How to Choose A Chef’s Knife: Exploring the Art of Japanese Knives

by Ryan Shaffer July 17, 2023 7 min read

Artisan japanese knife on a cutting board with spinach and garlic

If you’re wondering how to choose a chef’s knife, look no further than the storied tradition of samurai sword-making. Centuries of craftsmanship, knowledge, and history flow through each blade. When you choose a kitchen knife, your tool transforms into a trusted partner, enhancing your culinary experience and elevating your knife skills.

The vast array of options may seem overwhelming, but this guide will show you how to choose a Japanese knife. With some research, your kitchen knife will transport you to the essence of ancient Japan.

When selecting your first Japanese kitchen knife, consider the feel and balance, steel type, handle material, price, and style. Let’s dive into the world of Japanese cutlery and discover its unique qualities to learn how to choose a chef’s knife.

Understanding the Cost and Quality of Japanese Kitchen Knives

Cost can be a concern when deciding how to choose a chef's knife. While some Japanese knives are expensive, there are a wide range of options that offer excellent value. Japanese knives are renowned worldwide for their exceptional craftsmanship and quality. The cost associated with choosing these kitchen knives comes from several factors.

  • Master blacksmiths spend decades honing their skills, resulting in high demand and expensive craftsmanship.
  • Traditional Japanese knife making requires years of training and expertise.
  • Blacksmiths often specialize in different aspects of knife production, such as forging, sharpening, polishing, or installing handles.
  • High-grade materials for the blade and handle add to the overall cost.

Japanese knives stand out due to their construction. When considering how to choose a chef’s knife, you’ll find the Japanese style incorporates two types of metals forged together: a steel core for the cutting edge and a lower carbon iron for added malleability and rust resistance. This fusion creates knives of exceptional quality, combining strength with razor-sharp precision.

How to Choose A Japanese Knife

There are many types of Japanese kitchen knives, each tailored to a specific purpose. These knives are indispensable in the country’s cuisine, enabling precise cuts for fish and vegetables. However, when deciding how to choose a chef’s knife, you’ll likely begin with the most popular types. These are Gyuto, Santoku, and Nakiri.


Japanese Gyuto knife on wood table

Gyuto knives are the Japanese interpretation of the European chef’s knife. With a general blade length of 180-300mm (7”-11.8”), the Gyuto features a slender form, a long, pointed blade, and a narrow width. 

This all-purpose knife excels at cutting large meats and vegetables. The term “Gyuto” translates to “cow sword” in Japanese. However, there may be better choices for slicing large produce or delicate work.


The Santoku knife, meaning “three virtues,” is a Japanese version of the chef’s knife. With a blade length of approximately 160mm to 180mm (6.3” to 7”), its balanced design allows for chopping, slicing, and dicing. And since it makes quick work of meat, fish, and vegetables, its versatility fits into any home kitchen.


Japanese Nakiri knife on wood table

When preparing vegetables, chefs choose Nakiri knives. The name “Nakiri” translates to “greens cutter” in Japanese. These knives feature a rectangular blade shape without a sharp tip, typically ranging from 150mm to 180mm (5” to 7”) in length. 

With an even blade width, Nakiri knives effortlessly cut through large ingredients with minimal force. They are incredibly convenient for slicing bigger vegetables like lettuce and Chinese cabbage. Their strength makes them a great option when choosing an all-purpose kitchen knife.

How to Choose a Japanese SushiKnife

If you’re making sushi, choosing a chef knife is simple. The sushi knife, or sashimi knife, is a long, slender blade that is excellent at fileting and slicing fish. Let’s explore the precision side of how to choose a chef’s knife.


The Yanagiba knife has a long, thin blade and a single bevel. It’s prized for slicing sashimi and creating clean, precise cuts. The blade length of Yanagiba knives typically ranges from 210mm to 360mm (8.3” to 14.2”).

The Shobu knife is a variation of the Yanagiba knife. It shares most characteristics of the Yanagiba but has a uniquely curved back and is commonly a tool for slicing sashimi.


Often used for delicate cuts like slicing sashimi, Takohiki knives feature a single bevel similar to the Yanagiba but with a squared-off tip. The blade length of Takohiki knives is usually between 240mm and 300mm (9.4” to 11.8”).


The Sujihiki knife, also known as the slicing knife, is a double-bevel knife. Choose this chef’s knife for slicing meat, fish, and sashimi. It has a long, narrow blade with a pointed tip. The blade length of Sujihiki knives typically ranges from 240mm to 300mm (9.4” to 11.8”).


The hefty design of Deba knives makes cutting and fileting fish a breeze. It is a heavier knife compared to others, making it one of the best for cutting through fish bones. The blade is wide and thick, often sporting an obtuse-angled edge. Deba knives are available in various blade lengths, ranging from 90mm to 300mm (3.5” to 11.8”).

The single bevel of the knife prevents fish and meat from sticking to the blade, allowing for smooth cutting without destroying the flavor or texture of the ingredients.

How to Choose a Chef’s Knife by Blade Material

High-carbon and stainless steel are the primary materials to consider when choosing a Japanese kitchen knife.

High Carbon Steel

High carbon steel knives are known for their exceptional sharpness and edge retention, making them the choice for countless culinary enthusiasts. It can be harder to sharpen, but the razor-sharp edge ensures precise cuts.

In addition to its edge, over time, high-carbon develops a patina. This natural oxidation forms a layer that helps protect the blade from rusting and gives it a unique appearance.

Stainless Steel

While stainless steel blades may not offer the same sharpness and edge retention level as high-carbon steel, they perform admirably in the kitchen. 

Stainless steel blades are resistant to rust and corrosion, making them ideal for those who prefer low maintenance options when considering how to choose a chef’s knife. They are also less likely to chip than high-carbon steel. For first-time users, choosing a stainless steel kitchen knife is often recommended due to their ease of upkeep. 

However, if you’re willing to invest time in maintenance and want exceptional sharpness and aesthetic appeal, high-carbon steel knives like those made from white steel or blue steel can provide a remarkable cutting experience.

How to Choose a Chef’s Knife by Shape and Material

Another consideration when choosing a chef’s knife is the handle. Handles come in various shapes and materials, each offering different advantages and aesthetics.


Traditional Japanese knife handles are typically round, octagonal, or oval in shape. These shapes provide a lighter and more maneuverable feel in the hand, allowing precise movements during cutting tasks. In contrast, Western-style handles have a flared end and a swelled-out portion that fits in the palm, providing a more substantial grip.


Considering the handle’s material is another factor in how to choose a chef’s knife. Handles can feature various materials, including woods like ebony, Spanish mahogany, magnolia, walnut, wenge, and persimmon or hard plastics. The choice of handle material is primarily a matter of personal preference. 

If you appreciate the beauty of natural wood and desire a unique handle, natural wood handles like ebony or magnolia are an excellent choice. Hard plastic handles are a popular option for easy maintenance and durability, as they resist wear over time.

What’s a Tang?

A knife’s tang is the blade section extending into the handle. When choosing a Japanese kitchen knife, you’ll find many partial tang handles. This design is where the steel inserts into only one-third to one-half of the handle. In contrast, Western-style knives are often full tang, extending throughout the handle. How to choose a chef’s knife with the right handle often comes down to personal preference and the specific tasks you’ll perform.

One of the benefits of a partial tang knife is that often the part of the knife that needs replacing is the handle. With a partial tang knife, the handle can be much more easily replaced versus a full tang handle.

Japanese Knife Care

After you choose a chef’s knife, caring for it is crucial to ensure longevity and preserve quality. Here are some tips for maintaining and caring for your Japanese knives.


  • Avoid cutting through bone or frozen foods. Most Japanese knives are designed for precision cuts, not for heavy-duty tasks like bone cutting, which can damage the blade.
  • Maintain a straight motion rather than twisting the knife while cutting. Twisting can increase the risk of chipping or cracking the blade.
  • Use a cutting board made of natural wood or plastic. Hard surfaces like glass or marble will quickly dull the knife’s edge. A cutting board using end-grain wood provides the best surface to help with edge retention.


  • When you choose a chef’s knife, you’re also choosing to avoid using the dishwasher. The high heat, harsh detergents, and vigorous water jets can damage the blade and handle.
  • Wash the knives by hand using a soft sponge or cloth, mild soap, and warm water. Avoid using abrasive cleaners or scrubbers.
  • After hand-washing your knives, immediately dry them thoroughly to prevent rusting. Do not air dry them, as moisture can lead to rust formation.


  • Choosing a kitchen knife block or a magnetic knife wall will protect your blades from damage and ensure they are easily accessible.
  • If storing them in a kitchen drawer, use knife protectors or sheaths to protect the blades from other utensils and prevent accidental damage.
  • When transporting your knives, use a saya (a traditional Japanese knife cover) or a knife protector to keep them safe.


  • The frequency of sharpening depends on usage. When you choose a chef’s knife for home use, sharpen whenever the knife feels dull. Professional chefs may need to sharpen their knives daily.
  • Avoid using honing rods on single-bevel knives. Instead, use a toishi sharpening stone, which Japanese blacksmiths recommend for single-bevel and double-bevel knives.
  • You can always use professional sharpening services if you haven’t sharpened knives before and would like help.

Now You KnowHow to Choose a Chef’s Knife

Choosing a kitchen knife is an investment that can pay dividends in the kitchen. And like the legacy of craftsmanship that goes into crafting each blade, it can last for generations. 

Regardless of the Japanese chef knife you choose, they are not only practical kitchen tools---they are works of art with a rich cultural heritage. Your chef’s knife is the tool you choose to elevate your kitchen skills. With proper care, it will become an extension of your imagination.

Need More Help?

Don’t worry. Let us help! Contact us. We’ll guide you through choosing a kitchen knife for your needs.

Also in Blog

How to Choose a Japanese Sushi Knife: A Guide for Culinary Enthusiasts
How to Choose a Japanese Sushi Knife: A Guide for Culinary Enthusiasts

by Ryan Shaffer June 20, 2024 4 min read

Sushi is an art form that requires precision, skill, and the right tools. Central to this art is the sushi knife, a specialized instrument designed to slice fish and other ingredients with surgical precision. Whether you're a professional chef or a home cook looking to elevate your sushi-making skills, selecting the right Japanese sushi knife is crucial. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you choose the perfect sushi knife.
Read More
Close-up photo of cherry blossoms and Japanese temple
The Traditional Craftsmanship of Japanese Kitchen Knives

by Ryan Shaffer September 14, 2023 4 min read

Japanese cooking knives have the reputation of being some of the best in the industry, and if you’ve ever wondered why, you’ve come to the right place. For starters, Japanese knife making is a fine art mastered only by a handful of individuals, and this is because the knives are made to exact and high standards.
Read More
Hands sharpening a Japanese knife on a whetstone
How to Sharpen Japanese Knives

by Ryan Shaffer September 07, 2023 5 min read

If you’ve already purchased a nice set of Japanese chef knives, you obviously consider quality to be something important. Maintaining sharp and pristine Japanese knives is essential to preserve their purpose and investment.
Read More