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Why buy a Japanese knife? It’s all in the feeling

Posted by Cook Culture on

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Everyone needs to eat, and so cooking is a truly fundamental human skill. It connects us with our environment and gives us a chance to instill passion into our everyday lives. The wonderful thing about good tools is that they lend cooking a grace and ease that can reconnect us with the joy of what we’re doing, whether it’s making something simple after a long day, prepping an extravagant weekend meal, or firing yet another restaurant dish.

Good tools like these are at the heart of Cook Culture, and there’s no better example than Japanese steel. Though there are many great reasons to explore the world of Japanese knives, it all comes down to the effortless, graceful experience lent by their uniquely sharp edge.

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“It’s just a feel. When you’re really enjoying what you’re doing and your knife is really sharp, if you’re working a long day and your knife is just that much more enjoyable to use, it just makes your day better.” There are few people at Cook Culture more qualified to talk about this than instructor Cosmo Meens, chef-owner of The Hot and Cold Café in Cook St. Village. Cosmo’s been collecting and using Japanese knives in restaurant kitchens for over ten years. “Anything you can bring into your home or commercial kitchen that makes everything more enjoyable, that’s what I notice the most about it. Is it more efficient, yes, does it get sharper, yes, but it really is just really nice to work with. They’re just really beautiful tools to use.”

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What makes Japanese knives so sharp? The secret’s in the steel. Western knives are often fairly hefty, as they work by slicing food and leveraging the weight of the knife to help the blade cut. “They’re usually a thicker piece of steel with a sharp but blunter edge,” says Cosmo. “When you’re pushing through you really feel a bit more resistance.” Japanese cooking involves more chopping, which means blades need to be sharper and thinner.

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In order to create this type of knife, the steel must have a higher carbon content. This makes the blade harder, which means it’s able to better form and keep an edge. However, this also makes the knife brittle. While you might use a honing steel on a Western-style blade, a Japanese blade will chip instead of folding over, so you have to sharpen it regularly instead of just keening it; Cook Culture recommends the great Minosharp pull-throughs produced by Global. You also have to be careful not to bend or snap the knife with rough use.

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For these reasons, Japanese blades are considered finer knives that require a little more care and upkeep. “It’s a very refined tool, it’s not your kitchen brute,” says Cosmo. “But once you start using a Japanese knife and you just get that feeling of that really low resistance, super sharp, just amazing… you just get really fine cuts, really precise fine cuts.”

The trade-off between hardness and toughness is something knifemakers have been struggling with since the Iron Age, but in recent years new metallurgy research has allowed some manufacturers to produce new alloys that better bridge the divide. Zwilling J.A. Henckels’ Miyabi line is the brand of choice at Cook Culture largely because their unique forging processes create some of the sharpest and hardiest knives around.

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“Miyabi in general is just a really beautiful steel. They get their blade to a really fine, very sharp point, which means less resistance as it’s going through the food,” says Cosmo.

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Miyabi knives are ground as normal but go through extra sharpening and polishing stages done by hand, giving them a traditional and extremely sharp ‘Honbazuke’ cutting edge. They are also made in a range of different steels, allowing you to choose a balance between sharpness and toughness that makes sense for you. Their metal’s high amounts of chromium also means they are considered “stainless steel”, so with regular cleaning after use they should stay corrosion-free and beautiful for a long time. “This knife if you take care of it could last you twenty or thirty years,” says Cosmo. “If there’s anything I’m gonna leave my kids, it’s not a long legacy of financial security! It’s gonna be my knives.”

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No matter what brand or model you decide on, buying a quality chef’s knife is an investment that gives you a chance to better understand the process of cooking. A quality knife in particular can become a new hobby and offer you an interesting, skill-testing challenge as you learn to use it. “I like to buy tools that I can tweak and sharpen and master,” says Cosmo. “When you have a knife for a long time you learn how that particular knife works. Every single knife has a different feel, cuts in a little bit of a different way; the Japanese call it the kami, or the spirit of the knife.”

The name Miyabi itself is a traditional Japanese aesthetic ideal that in modern Japanese translates to “elegance” or “refinement”. If the idea of a little more elegance in your cooking sounds appealing, it might be time to consider a Miyabi knife. - Sol


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