Ready to take your kitchen prep to the next level? These are the knives you need.
Credit: Caitlin Bensel

My mother taught me many things about cooking, but knife skills were not among them. I learned to chop, dice, and slice by watching Jacques Pépin and Martin Yan on 1980s public television. Pépin chattered effortlessly while rendering an onion into perfect squares. Within seconds, Yan smacked and smeared garlic into a minced state.

I wanted to be like them and practiced whenever I could. A dull knife accident that led to stitches didn't deter me. It only underscored the need for sharp blades.

In college, my brother indulged me with a set of Cutco knives. For my first restaurant job, I bought a Chicago Cutlery chef's knife. Our wedding registry included J.A. Henckels. I sharpened the blades often, but they never held their edges long. I wasn't yet chopping at Pépin and Yan levels.

One day at a Japanese hardware store in Los Angeles, I bought a MAC knife for my sister as a housewarming gift. She wasn't a great cook, and the light, thin blade gave her confidence. I added inexpensive Japanese knives to my collection, too. We marveled at how the Asian knives were easier to work with than their European cousins. I was chopping more like my PBS heroes.

My local knife-sharpening guru taught me to gently draw a blade along a steel to maintain its edge between his intense sharpenings. He has sharpened more than 60,000 knives in 13 years, but "no one makes knives like the Japanese," he told me. Their craft developed from making samurai swords centuries ago, and their knife designs are formulated for efficiency.

The hardware-store Japanese knives were fine tools, but over time my cutting hard and forearm began to tingle and hurt. A tendinitis brace helped, but the pain lingered. Would pricier blades relieve my pain?

I spent hours researching blade steels and knife designs (going down the Japanese cutlery rabbit hole is an adventure characterized by metallurgy and artisanal makers). I eventually settled on a gyuto (aka gyutou) chef's knife and a nakiri vegetable knife featuring HAP40 semi-stainless blades, a high-tech combo of metals that enable blades to stay sharp longer.

You must wipe these knives dry after prep sessions or prevent them from rusting. (Any careless rust spots got removed with Flitz metal polish.) But the slight inconvenience was worth it. As I chopped, diced, and minced like a crazy fool, the edges barely dulled. My quarterly knife tune-ups are now needed just once a year.

Tackling a dish involving lots of knife work became less of a chore. Paper-thin sliced onion, matchstick-cut jicama, and finely chopped ginger? No problem with the gyuto. A mandoline for potatoes au gratin? Nah. The nakiri glides through the potato like butter. My arm pain disappeared.

I had developed pretty good knife skills during decades of cooking, but using the new Japanese knives upped my game—and it may do the same for you, too.

Credit: Caitlin Bensel

Try It Out: Shrimp-and-Orange Salad

Practice and show off your knife skills by making this main course salad. To give precooked shrimp a refresh, toss them in a good 1/2 teaspoon salt, rinse, and pat dry. Cutting the shrimp in half symmetrically makes it easier to cut.