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How To Choose Kitchen Knives
Western Vs. Japanese Knives

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Thick vs. Thin Edges

 - This actually is a derivative of the hardness property discussed above and also significantly is knife use culture issue too. Simply put western knives typically have the edge ground somewhere between 20°-22° per side. That's over 40° included angle - very thick for a knife designed for cutting. It's ok to have that edge on the deba or a meat cleaver, but for anything else that is intended to cut primarily it's excessive. Japanese school calls for far more acute angles. 15° is probably the thickest you'd find on a good Japanese kitchen knife such as Gyuto, Petty. Edges around 10° per side are nothing unusual and a lot of knife guys sharpen their favorites to much lower angles than that, extreme cases being 3° per side. Many Japanese makers advise to sharpen to 5°-7° per side for maximum performance. They key is a good, super-hard or just hard steel and proper use. You don't disjoint a chicken with Yanagiba sharpened to 8° angle on just one side, but it will slice fish to translucent pieces very long time.
    Another thing is that even Western knives can be sharpened to lower angles safely, granted the user will not abuse the knife. Unfortunately that isn't the case for decades, so the manufacturers adapt too. Who wants to deal with tons of returned knives and loose the market share, so they put thick edges that seem durable and once in a while you can open a tin can with it too, just ask Bobby Flay ;) Anyway, jokes aside, I've used Wusthofs and Henckels sharpened to 15° per side, and I can say, nothing went wrong while I was cutting food with it. Cutting performance increased few times and the edge holding wasn't decreased that much. Tradeoff was well worth it. So, even if you pick a western knife you still can safely lower the edge to at least 15° per side and enjoy much better cutting performance. Remember, that's what most of the knives are about. Alternatively if you find 15° too weak for your uses you can put secondary 20° bevel on it. Still outcuts original edge by far.

Single and Double Bevels

 - Another major point to consider is single or double bevel knife. Unless you're sure what you're doing then stick with the double bevel. Single bevel (or chisel grind) knives are much more prevalent in Japanese kitchen and pretty much non-existent in Western. I can't really think of a traditional western single bevel kitchen knife. These days Japanese knives come in both flavors and it's easy to get most of the popular knife types in either version, but not always. Gyuto or a chef's knife can be purchased in single or double bevel version. Same is true for Deba. Nakiri is double bevel and it has single bevel counterpart called Usuba. However, I've never seen double bevel Yanagiba nor single bevel Sujihiki, alternatively you could say later is double beveled version of the former, but as usual that's not the classification.
    In general it's a matter of personal preferences, if you know how to use both. I personally, have used single bevel knives for last year or so and while they're very good performers for translucent slices of veggies or meat I still have troubles controlling the single bevel Aritsugu Gyuto when making longer vertical cuts. It's my technique, or the lack of it, I absolutely don't blame the knife. There was a point when I pretty much gave up on single bevel gyuto, but thanks to knife forums I got a few pointers on its correct use and now I am back to it, training and working on my technique, hopefully not in vain :)
    Basically if you do not know, and never used single bevel knife, keep in mind there is a learning curve. Unlike me, you might grasp it in a week or two, or it may take longer time. Depends how much time and effort you invest and how fast you learn. For me it wasn't that easy partly because I had 30+ other knives in the kitchen to use/experiment with and most of them weren't single bevel knives.
    Generally speaking, single bevel has its own advantages: a) Easier to sharpen, it's just one side, half the work; b) Sharper, because of the single edge; Cons would be: Lesser versatility unless you're really skilled with it; The learning process.

Heavy Or Not

 - This is a separate topic here, but might as well be continuation of Western vs. Japanese chapter. The thing is in general Western knives tend to be much more heavier than their Japanese counterparts. On the other hand, even within the same school(Western or Japanese) you still can choose heavier or lighter blades. Same goes for the custom kitchen knives, you can ask the maker to tweak it according to your preferences.
    My personal take on the subject is that knife weight gains you next to nothing in terms of cutting ability. We're not talking the knife balancing here, just the sheer weight of the knife. I am sure everyone has heard more that once the Let The Weight Of Your knife Do The Cutting mantra. Gimme a break. if you're planning on crushing bones and skulls with it, then may be extra weight is good, but guess what, you got the wrong blade, knives aren't for that, at least most of them are not, get an axe of a sword.
    The only thing heavy knife is gaining you over the light one is the elbow or shoulder trauma, well if you're lucky may be both of them and carpal tunnel too. We're discussing cutting here, not chopping as in axe style chopping. When you cut the difference in pressure induced even by 2x difference in weight is negligible compared to the force exerted by your hand. What really matters is the edge sharpness and the angle it is sharpened at. That's it. Given the equal cutting medium sharper knife is the better performer, not the heavy one. That is I very basic physics, there is no magic involved.
    Heavier blades give you more kinetic energy when you swing them at much higher speeds compared to cutting where the vertical velocity should be less than 1 m/sec otherwise you're doing something real dangerous. Even then, the speed is more important than the weight. For cutting, be it slicing or push cutting, knife sharpness plays far greater role than its weight.
    So, to summarize, lighter blade equals less fatigue, better control and maneuverability, thus more comfortable prolonged use. Heavy knife means more fatigue, in extreme cases perhaps some injury, and absolutely negligible gain in cutting ability, nothing that can't be compensated by slight increase of the pressure. When do you think you're doing more work, when increasing the downward force on the knife by 200g to compensate for the weight or when lifting the same extra 200g all day? Don't forget you have to hold that knife in your hand, make movements various with it. So, it's not just downward force you have to deal with.
    Heavy blades are desired for heavy duty knives such as Deba or meat Cleavers. Those knives are intended to crush and chop through the bones, that is the only time when you swing your knife and chop with it. Otherwise, even the term chopping has a different meaning in the kitchen and refers to rocking motion.

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Last updated - 09/01/11