You might think that using a knife is a relatively simple task and in a way it is. For a novice, picking up a knife and blindly slicing it into food is about as good as it gets, but if you want to get to a professional standard, then you’ll need to practice the different knife techniques and improve those Japanese kitchen knife skills. Cutting techniques are especially important for a sashimi or sushi chef and all Japanese cuisine which is so intricate and precise.
It can feel intimidating, especially since a sharp knife can be a potentially dangerous tool in the wrong hands. But by using professional knife techniques used in Japan and practicing regularly, you will soon feel as though your knife blade is an extension of your arm.
In this guide, we will be giving you some handy tips used regularly by chefs in Japanese cooking, on how to hold your knives and improve your technique. It’s important to start slow and spend some time getting to know your equipment. Moreover, we would never advise trying anything that you don’t feel ready to. Take it at your own pace, practice and more importantly, enjoy what you’re doing. After all, cooking is a hobby, not just a necessity.
Table of contents
Take Care of Your Blades
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when learning how to use a knife is not correctly maintaining the blade. Not only will this affect the performance of the knife, but it can mean you have less control over your cutting motion, and you’ll also end up having to replace your knives more regularly, which can get pretty expensive. By properly caring for your knives, you’ll find a sharp blade is much easier to work with and will give you much more control.
We have a guide on the importance of knife sharpening, advising on a whetstone to sharpen the steel if you would like a more detailed explanation, but it’s important to know that cutting with a dull blade is both dangerous and difficult. There are some other things you will need to do as well to keep your Japanese knives in tip-top condition.
For example, you should avoid letting your blades be wet for any longer than necessary. When washing them, do this by hand rather than in the dishwasher as this will help to prevent corrosion. When you have finished cleaning the knife, always make sure to dry it thoroughly with a clean cloth, before storing, and be sure to watch out for any rust spots forming.
Furthermore, it’s essential to avoid using the sharp edge for anything other than cutting. When moving ingredients around the chopping board or scraping them into a pan, a lot of amateur chefs use the sharp edge and this will dull it much more quickly. If you must use your Japanese knife to move ingredients around, always use the flat side or the steel spine.
Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Having the Right Knife
If you’re going to have the most versatility, then it’s a good idea to stock your kitchen with a whole host of different steel knives. Moreover, you should educate yourself on what each of these knives should be used for. Despite what you might think, they’re all intended for different purposes. If you want to improve your knife skills then you’ll need to make sure that you’re using the correct knife for each application.
For example, imagine trying to use a paring knife to carve a chicken. You’re going to struggle. Generally speaking, you will need a large chef’s knife or santoku for things like carving meat as well as chopping hard vegetables, whereas a medium-sized serrated knife is ideal for cutting delicate foods like tomatoes, as well as cutting bread and pies. That paring knife we mentioned will really come into its own when doing more precision cutting.
Equally, you do not want to apply excessive force to a knife that is not being used for its intended purpose. You could end up damaging the blade, the handle, or more importantly, your fingers!
So you see, you can have the best knife skills in the world, but Japanese chefs are only as good as his or her tools!
Get to Grips With Your Grip
Something that a lot of people forget to consider when learning how to use a knife is how they hold it. But this is of the utmost importance. Not only will it make it so much easier to use your knife, but it’ll also make the whole process much safer and reduce the risk of an injury.
More than anything else, you should feel comfortable when holding your knife. The correct way to hold the knife with a 'pinch grip'. The thumb and index finger should hold onto the heel and with your grip high on the handle. Doing this will vastly improve your stability and give you far more control.
Get Familiar With the Basic Cuts
It might come as a surprise to learn that there is more than one way to skin a cat…or so the saying goes. The same is true when using a Japanese knife. Allow yourself time to research the different methods, develop new skills, and learn the different techniques, and you will allow yourself much greater ease when tackling various jobs. Moreover, you will find that you can use your knives far more efficiently and cut much more quickly.
Let’s use chopping as an example. If you are using a recipe that calls for this, be sure to chop the pieces of vegetable, fish or meats, into equal sizes. If you need to dice then the rule of thumb is to produce cubes that are around a quarter of an inch.
But these aren’t the only method of cutting; you’ll often be asked to mince foods and this means to chop them as small as possible. While julienne cuts require the chef to slice the food into shapes that are similar to that of a matchstick. Again, choosing the right knife for each technique will make life a whole lot easier.
And if you thought that was all you needed to know, we have another surprise for you. You will note that not only are there different styles of cutting but also different ways of doing it.
Slicing is often used for meat or veggies and this is done by laying the food onto the cutting board and holding it in place using your non-knife hand, making sure to mind your knuckles and fingertips. Hold the knife and place the tip of the blade onto the board, lifting the handle to angle it upwards. Then you can repeatedly pull back the full length of the blade whilst keeping its tip to the board, in a circular motion, at the same time as moving the food into the blade.
If you need to cut foods much more finely such as herbs then you will do best to choose the back slice. For this, you will need to stack your leaves and roll them tightly together. Keep the leaves still using your free hand and place the knife's tip onto the board. You will need to keep the angle of the blade pretty low and pull it backward in a slicing motion, through the herbs.
Rock chopping is one of the most popular knife techniques and is the ideal method for mincing and this works well again when cutting herbs. With this technique, you will need to start by slicing your food and arranging it into a pile to one side. Once again, you’ll need a pinch grip to place the point of the blade onto the cutting board and use your free hand on the spine to steady the blade. Now, move the knife in a rocking motion up and down which will mince the food into very fine pieces.
Don’t Forget to Focus
When you are cutting ingredients, it can be easy to lose focus as some people find this a repetitive task. However, it is super important to make sure that you always remain focused otherwise there is a serious risk that you will cut yourself.
Before you begin cutting anything, make a plan for how you are going to do it. This may seem over the top but it will help you to become more adept at using your knife. You want to think about how to make the task as easy and safe as possible and once you start, constantly keep your eyes on what you are doing.
Becoming the best chef you can doesn’t only involve cooking delicious dishes. You will also need to get familiar with your tools and some of the most important are your Japanese knives. Improving your knife skills can be done over time and there are some incredibly simple things you can do to help yourself. Making sure that you choose the right knife, the correct method for the job, and ensuring excellent blade maintenance, are just some of the ways you can become the next knife whizz!