Japan has a gastronomy culture where there is a prominent respect for knives, and extreme care is taken daily for these precious culinary instruments. In the kitchen, the Japanese will dedicate some minutes everyday to care for their knives and to clean and sharpen them. Yes, every day! In this post I’ll show you more about the Japanese culture and other secrets of their sharpening stones, also known as whetstones.
The secret of Japanese knives
In Japan, the apprentices in the hospitality industry need to pass a knife sharpening exam before they receive their diploma. They do this because they understand the importance of sharp edges in the kitchen and they want students to have respect for the knife, and for the professionals that prepare the food.
The prestigious chef Rokusaburo Michiba affirms that the knife is the soul of the chef and that finding a good knife is the first thing one must do to enjoy work in the kitchen.
In every Japanese restaurant they sharpen the knives daily. They spend five minutes on each knife which shows just how much respect they have for their kitchen instruments. The time that the Japanese take to care for their knives speaks volumes about the importance they place in maintaining the flavor and texture of the delicate dishes they prepare.
With the growing popularity of Japanese cuisine, more and more Europeans are beginning to appreciate the care one must take for kitchen knives. If you would like to know more about Japanese knives, you can read our post about them here.
In this post, we will study more about the rocks that sharpen knives, and we will teach you how to use them so that you too can apply the Japanese culture of care to your own knives. We also invite you to follow @elrincondelafilado or the king of sharpening, on Instagram.
The best Japanese whetstones
The Japanese not only believe that sharpening stones, or the whetstone is something fundamental, but also that sharpening should be performed in a particular way. In the Japanese system, you must divide the knife into zones to sharpen. The other more familiar system is the American system, where a knife is sharpened from the tip to end following the same stroke pattern.
Japanese Whetstones are very reputable and have a very long tradition. The stones themselves are porous and of a fine grain. During the process of sharpening, the whetstone continually removes the outer layer of the knife through friction thus revealing a new surface.
The most popular whetstones are manufactured in the north of Japan in the district of Narutaki. The Japanese differentiate between ara-to and naka-to and Siage-to. This type of stone is extracted from very rare mines which make these stones very valuable.
The sharpening stones have different grades, depending on the grain of the stone. A fine grain corresponds with a sharpening stone that is dense which allows for detailed and specific sharpening adjustments. On the other hand, a coarse grain whetstone sharpens knives and takes off greater amounts of material. The higher the reference number of the grain, the finer it is. This way we can differentiate between whetstones.
220-400 These stones have a coarse grain which is ideal to fix large imperfections in sharpening. They are perfect for bringing life back into old knives which are chipped and in disrepair. We do not recommend these whetstones when you are learning to sharpen.
800-2000 These stones are of a fine grain. They are great for knives in good condition that only need to be maintained. This is considered a basic whetstone.
3000-8000 These stones are made from a grain that is extra fine that perfects the sharpness and brilliance of the knife. The result is a knife that appears brand new.
10000-12000 These whetstones are elaborate with a grain that is so fine that they are recommended for professional use only. They are to be used by those who use knives with precision. The result is a knife with a very precise edge and is just as sharp esthetically as it is functionally.
How to use the Japanese whetstones step by step:
While the use of a whetstones is rather basic, to do so correctly you need a very subtle technique with a perfect inclination of the knife when you use the stone. This will guarantee a perfect sharpening.
The most fundamental step is to know the requirements of sharpening your specific knife. If the knife is in disrepair and chipped, you need a whetstone that has a coarse grain which is more abrasive.
Once you have discovered what your knife requires and what stone you need, it is important to know if you need to use your stone with water or oil. The stones which use water are the more common of the two, but you should study and see what your stone requires. Some stones need to soak for 5 minutes in water, and others for up to 2 hours.
The next step is to use a non-slip base in order to prevent accidents. Once you have done this, we slide the blade of the knife in sections across the stone. Work in sections
Ideally, you should work with three stones. Here at Naifuji we recommend using 3 stones: a 400 grain, a 1000 grain and a 5000 grain whetstones. You should always sharpen your knife on the coarse stone first and then work your way up to the finest grain whetstone. Have a look at our complete sharpening pack.
When you pass the blade of the knife, make sure you pass it uniformly across the surface. You should do so at an angle of 15-20 degrees over the stone and apply firm pressure.
When you have completed the sharpening of one side, return the knife and repeat the movement with the other side of the knife.
Lastly, in order to eliminate debri from the sharpening you should rinse the stone and leave it out to dry.