On The Cutting Edge
J. Scott Wilson , Food Editor
POSTED: 7:43 a.m. EDT August 22, 2003
UPDATED: 10:14 a.m. EDT October 31, 2003
This week, I'm pleased to bring you an interview with Chad Ward, a writer and marketing consultant who also happens to be an expert on the topic of the care and feeding of good-quality knives.
A lot of us have been told, by cooking school instructors and TV chefs, that knife sharpening is something best left to a professional. Bucking the trend, Chad talked to metallurgists, knife makers, physicists and chefs to put together a knife tutorial that the good folks at eGullet have made available free of charge on this link.
Q: What are the "must-have" knives for the kitchen cook?
A: The marketing folks at Willliams Sonoma aren't going to like this. There are really only two knives that a cook needs: a large chef's knife and a small paring knife. A bread knife and utility knife are handy, but definitely optional. All of the other cool knives in the block? You won't use them.
If you take a look at the Culinary Institute of America's "Professional Chef's Knife Kit," Jacques Pepin's "Complete Techniques," the eGullet "Basic Knife Skills" tutorial or even watch a PBS cooking show, you'll see that every cut is made either with a chef's knife or paring knife. It takes a little practice, but your chef's knife can do almost everything that needs to be done in a kitchen. The heavy heel is for chopping hard vegetables or powering through a tendon or joint on a chicken thigh. The middle cutting edge and belly are for slicing, dicing, julienning, cutting fish filets or any task where a long, sharp cutting edge is needed. The fine tip is used for anything requiring a delicate touch. Trimming or coring fruit, for example. The flat of the blade can also be used to crush garlic or scoop foods off the cutting board.
Paring knives are used for small work, trimming and paring vegetables and fruits. Some paring knives have a curved blade, making it easier to cut the rounded sides of tournéd vegetables. Not many home cooks (and few restaurant chefs) tourné vegetables any more, so a 3- to 4-inch standard paring knife is your best bet.
Those are the big two. The chef's knife can handle 90 percent of anything you need to do in a kitchen. The paring knife does the rest. But there are a couple of other knives that are nice to have.
A 5- to 7-inch utility knife can sometimes come in handy. The blade is thinner and lighter than the chef's knife, making it useful for smaller items where control is important. Some are serrated and are particularly effective at slicing tomatoes or other soft fruits.
Bread knives are most often serrated or have a scalloped (granton) edge. They're good for, well, bread. You can also use your scalloped bread knife as a slicer for cutting very thin slices of roast beef or turkey.
The knife sets you get as a wedding present or when you finally decide to splurge on kitchen gear give you the impression of getting a lot for your money. You don't. Most of those knives will sit there until you feel sorry for them and use them out of guilt.
Given the choice of spending $200 on a mediocre set of knives in a block or $200 on two or three much higher quality knives, I'd go with the smaller number of better knives every time. Knife blocks are inexpensive and can be purchased separately. A good cook will outgrow mediocre knives very quickly. You will never outgrow top quality knives. And if you need more knives, they make great birthday and Christmas presents. That's how I got my santoku.
And whether you buy a full set or just the basic knives, get a chef's knife that is at least 8 inches. It may look huge and scary at first, but you'll discover that the 6-inch chef's knives that come with many sets are simply too small to be effective. You will become frustrated with them very quickly, especially when they won't reach all the way across the roast you are trying to carve.
Q: What metal are the best blades made from?
A: The key phrase to look for is "high carbon stainless." High carbon stainless steel is much harder and more wear resistant than simple "stainless" steel.
All of the top brands (Henckels, Wusthof, Sabatier, Messermeister, Forschner/Victorinox, et al) are high carbon stainless steel, at least in their better lines. These knives will last longer, take a keener edge and hold their edges longer before dulling than knives made from simple "stainless" steel.
The bad news is that even high carbon stainless steel isn't all that great. It is equivalent to a steel known in the industry as 440A, which is designed more for stain resistance and wear resistance than for holding a high performance edge. But it is a reasonable compromise in the kitchen unless you are willing to spend more for custom knives made out of better steel.
Q: Are "eversharp" or "never needs sharpening" blades a good choice?
A: Absolutely not. "Eversharp" and "never needs sharpening" are marketing codes for "serrated" and "can't be sharpened even if you wanted to." These knives are generally very cheaply produced, made from poor quality steel and can only cut by virtue of the small serrations in the edge. They will work fine for a short while, maybe even a couple of years. Serrated knives can be very effective cutters. But the soft steel of the teeth will wear quickly, leaving you hacking like Conan (or Jack the Ripper) just to get through a dinner roll. And when the teeth do become dull, you'll have to grind them off to sharpen the knife. Not an easy task given the soft steel that won't hold an edge. Just say no.
Q: What's the best material for knife handles?
A: The handle material is not as important as the handle shape. The woods, polymers, composite plastics and other materials used in kitchen knives are generally fine. The critical factor is that the knife fit your hand. The best knife in the world won't do you much good if it is uncomfortable to use. The handle is the user interface. It is the way you control and guide the knife. It should fit solidly in your hand, be large enough to grip firmly but not be so large that you have to strain to grip it. A good handle makes the knife feel like a natural extension of your hand. Most manufacturers offer a variety of handle shapes. It is important to try out several before settling on a style that fits you best.
Q: I've seen knives described as "full tang." What does that mean?
A: The tang is actually an extension of the blade itself. It is the long piece of metal that the handle is attached to. A full tang extends the length of the handle. On knives with riveted handles, you can see the metal of the tang in the center, sandwiched between the handle slabs. A partial or "rat tail" tang does not run the full length of the handle. These are used on knives with handles that are molded onto the tang rather than riveted. A full tang can contribute to the weight and balance of the knife, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with an enclosed partial tang. In fact, some people claim that enclosed tangs are more sanitary in a kitchen because there are no potential gaps for microbes and gunk to accumulate in. In reality, this is rarely a problem except with very cheap knives.
Q: Should high-quality knives be sharpened professionally? Why or why not?
A: This is the million-dollar question, isn't it? While I know there is a brilliant and moving tutorial on knife sharpening available on the Internet, I also know that the vast majority of home cooks aren't going to invest the time and energy to learn to sharpen their knives. For them, sending their knives out once a year or once every couple of years to be sharpened professionally is probably not a bad idea. But you've got to keep in mind that finding someone to sharpen your knives is a lot like finding someone to cut your hair. You can go through a few expensive disasters before finding the right person. Just because the sign says "knife sharpening," it doesn't mean that they're any better at it than you are. They just have power tools. Sharpening lawn mower blades does not qualify someone to sharpen kitchen knives. Like everything else, it pays to be an educated consumer.
Part of the reason I wrote the tutorial was the infuriating and contradictory message that home cooks get from cookbooks and cooking shows. Invariably, when knives are discussed, the chef says, "Send your knives to be professionally sharpened. It is too difficult to do properly at home." That's completely untrue. What's worse, these are folks whose job is to demystify cooking and kitchen techniques. Take our hero Alton Brown, for example. The very premise of his show (and book) is the idea that with a little knowledge, a little science and a little practice, the average home cook can whip up just about anything. Mayo or Hollandaise? Simple emulsions. Braising or grilling? Simple knowledge of heat transfer in different shapes of meats. But then he (and I'm not just picking on Alton, here, they all do it) turns around and says, "Knife sharpening? Oh, no, too complicated for you." That just galls me. The same principle applies. With a little knowledge, a little science and some practice, knife sharpening is actually easier than mastering most recipes. That's the whole point of the tutorial.
And if someone reads the tutorial and still decides to have his knives profesionally sharpened, that's fine, at least he is now an educated consumer and knows what to look for.
Q: What sort of maintenance should be done between sharpenings?
A: Whether you decide to sharpen your own knives or send them out, maintenance is always better than disaster recovery. Don't wait until the back of the knife is sharper than the edge. It is much easier to maintain an edge than it is to regrind one. Learning to steel your knife properly is critical. Steeling is the most important thing you can do to keep your knives in shape and extend their lives before they need sharpening.
EXCERPT FROM THE TUTORIAL
Whenever you use your knife hard, the edge can roll over a bit. Turn the knife with the edge pointing to the ceiling under strong light. You shouldn't be able to see it. The edge itself should be invisible. If, however, you see glints of light, those are spots where the edge has rolled. The edge is still reasonably sharp, it's just not pointing straight down anymore. The steel realigns the edge of the knife, forcing the rolled spots back into line, making it useable again.
Be aware that the grooved steels that come with knife sets do in fact remove metal. A grooved steel acts as a file when used with a heavy hand, knocking microscopic chips out of your edge. Steeling heavily with a grooved steel is taking several steps backward. A grooved steel should be used with a very light touch.
The standard image we all have of steeling a knife involves a chef with his knife in one hand and steel in the other, blade flashing and ringing. If you're particularly adept at this type of swordsmanship, have at it. It impresses the tourists.
A more effective method is to stand the steel straight up and down with the handle up and the tip resting on a folded towel to keep it from slipping. Why? Geometry.
Place the knife edge against the steel with the blade perpendicular to the steel. Rotate your wrist so that you reduce the angle by half -- 45 degrees. Reduce that by half -- 22.5 -- degrees, and you are exactly where you need to be to steel your knife. You generally want to steel at slightly steeper angle than the edge bevel itself.
When you're steeling, lock your wrist and stroke the knife from heel to tip by unhinging at the shoulder -- it's your pivot point -- and slowly dropping your forearm. The key is to maintain a consistent angle all the way through the stroke. By locking your wrist and elbow, you will keep your angle stable from top to bottom. Go slowly and follow all the way through the tip. You don't have to press very hard to realign the edge. Steeling requires barely more pressure than the weight of the knife itself.
Alternate from side to side, keeping the same alignment and angle on both sides. It really only takes four or five strokes per side to get your knife ready for more work.
When should you steel? Every time you use your knife. Oddly enough, steeling before you use the knife is much more effective than steeling afterward. A steeled edge can be very sharp, but it is not as durable as a freshly honed edge. If you don't use a steeled edge right away it can actually relax back into its blunted state. Steeling before use ensures that you have the keenest edge possible.
Q: I've heard you should never, ever put your good knives in the dishwasher. Is this true?
A: To be completely honest, I've tossed mine in the dishwasher once or twice myself. But it's not a great idea.
First rule of knife maintenance -- Do no harm:
Use wooden or composite plastic cutting boards only. Glass, ceramic, marble and steel will cause the edge to roll or chip. Bad. Don't do it.
Don't drop your knives in the sink. Not only is it a hazard to the person washing dishes, but you can also blunt the tip or edge.
Don't put your knives in the dishwasher. The heat will damage wooden handles and the edges may bang against other cutlery or plates.
Keep your knives clean and dry.
Do not store your knives loose in a drawer. Use a block, magnetic strip, slotted hanger or edge guards. The magnetic strip is not recommended if you have children or inquisitive pets.
Finally, your knife is not a can opener, a screwdriver, a pry bar, box cutter or hammer. There's a special place in hell reserved for people who abuse their knives this way.
Q: How much does a good chef's knife cost? What's the best brand?
Good chef's knives range from about $30 to well over $100. Cook's Illustrated did a shootout of the most common chef's knife brands in the November/December 2002 issue. The top rated knife was the $31 Forschner (Victorinox) Fibrox, Model 40520. It is lightweight, maneuverable and has a comfortable, grippy handle. Surpise, huh? I personally prefer a heavier knife, but this just goes to show that you don't have to spend a ton of money for a quality knife. The second rated was the Wusthof Grand Prix at $82.50. The Henckels Four-Star, one of the most common knives available, was right in the middle of the pack.
If you are just starting out, Henckels has a three-piece starter set in their Pro-S line. It includes an 8-inch chef's knife, a utility knife and a paring knife for about $170. I believe there are other two- and three-piece starter sets available in Henckels Four Star line and from other manufacturers.
For a full set of knives, if you must have them, Messermeister is one of the best values available. They're equal to the better known Wusthofs and Henckels in quality, but significantly less expensive. Sabatier is also worth looking at.
Q: What about these new ceramic blades? What are their strengths and weaknesses?
A: Ceramic knives are the new kids on the block. Kyocera and a couple of other manufacturers have invested heavily in promoting them, but I don't think they've quite caught on yet. Ceramic knives are very sharp, hold their edges for a very long time and are generally lightweight and easy to use. That's the upside. The downside is that they are very, very brittle. Drop one on your tile floor and you've got some very expensive pottery shards on your hands. And you can't sharpen them at home. Most people, including professional sharpeners, don't have the experience or fine diamond abrasives to touch up the edge of a ceramic knife. So if you chip your knife on a hard cutting board, you're just going to have to live with it.