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In Europe, the chef's knife is a sturdy tool that can chop and slice anything. In Japan it's a thin, light precision instrument. What happens when East meets West?

By Published Nov. 1, 2009
UpdateNovember 2018
The featherlight, crazy-sharp Masamoto VG-10 Gyutou, 8.2" is still our favorite gyutou. It's comfortable, light, and ready to slice, dice, and mince with precision. Though we still recommend a traditional chef's knife for most home cooks, the Masamoto is an excellent option for those who prefer a slightly lighter, thinner, and less curved blade.

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What You Need To Know

A good chef’s knife is the single most essential piece of kitchen equipment—at least in the European-American tradition. It serves as an all-purpose tool for cutting, slicing, mincing, and chopping everything from herbs to vegetables to meat. The Western chef’s knife is 8 to 10 inches long, with a pointed tip for precision work, a thick spine for strength to push through tough foods, and a curved edge that helps rhythmically rock the blade to chop a pile of carrots, dice an onion, or slice a cucumber. The cutting edge won’t easily chip or break and is simple to resharpen; it also works like a wedge, pushing food apart with a 20-degree angle to each side.

By contrast, in Japan, there is no such thing as one all-purpose chef’s knife. Since cutting technique is paramount in this cuisine—in some ways more important than actual cooking—Japanese chefs have always used at least three different knives. The yanagi has a long, slim blade for slicing raw, boneless fish. The deba is a thick-spined, heavy little knife for butchering meat and filleting fish. The usuba has a slim, rectangular blade for cutting vegetables.

Japanese chefs believe that cutting food without any crushing is essential to retaining its natural flavor. As a result, their knives (even the chunky deba) have extremely thin, sharp cutting edges honed on just one side to a 15-degree angle. To support this thinness, the knives must be made of very hard steel. The downside? Such blades are both more brittle and harder to resharpen than the softer steel of a Western-made knife. But brittleness is unimportant in a knife that is drawn along the board to slice (or held in the hands in a paring action), as opposed to pounded up and down, Western-style.

For centuries, these two culinary traditions have remained distinct. Now, top Japanese knife makers (including the famous “three Ms”: Masamoto, Masahiro, and Misono)—and even venerable German manufacturers Henckels and Messermeister—have merged East and West in an entirely new breed of knife. Called the gyutou (ghee-YOU-toe) in Japan, this hybrid tool fuses Japanese knifemaking (harder steel, a straighter edge for slicing rather than rocking, and slimmer, sharper 15-degree cutting angle) with Western knife design (the Western chef’s knife shape, and a blade sharpened on both sides). The result is feather-light, lethally sharp, wonderfully precise—and nothing like the heavy German-style knives many of us are accustomed to using. For me, taking up one of these knives for the first time was like removing heavy ski boots after a day on the slopes. You’re expecting a heaviness that’s no longer there.

But no matter how gloriously lig...

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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.

Lisa McManus

Lisa is an executive editor for ATK Reviews, cohost of Gear Heads on YouTube, and gadget expert on TV's America's Test Kitchen.