It's time to buy a real knife: a nice one, not the dull lump of steel currently masquerading as a knife on your kitchen counter. You want to get a high-quality knife, but you're not sure which way to go: German or Japanese? It's a decision almost as daunting as choosing between cold-brew and pour-over coffee. What are the differences, and which one is best for the kind of cooking you do? To find out the answers, we speak to two knife experts—Jeffrey Elliot, author of The Zwilling J. A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills, and Tara Hohenberger, marketing director for Chubo Knives—to slice through the confusion.
"Think of the two styles of knives like this: German knives are utilitarian—they are your workhorse. Japanese knives are for finer, more delicate slicing work," Elliot says. "A German chef's knife, also called a French knife or cook's knife, tends to be thicker and heavier. The blade profile is fatter and more rounded in belly, so it's a little more all-purpose and can be used for everything. They can take abuse, and you can use them on bones, which means you can cut through chicken bones or slice open a hard-shelled winter squash."
By contrast, Hohenberger explains, you wouldn't ever want to do this with a Japanese knife, which is made for precision work. "Japanese knives require a little more attention, because they are thinner; they can chip," she says.
The angle on the blade of a German knife is wider, at about 17.5 degrees, whereas Japanese knives tend to be 10 to 15 degrees per side. And it's the angle that's key to a knife's sharpness, Elliot explains. The narrower the angle, the smaller the cutting path through—and the less damage you'll do to—the food.
Both German and Japanese knives are made of steel blades, but all steel is not created equal. Some steel is much harder than others. The Rockwell scale is used to define just how hard a piece of steel is: the higher the number, the harder the steel. German knives come in around 57 on the scale, whereas Japanese knives are closer to 60 to 63. Harder Japanese knives will hold an edge better; however, that same harder steel is less durable and more prone to chipping or even breaking. The softer-steel German knives are far more durable, but won't maintain an edge for as long as the harder steel.
Symmetry: Important for Lefties
Unless they're made for the Western market (brands like Shun, Global and Miyabi), the edges of the Japanese blade aren't symmetrical—the cutting edge is angled toward a right-handed user 70/30, which means left-handed consumers can't properly use the knife and will have to buy one specifically for lefties. German knives are always balanced and symmetrical, and can be used by right- or left-handed cooks.
Andrea Strong has been writing about food for the past 15 years. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, her two kids and her big appetite. Follow her on Twitter at @strongbuzz.
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