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The average household knife block or drawer is filled with an assortment of knives with different sized and edged blades designed for various cutting tasks.
Over the years, each culinary culture has implemented their own designs for knives to suit the functions of their individual cooking needs.
The blades on knives like cleavers and large chef’s knives are thicker and heavier and made to cut through bone, tough meat, and fruits and vegetables with thick rinds.
While these knives are common across Europe and North America, Asian cooking has warranted the need of specialty knives with thin and light blades designed to cleanly slice delicate fresh fish and less fibrous vegetables.
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Fortunately, the fusion of eastern and western cooking in recent decades has led a more widespread availability of most specialty knives across the globe. Now you can find American and European-made Japanese-style blades as well as traditional European styles manufactured by Asian brands.
What’s the Angle?
If you’re anything like the average household cook, you probably don’t pay much attention to the specs of your kitchen blades.
Most people pick a practical assortment of affordable knives and hope they are sharp enough to get the job done and built to last.
That’s okay, but even the most novice of cooks should be in possession of some kind of knife sharpener and know the degree to which each blade in the drawer should be sharpened.
While specialty knife makers have come up with varying degrees of blade angles intended for different functions, most kitchen knives are sharpened at facets of either 15º or 20º, for a total angle of 30º and 40º, respectively.
Standard American and European kitchen knives are double-beveled and sharpened on both sides of the blade at 20º facets (40º angle total). The blades on most of these chef’s knives feature a sturdy cross-section designed to handle a variety of cutting and chopping tasks.
Other task-specific blades like paring, utility, and boning knives are sharpened at the same angle, but are made with a thinner and lighter cross section.
Most contemporary Santoku and Nakiri knives available in American and European stores are double faceted with 15º sides. They are typically thinner and lighter compared to most American/European blades.
However, Chinese and Japanese manufacturers have also come up with their own styles of chef’s knives designed for heavy-duty fish and meat work. Like most Asian knives, these larger, thicker blades come with a 15º angle, but you may b them to 20 degrees for intensive and all-purpose use.
Traditional Japanese blades
Though not common in most American and European kitchens, traditional Japanese blades are the go-to for sushi chefs around the world. See our article on honing steel for Japanese knives to learn more about maintaining them. The front face on these blades typically features a primary bevel sharpened to 10 or 11º and a secondary facet sharpened to 15º. The backside features a practically invisible 15º microfacet to create a balanced cutting edge.
The15º edges allow for a precise incision while the primary bevel serves to deflect the slice away from the blade with each cut–this design is what makes these knives ideal for raw fish like tuna and salmon, which would otherwise stick to most double-faceted blades. Traditional Japanese knives should always be sharpened to a 15-degree angle unless it is designed and specified for special work.
Which Edge is Better?
As previously mentioned, the general distinction between European/American knives and Asian knives are the difference in their 20º and 15º facets. However, more and more of the top European knife manufacturers are opting for a 15º edge on their newer products in the belief that their thinner, smaller blades are perceivably sharper. The fact is that both 20º and 15º faceted blades can be sharpened to equal perfection and perform precisely as intended while holding their edge.
However, since 15º blades are typically thinner and lighter, they do create less friction when cutting and slicing–but that is not to say that they are actually sharper. While 15º blades may appear to be sharper, knives with 20º edges are likely to stay sharp for a longer time, since there is more metal to support the cutting edge and protect it from rolling or cracking.
Ultimately, it’s up to your individual preference as to which angle you go with on your set of knives. The majority of European and American-made knives will come with 20-degree facets, but some newer (and more expensive) models feature 15-degree blades modeled after their Asian counterparts.
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Many knife sharpening brands and manufacturers of kitchen accessories are coming out with both electric and manual knife sharpeners that can convert the edge of a 20-degree blade down to 15-degrees.
Fortunately for the consumer, these companies have also addressed the underlying issue of 15-degree blades–their inherent thinness and the risk of edge folding, rolling and cracking. Many new sharpeners are designed to maintain the geometric integrity of these thinner-edged blades.
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Take into consideration that not all kitchen knives and not all knives, in general, follow this rule. Hunting and survival knives, for instance, typically feature a slightly larger beveled blade somewhere between 22 and 30-degrees.
These knives generally undergo more wear and see more use on different materials than the average kitchen knife, which is meant for cutting and slicing softer objects. An outdoor knife sharpened somewhere within this range will typically provide you with the optimal sharpness and durability to match the design of the blade.
Woodworkers and craftsmen often sharpen their chisels and special blades to under 15-degrees. While such edges are not suited for most kitchen uses, these smaller angles allow these workers to shave thin strips of wood at a high degree of precision.
Keep in mind that wood carving employs a process called press cutting, wherein a chisel is literally pressed against a piece of wood to create a shaving–kitchen knives, hunting knives, and pocket knives are traditionally meant for slice cutting.
Working with a sharp knife is always going to produce better results more efficiently, safely, and with a higher level of satisfaction. With enough practice, practically anyone can learn how to properly sharpen his or her knife collection.
But you will need to learn about angles, honing techniques, and sharpening tools needed to keep a uniformly sharp blade. Getting the angle right can sometimes be difficult–but once your knives are sharp you will be exceedingly pleased with the results and will want to take care to keep them that way.
Want to learn more about different Knife Edges? Knife edges aren’t all created equal. Check out the definitive guide to knife edges.