What is the difference between Western and Japanese knives – by Paul Bough of Zwilling
At the recent Restaurant Show in London I came upon Paul Bough, Sales Manager at Zwilling. Zwilling sells high quality knives – both Western and Japanese, truly essential kitchen equipment. Saucy Dressings took the opportunity to ask him about the differences between these two very different styles of knife.
SD: What are the differences in terms of shape?
PB: Zwilling Knives, and many other Western knives, have mainly medium and high tips for a rocking motion. Miyabi or Japanese knives have low tips for a chopping motion. Western knives are sharpened on both sides of the blade, giving them a symmetrical bevel. Zwilling knives have a total 30° angle – 15° on each side – the optimum angle to enable the knife to literally glide through the material it’s cutting with the minimum effort.
Japanese knives only have the bevel on one side, and that bevel can be just 5° – that’s a very sharp knife!
SD: What are the differences in terms of production? Why do Japanese knives look so beautiful?
PB: German knives are forged from one piece of metal, whereas Japanese are layered.
SD: Why are these differences there – it must be because they are used in a different way?
PB: It’s the rocking rather than chopping thing. The curve of Western knives enables the user to apply different amounts of pressure to specific areas of the blade. German knives, incidentally, have a deeper, more curved blade than French knives.
SD: Are there any ‘all-purpose’ Japanese, or western knives – ie if you could only choose one Japanese knife, which would it be? If only one western knife, which?
PB: For me, if I had to choose a Western knife it would be the Chef’s Knife; and the smaller, lighter, sharper Santoku would be my first choice of Japanese knife.
SD: What are the price differences between the two ranges you stock?
PB: So much depends on the knife. We sell a Western-style Chef’s Knife in our Diplôme range for £174 (including VAT) which has a 24 cm blade and is actually made in Japan, and a Santoku knife in our Miyabi range for £164. But we sell a 24cm Gyutoh (Japanese chef’s knife), also in our Miyabi range for £429 – this has a beautiful masur birch handle.
SD: What about sharpening and care – how do Japanese knives differ from western?
PB: Most German knives sharpen with steels (Diamond for sharpening and Honing to remove rough edges and burr) at a 20 degree angle.
Japanese knives are 10 to 15 degree for sharpening and I would recommend using a whetstone as most Japanese knives have a higher Rockwell hardness – Rockwell hardness is a measure of how easy it is for the metal to be indented under different pressures. Japanese knives only have the bevel on one side so make sure whatever you are using to sharpen the knife does not automatically sharpen both sides of the knife. That way is the way to ruin!
“Most Japanese knives have a higher Rockwell hardness… they can retain their sharpness longer, but it does make them more brittle.”
Because Western knives are made with softer metal they need more material to strengthen them, so overall they tend to be a bit more robust.
But because they are made from softer steel, Western knives need to be sharpened more regularly – but when sharpened, they are very sharp!
Because they’re made with harder steel, Japanese knives will retain their sharp edge. But with hardness, comes brittleness – don’t misuse a Japanese knife and use it for cutting through chicken bones for example.
“…don’t misuse a Japanese knife and use it for cutting through chicken bones for example.”
SD: Do you have any additional advice?
PB: Hand wash your knives and never put them in the dishwasher. Also look after your edges by using a bamboo chopping board – never use a hard chopping board – one made out of glass or marble for example.
The knife Saucy Dressings wants for Christmas….
Zwilling is celebrating its 285th anniversary by producing a Chef’s Knife made from steel from the Mungsten Bridge whose beautiful arches carry the railway line between Solingen and Wuppertal in Germany. During repairs, some of the steel from the bridge has had to be removed, and Zwilling has bought the steel and made a knife of 107 layers, to represent the 107 metres of this magnificent bridge.
This knife is a piece of art! Designed by the Italian designer Matteo Thun, it has a dark handle of African blackwood which contrasts with the beautiful, flickering, layered shiny metal.
It’s a snip at £1791.
See also The Art of Creating Ergonomic Knives for Chefs by following this link.
Or read Kevin Kent’s The Knife Nerd Guide To Japanese Knives.
“A good cook changes his knife every year… in slicing, an ordinary cook needs to replace his every month. But I have been using this knife for nineteen years, cutting up several thousand oxen, and yet its edge is as sharp as if it is newly come from the whetstone. “Chef Ding, quoted by Zhuangzi, writing 360-280 BC in Nourishing The Lord Of Life: 2. Chef Ding explains the longevity of his knife by not attempting to hack through bones, but to seek the gaps, the spaces between. He looks and feels carefully, and, having worked out how to achieve the best slice first, proceeds. A philosophy also, it is suggested, for life.