European vs Japanese Knives – What’s the Difference?

Thought often called French knives, not all are made in France. In fact, Germany is well known for their knife manufacturers. And with the global popularity of Japanese food comes their culinary tools, especially a particular style of chef’s knife.

But how are the two knives different? Certainly there are different styles of knives to properly prepare various foods. But even the chef knife – the workhorse of the kitchen – will have distinct variations.

Weight

European-style knives tend to be noticeably heavier than Japanese knives. For many old-school cooks in the French tradition, this is an advantage. A solid German or French knife is great for chopping even tough or bony foods. The original use of the French knife was disjointing large cuts of meat.

Japanese style knives tend to be lighter and more elegant. They are designed to make very fine cuts, even very complex cuts. And professional chefs doing a lot of prep work will avoid fatigue. But delicacy often comes at the cost of strength. Many an unsuspecting chef has badly damaged a Japanese knife by using it for too rough a job.

Bolster

The bolster of a knife is the metal section that connects the blade to the handle. The bolster typically adds strength to a potentially weak point on the knife, as well as balancing the knife.

In European-style knives, the bolster extends from the spine of the blade down to the heel. The result is a finger guard and a very strong but dull heel.  It also adds to the weight of the knife.

In Japanese-style knives, however, the bolster is just a solid metal extension of the handle. The blade of the knife can be sharpened all the way back to the heel of the blade, and the resulting knife is significantly lighter.

Click here to check out the beautiful Shun Premier Chef’s Knife, a classic Japanese-style knife.

Handles

Nowadays, the rules on handle size and shape aren’t as clear-cut. More and more European knife makers are designs knives with more ergonomic handles. At the same time, Japanese knife makers are catering more to export markets and designing their knives in a more traditionally European style. Traditionally, though, the following can be said to be true.

French and German knives have typically had a handle profile that is more square, with flat sides and a slightly rounded top and bottom. There has also been a pronounced, rounded butt of the handle used as a counter-weight to the blade. Quality chef knives are generally full tang, meaning the metal of the blade and bolster extend all the way to  the butt of the handle. The handle is itself held in place using rivets.

Compare the two handles from the same manufacturer: see the Wusthof Classic cook’s knife, and then the Wusthof Classic Ikon cook’s knife.

Japanese knives are traditionally lighter, so they don’t often have the weighted butt of the handle, though they are typically also full tang. The profile of the handle is typically an oval or a D-shape. The D-shaped handles are hand-specific, so lefties need to pay a bit of a premium to get one of these knives.

While different, neither European chef knives nor Japanese chef knives are superior. It’s matter of personal preference, and each style of knife’s suitability for a task at hand. Decide based on your own cooking style and tastes. For rougher, tougher jobs a European style knife is the best choice.  For delicate, fine work, the Japanese blade is most likely to perform. And if you have eclectic tastes, maybe one of each!

Or for something completely different, there’s the Ken Onion chef’s knife by Shun.

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