There are many knives that can prove useful in the kitchen: the chef knife, the paring
knife, and others. However, there is one that is often overlooked – the Alaskan ulu knife.
This knife was created by indigenous peoples in Alaska to handle the many tasks they might encounter in the northern winters. But it can also be helpful in any modern kitchen.
Here is your guide to the ulu knife, how to use and sharpen it, how it differs from the similar mezzaluna knife, and the best commercial ulu knives on the market today.
What is an Ulu Knife?
The ulu knife originates with northern indigenous tribes, specifically the Inuit, Yupik, and Aleut tribes. It features a handle made of antler, horn or bone, and a curved blade that intersects the handle. Traditionally, the handle was made of caribou antler, musk ox horn, walrus ivory, other animal bone, or sometimes even wood.
Caribou antler and hardwood are still used today for modern ulu knives. The blade was usually made of slate, iron, or copper, though today it is made of steel. Modern commercial ulu knives sometimes have durable plastic handles and often come with a cutting board or cutting bowl.
The curve of the blade provides a rocking motion, which makes it a great choice for chopping and slicing in one motion. The positioning of the blade places all the hand’s weight on the blade, providing extra pressure for cutting strong objects like bone. This feature also allows you to cut food quickly with one hand.
The ulu knife comes in several sizes and styles. The smallest size, called a kimaqtuut, has a two-inch blade and is used to cut sinew or to cut out patterns from animal skins. The most commonly found size is the six-inch blade, which is used for most purposes. The ulu can also be found with blades as large as 12 inches.
Ulu Knife Types
There are four styles of the ulu knife, each named for their original region:
- Alaskan (or Inupiat): The Alaskan ulu knife features a section that is cut out of the blade. Both ends of the blade are then fitted into the handle.
- Canadian: This ulu knife features a blade that is attached to the handle by a thin stem. There are two versions: a triangular blade is favored in the western part of the Canadian Arctic, while a more pointed blade is utilized in the eastern part.
- West Greenlandic: This ulu knife features a small, thin handle that is attached to a pointed, oval-like blade by a thin stem.
- East Greenlandic: This ulu knife features a small, curved handle attached to a large, rectangular blade.
Best Ulu Knives
The Ulu Cutlery Set from The Ulu Factory includes an ulu knife and cutting bowl. The knife is crafted in an Alaskan style, measures about five inches across, and features a stainless steel blade. The handle of the knife is made of birch wood with the Alaska Cutlery logo engraved into it.
- The stainless steel blade will not easily stain or rust, though it should still be kept dry as much as possible to avoid eventual rusting.
- The cutting bowl allows for efficient chopping and dicing.
- The knife can be stored inside the bowl in a cabinet for dry, safe storage.
- It can be easily sharpened with any honing tool.
- The cutting bowl does not slide around easily on a countertop.
- The bottom of the bowl is flat enough to use as a cutting board.
- The wooden handle needs to be kept completely dry at all times to avoid rusting of the blade.
- The handle can come off easily, especially if soaked in water.
- Allowing the knife to air dry can cause it to rust.
- The bowl does not seem too sturdy and can break apart after moderate use.
The Alaska Ulu Knife and Chopping Bowl from Arctic Circle includes an ulu knife and a cutting block. The stainless steel blade measures six inches across and attaches to a wooden handle. The cutting block measures eight inches on all sides and includes a six-inch insert bowl and a slot that serves as a knife stand.
- The cutting block provides both a cutting bowl and stand for storing the knife. No separate attachments are necessary.
- The knife maintains its sharp edge.
- The stainless steel blade will not easily stain, but it should still be kept dry to avoid rusting.
- The wooden handle and cutting block will need to be kept dry to prevent rusting.
- The cutting bowl is a bit shallow. It is better suited for cheese and small amounts of herbs. It is not large enough to chop large amounts of herbs at one time.
- The handle can come loose and the entire knife feels flimsy.
- The cutting board is very thin and accumulates cuts from using the knife on it.
The Alaskan Ulu Knife from The Ulu Factory features a stainless steel blade and wooden handle. The knife is made in an Alaskan style and comes with a walnut knife stand. The blade measures six inches across. The handle is made of rich, dark wood and is riveted to each stem of the blade.
- The handle is large and easy to hold.
- The knife stand gives you somewhere to set the knife when not in use.
- The edge is easy to sharpen.
- The wooden handle and knife stand need to be kept dry and oiled.
- The steel of the blade seems thin and flimsy.
- It needs frequent sharpening.
- The blade rusts easily, even during use. It needs to be washed and dried immediately.
The Pizza Cutter from KoBzA is an Alaskan ulu knife that is useful for more than just cutting up pizza. It features a stainless steel blade, ergonomic slip-resistant handle, and protective cover. The blade measures 6.5 inches across and offers minimal resistance when cutting, so food slides right off and doesn’t get stuck. The black handle is made of durable, comfortable rubber.
- The stainless steel blade is designed to resist stains and rust.
- The black rubber handle is durable, comfortable, and resistant to moisture.
- Food doesn’t get stuck on the blade.
- A protective cover prevents accidental cuts when washing, moving, or storing the knife.
- The knife is designed to handle both vertical and horizontal cuts.
- The edge is easy to sharpen.
- The blade is easy to clean and maintain.
- The cover is meant to protect the edge (and your hand) when storing, but it is very loose and flimsy. Trying to force it to stay on will result in accidental cuts. Finding another way of storing and protecting the knife is recommended.
- The blade rusts easily.
- The blade can chip, splinter, and break from moderate use.
The Alaska Ulu Knife from Arctic Circle includes an etched blade, exotic wooden handle, and matching wooden knife stand. The blade is made of stainless steel and etched with an image of the state of Alaska. It measures six inches across, which is the standard size for most Alaskan ulu knives. Both the handle and knife stand feature natural earth tones and bright reds.
- The blade is beautifully etched and designed to resist stains and rust.
- The handle and knife stand add a beautiful touch.
- The edge is easy to sharpen.
- The wooden handle and knife stand need to be kept dry.
- The handle can sometimes come loose.
The Stainless Steel Mezzaluna Knife from Amco features a single stainless steel blade and silicone handle. The blade measures 6.5 inches across and has a single beveled edge, similar to most mezzaluna and ulu knives. The black silicone handle is slip-resistant and comfortable to hold and use.
- The stainless steel blade is designed to resist stains and rust, and the handle is resistant to moisture.
- The blade is easy to sharpen and clean.
- The handle is durable, comfortable, and reduces slips during use.
- The blade is very strong and holds up to a wide variety of cutting needs.
- The plastic sleeve that the knife is shipped in doesn’t last very long. You will need to find a better way of protecting the knife.
- The steep curve of the blade results in an extreme wrist motion that could become too much for people with weaker hands.
- The edge is not very sharp and requires more intensive chopping.
- The blade can crack after moderate use.
- The blade also rusts easily.
The Alaska Ulu Knife Set from The Ulu Factory includes an ulu knife, chopping board, and wooden knife stand. The knife is made in a traditional Alaskan style and measures six inches across. The board measures eight inches on all sides and features a depression (the “bowl”) that is slightly larger than the knife. A wooden stand is separate from the cutting board and holds the knife upright.
- The six-inch blade is large enough to cut most meats, veggies, and herbs.
- The bowl is large enough to chop a decent amount of herbs, and the flat part of the board is large enough to cut and slice other foods.
- The knife stand gives you a way to store the knife that keeps it dry.
- The edge stays sharp for a long time and doesn’t need sharpening as often as other kitchen knives.
- The wooden handle, cutting board, and knife stand need to be kept completely dry to avoid rusting the blade. They should also be oiled regularly.
- The handle is small and may be uncomfortable to hold for some.
- The stand doesn’t hold the knife very steady. If it is bumped while sitting on a counter, it can fall and endanger feet, pets, and children.
Ulu Knife Uses
The ulu knife can be used for a wide variety of purposes. Traditionally, it was used by tribal women for many everyday needs, including:
- Skinning animals
- Cutting hair
- Cutting and slicing food
- Trimming blocks of snow and ice for igloos
Today, ulu knives are mostly used in the kitchen. It can be used to cut a wide variety of foods, including meat, fish, poultry, and vegetables. You can chop, dice, mince, and slice effortlessly, and even cut up a pizza pie with one hand.
Hunters and fishermen will find this knife useful for skinning animals, dressing any small or large game, cleaning animals and fish, and filleting fish.
One special feature of ulu knives is theability to bring disabled individuals into the kitchen. Due to the fact that it can be used one-handed, those who suffer from arthritis, carpal tunnel, wrist pain, nerve disorders, or other conditions can participate more in the kitchen.
How to Use an Alaskan Ulu Knife
Make sure to hold the handle firmly before you start cutting. Grip it in the palm of your hand and hold the beveled side away from you. Place the food on the cutting board and start with a light rocking motion.
Some ulu knives come with a cutting bowl. The curve of the blade usually fits just inside the bowl, allowing you to use the full edge of the blade for chopping, dicing, or mincing.
Care should be exercised when using and maintaining an ulu knife. It should never be washed in a dishwasher or soaked in water at all. It should always be hand washed in warm water. The edge retains its sharpness very well, so be careful when washing the edge. Dry it thoroughly before putting it away. Apply oil to the handle to keep it moist and allow it to last long. Make sure to store the ulu knife in a dry place away from moisture.
How to Sharpen Ulu Knives
The ulu knife retains its sharp edge well, but you should still hone it every so often. A whetstone, sharpening steel, or a pair of sharpening sticks can be used to sharpen the edge, though there are also special ulu sharpeners that you can purchase. The edge only needs to be sharpened on the beveled edge.
Ulu vs. Mezzaluna Knife
The mezzaluna knife is very similar to the ulu. It can be seen as an Italian version of the ulu, with a few differences:
- The mezzaluna features two short handles, as opposed to the ulu’s one perpendicular handle. This means it needs two hands and cannot offer the one-handedness of the ulu.
- The mezzaluna can have either one curved blade or a pair of them running parallel to one another.
- The mezzaluna is often used to chop a large number of herbs. This requires a cutting bowl or cutting board with a depression to prevent the herbs from scattering all over the kitchen.
- The ulu does a much better job of slicing a pizza pie, as well as slicing meat and vegetables.
The Ulu Knife is a Useful Addition to Any Kitchen
An ulu knife can be a great help with a variety of tasks. In the kitchen, it can grant independence and participation to those with limited functionality in their hands. It can help with almost any task in the kitchen, including slicing, dicing, chopping, and mincing a variety of meats, fish, vegetables, and herbs.
There are many different models of commercial ulu knives on the market, each offering a varying degree of durability, efficiency, and beauty. No matter what your specific needs are, there is guaranteed to be a knife (or knife set) on this list to meet them.