Originally Posted by LennyD
Anyhow (or maybe wow) now that you let the cat out of the bag so to say just how different is the grip and cuts or technique?
Still leaning towards running etc, but somehow I envisioned it to be used in some combination of a santoku, Chinese cleaver, and a dough cutter/separator??
It's really, really different. Grip isn't that much a of shift, though there is some. But the shape of the blade, in every dimension, alters everything. Here's a few points off the cuff:
1. It has no curve at all. Pick up any other knife that you use on the forestroke (i.e. not exclusively on a draw) and cut a carrot. Do you see what you just did? You tilted the point of the blade down, a lot or a little, and you pushed forward and down. You MUST NOT do this with an usuba, or you will crack off the tip. So the most basic cut changes: you must cut with the edge perfectly parallel to the board throughout the cut, no curving. And, as you learn this, you WILL crack that tip off, more than once. Say hello to your friend the coarse sharpening stone!
2. It is totally asymmetrical, i.e. single-beveled. This is a pretty minor thing when you're working on a draw-stroke, as you usually are with both a deba and a yanagiba (or takobiki, etc.). You know how when you cut open a fish (to take the obvious example), you lift up on the upper sheet of fish as you go along, and your cut just releases more and more fish to lift? Now imagine doing that to a carrot. Doesn't really make sense, right? So the knife is going to steer hard in a thick, hard vegetable unless you're shaving a thin slice. So you have to compensate for this, depending on what you're cutting, what kind of result you want, and so on. And you will have to do this compensation largely consciously -- it's not obvious just from having the vegetable and the knife before you.
3. It is freakishly thin at the edge, of course, but it's quite thick at the back by comparison to any chef's knife I've ever seen. So it's going to wedge like anything if you cut a thick, hard vegetable (carrots again, or daikon, or even a cucumber). How are you going avoid cracking the vegetable instead of getting a clean cut? Keep the knife wickedly sharp, keep that edge parallel to the board, and go fast and clean. If you don't have the courage of your convictions, you'll crack it. And, of course, if you get scared of tipping the knife and losing the tip, you'll lack that courage, and crack it. And if you do tip it, even if you don't crack the tip, the knife will stop dead in the board when the tip touches down, you'll not be all the way through the cut, and you'll crack the vegetable again.
You can turn most of this into a set of advantages if you do it right, but that means doing everything differently than you'd expect. Let's take potatoes as an example.
Suppose you want to cut some thinnish slices to make a potato gratin or something, OK? So if you have a chef's knife or whatever, you put the potato on its side and cut downward, working from right to left if you're a righty. The slices will stack up on the surface of the blade, of course, and you have to deal with that. But that's straightforward enough, right?
So now I'm going to do it with my usuba. Assuming I want exactly the same cuts, I'm going to cut the potato in half and stand one half on its cut side. Then I'll hold the knife edge flat to the board, my left hand just grazing the inside hollow surface underneath it. Holding it level, I push forward and left, and as I'm going arc the tip faster to the left than I do the heel, and continue the arc by drawing the handle backwards so the tip completes the cut on the front left side of the potato. The slice will be resting flat on the hollow inside surface of the knife, where my left hand already has it ready to lift off and place in a stack to my left; if I choose, and am good at this, I can just repeat the cut without lifting off the slice, until I have a stack of several slices perfectly fanned on the blade. At no point does the edge touch the board: I'm cutting parallel to the board, not down into it. And if I'm good at this, I can do it at least as fast as you can with a chef's knife, have my slices perfectly even, and have them already in a perfect fan, ready to lay beautifully into the gratin dish. In fact, this kind of cutting is so precise that I can quickly shave off potato slices that will make the most beautiful potato chips, just as cleanly and easily as with a mandoline, but with only one piece of equipment. I have seen a real expert do this and it was like a river of slices coming off, just zip zip zip, all perfect and clean and even.
If you try this with a chef's knife, it will bind: the water in the potato will make the flat of the blade stick. But an usuba does it like a dream. What this technique does is to make the single bevel, the straight edge, the weirdly thin edge, and the thick wedge into advantages. The main bevel is exactly in a plane with the board, and the hollow back lifts the cut potato up and out without disturbing its shape, while the freaky thin edge prevents any cracking and the hollow allows that big flat surface just to glide on the potato.
You have to realize that an usuba, properly used, will do almost everything that a chef's knife, utility knife, paring knife, vegetable peeler, and a mandoline will do, all in one knife. You can flute a mushroom, shave potato slices, peel a carrot, dice an onion, and every one of these things is a natural for the knife. But every one of these techniques looks different with this knife than with any other knife. To peel a carrot, potato, daikon, cucumber, or whatever, you use the katsura-muki technique, that weird shaving around in a circle thing most famously used to make sheets of daikon, which produces a peeled vegetable with no strips or flat places the way you'd get with a peeler. But katsura-muki is very hard to learn. It is infinitely easier with an usuba than with another knife, but it's still very hard.
In short, the usuba is its own thing. It does everything its own way. You work with it or against it, and you don't want to be working against something that sharp! Until you play the game the way it wants, you will hate everything about it. Once you learn its game, it starts to play with you, and the whole thing turns around and becomes enormous fun. But it takes a long time to learn. Any slob can make a mediocre but functional cut with a chef's knife -- that's one of the great things about that knife. But doing the most basic thing with an usuba requires at least rudimentary technique if you are not to damage the knife or perhaps yourself.
I adore it. But I can't stress enough the cost -- in money, time, patience, frustration, disappointment, and possibly blood.
Originally Posted by boar_d_laze
The thing of it is, you really need to think of yanagiba, usuba and deba as a trio -- you can't really get what you need from them without the others; and if you buy just one, you're doing knife-hobby instead of tools for cooking. Nothing wrong with that, but a little honest self-appraisal never hurts. Bear in mind that very few really great chefs stand out as knife artists, either. Take your satisfaction where you find it.
In the sense of versatility the western style gyuto/chef's is the one knife to rule them all. But most of us have quite a few more knives than that. To my mind the western equivalent to the Japanese trio are the quartet of gyuto, suji, petty and bread -- there's not much you can't do with those profiles. But for my normal cooking I also want something strong enough for "chef de chef" duties, and a big breaker/steaker (like my 10" cimeter) for big meat.
As always, BDL and I agree and disagree.
You do not, in my opinion, need to think of the usuba as a necessary member of this trio. If you want a yanagiba and deba for your fish work, and you love a good chef's knife, just buy a shorter deba, which will be easier to learn anyway, not to mention cheaper. You only need a honking big one if you can't use your main knife to mince ultra-fine (don't try that with an usuba: it will chip like anything, and that's not a question of bad technique so much as using the knife improperly).
No question, the chef's knife is the most versatile knife of all. If you are considering a different "anchor," such as an usuba, you have to think about what you could possibly gain to make up for the real losses. An usuba will shine, once learned well, in vegetable work of all kinds. It is a disaster for everything else, which is emphatically not true with a chef's knife.
I have long held the opinion that the ideal candidate for using an usuba is a wealthy vegetarian with great hand-eye coordination, infinite patience, fluent Japanese, a tendency toward obsessive-compulsive behavior, and a lot of free time. Everyone else really needs to wonder whether it's a wise move.