butchering fish and cutting vegetables, noodles, sashimi, eel, or blowfish (if cutting blowfish is something you aspire to do). These knives have historically featured single-beveled blades, meaning that they're angled only on one side and are therefore right- or left-handed. These blades then taper into a tang that's knocked into a wooden handle."
On the other hand, Western-style chef's knives are what home cooks in the US are most familiar with. Their blades are sharpened symmetrically on both sides, creating a double-edge, which means they're ambidextrous by design. "Classic Western knife handles are also typically made from two pieces of wood or composite material that are used to sandwich the tang and then are secured with rivets," writes Daniel Gritzer, senior culinary director.
Japanese-Style Chef’s Knives are Harder and More Brittle
Another feature that tends to distinguish Japanese knives from Western ones is the hardness of the steel they use.
Donald notes that Japanese knives are typically made of harder steel with a higher carbon content. In contrast, Western-style chef’s knives are usually made of tougher steel with less carbon.
Metal hardness is expressed as a number on the Rockwell Scale, which measures how much pressure it takes to press an indentation into a material and, in the case of steel knives, is usually expressed as an HRC number.
“Western knives are typically tempered between 52 and 58 Rockwell hardness, while Japanese chef’s knives are around 58 to 65 Rockwell,” Donald says. “ More carbon at a higher hardness means the blade will be more brittle, but it will also hold an edge longer and work at a finer polished edge.”
The softer steels used in many Western knives are less brittle, so their micro-thin blade edges can roll to one side or another before they break; a rolled edge can be reset with a honing rod, something that won't work well with the more brittle, harder steel of a Japanese knife. When it comes time to touch up a Japanese blade, you'll need a whetstone.
These distinctions only get you so far, though, since many Japanese knife-makers go beyond traditional Japanese styles to sell a wide range of hybrid knives that blend Japanese and Western characteristics—santoku and gyuto knives are relatively commonplace examples. In some cases, Japanese companies are putting out knives that have far more in common with their Western counterparts than they do with more traditional Japanese ones.
So, Which Should I Buy?
It depends on a few things. The first thing to consider is how into knife sharpening you realistically are.
A Japanese blade requires a whetstone to sharpen it, while you can get away with honing a Western-style chef’s knife for a bit. So if you’re all in about learning to sharpen knives, then a Japanese-style chef’s knife could be a worthwhile investment. However, if you’re unlikely to want to learn the art of sharpening on a whetstone, or if you want your chef’s knife to tackle hardy ingredients without chipping, a Western-style chef’s knife might be a good choice. Japanese style chef’s knives also generally have less of a curve to the blade, meaning they’re better for a pulling-style slicing motion rather than a rocking one. The latter is better suited to curved Western-style chef’s knives.
You could also have your cake and eat it too, and get both: a Japanese-style chef’s knife for dexterity and sharpness, and a Western-style chef’s knife for sturdier items and a rocking chop motion. And since we’ve tested both Japanese- and Western-style blades as part of our chef’s knife review, you can be confident in your choice.
As someone who sells knives for a living, Donald is partial to both. “I like an old style Western handed carbon steel 'Kanto Gyuto' Japanese chef knife, but I also use Western chef knives as well,” he says. “I'm a big fan of a Western 10" chef knife for cutting lots of cabbage for sauerkraut or carving bone-in roasts or ribs.”
A sturdy, Western-style knife for hardy chopping tasks and a delicate Japanese style chef’s knife for precision cuts? That sounds like a fantastic dual investment, if you ask us.