Sticks and stones
…may break my bones, but my knives will f’ing kill you!
Let’s get a few things out of the way, I am an equipment geek. Good tools are important to me, and paying a premium to get high quality doesn’t bother me when its something I’ll frequently use. On the rare occasion I have gone for the bargain, I always wind up kicking myself in the ass when I want/need to trade up. I want my tools to be “Nice-a heavy” (make sure you say this with the correct hand motions to get the true spirit).
If you treat your knives fairly well they should last and last and last and last (and last?), so buck up and spend some of those greenbacks, hoss. For example, my very first ‘spensive chef’s knife, a Wusthof Classic 8″ (my big 8″?), is still pretty awesome 18 years after initial purchase even though I treat it like shit. I stick it in the dishwasher all the time and I also ground the belly down a bit too much. I’m sure a quick stop to a reputable sharpenmeister would bring it back to 100% and unless I start using it as a prybar, it will probably outlive me.
What knives do you need? Certainly not one of those fancy wooden blocks bristling with a hundred daggers, at least not to start. We ain’t in the circus and you can get by with 2 or 3 for 90% of your cooking: for the most part all you’ll really need is a big knife and small knife. Maybe a serrated knife for bread. That’s it. All the other ones are nice to haves.
So how does one go about choosing your big and small knives? First off, plan on spending most of your dosh on the big one and significantly less on the smaller one. Makes sense right? The big one has more raw material, and you’ll use it more often. The other thing to figure out is if you are a rocker or a slicer. Dear reader, you don’t need to ask if I’m a rocker, do you? Have seen my mohawk days? This was the real McCoy with shaved sides and people looking at you funny at the bank, not the trendy fauxhawk you see on every season of Top Chef. Sorry Richard, you need to break out the clippers.
I like cutting with a rocking motion and German knives are pretty well known for their deep rounded blade (also known as belly). The arc of the German blade allows me to rock to my hearts content and it is nice-a heavy, a regular bruiser. French and Japanese knives tend to have have a flatter curve on the bottom, which is better for the slicing folk out there.
I recently picked up a Japanese Santoku blade (Shun Elite) because it looked cool, the brand had a lot of buzz, and I had too much free time. Free time is terrible thing for the bank account. The Shun is a totally different animal than ze German with a light and stiff blade that is sharp as all hell. Shun tends to have a bit more belly than most of its Japanese competitors, so I can still get a little rocking motion going. I find myself choosing the Shun quite often over the old Wusty but this may be because subliminally I am trying to get my money’s worth.
Your small knife will be for paring or getting into tight spots where the big knife is unwieldly. Paring knives are generally cheap and I wound up with a few over the years. Other than visual aesthetics and weight, I don’t tend to favor one brand over another, whatever I grab I use.
So what about boning knives, slicing knives, cleavers, tomato knives, cheese knives, etc? If you’ve got some extra dough-re-mi, then sure pick up a few. They come in handy on occasion, but not every day.
I have some opinionated blanket general statements about the mass market knives to share. Clearly the manufacturers have different lines, so they ain’t perfect, but its a pretty good starting point. Don’t write me telling me about some new Wusthof’s with Rockwell 70+ or Global’s new carbon fiber jobbies that don’t follow my statements, I already have my knives and it’s my blog so I win.
- German: Heavy, deep belly, soft steel which is easy to sharpen but not very sharp from the factory. Needs frequent touch-ups especially if you use a really small angle
- French: Similar to German, but is flatter in profile so is better for “slicers” vs “rockers”
- Japanese: Light, stiff but brittle steel, can be sharpened insanely but is prone to chipping if you aren’t careful.
- Ceramic: Sorry Ming Tsai, but I hate these. These suckers extremely brittle, you can’t sharpen it yourself, and in my opinion they aren’t all that super sharp to begin with — but they hold that not quite super sharp edge for a while.
- American: No idea, the only one I do know are the Bob Kramer ones which are handmade of unobtainium. Shun has a line called “Bob Kramer”, but it ain’t the same. Those are still Shun knives that look like Bob’s.
OK, lets get on with it. Now that you have a few of these things, how to keep ’em healthy? You’ll need to buy a few more things — first and foremost you need a steel. This should just be a smooth rod that you should use almost every time you use your knife. Why? One, because you look cool doing it, two because it will keep the sharp edge of the blade aligned and straight. Technically it doesn’t really sharpen the knife, but instead it keeps it sharp. Once it’s dull, you’ll need to resharpen it, not steel it. I have two “steels”, one is perfectly smooth and is called “Dick Polish” (snicker, guess why I bought it). You certainly don’t use it for what the title suggests, but the company that makes it is called “F. Dick” and it is polished. I bet the marketer who came up with F.C.U.K. named this in his spare time.
Smooth steels are better for brittle knives than the kind with ridges…. My other steel is actually made of ceramic, so it does lightly sharpen the knife and lets me extend the time between real sharpenings. I love my ceramic “steel”.
You’ll also need a way to sharpen your knife. I tend to do this every 6 months, but I have heard of people doing it more or less often. Whatever floats your boat. For sharpening you’ve got a few options: sending it out or doing it yourself. Sending it out is a pain in the butt, since you need to find someone reputable and find a way to get your knife to him/her. Plus you are without a knife for a bit. Doing it yourself you can use a grinder with the angles already set, you can use a stone or a zillion other gadgets. I went with a gadget and use an Apex EdgePro sharpener. This method does use a stone, and helps you keep a consistent angle, but it reminds me a bit of Edward Scissorhands…
The narrower angle you sharpen the blade to, the sharper but less durable the edge. I sharpened my German blade down to 16 degrees (I believe from the factory it is 18 or higher), and the Japanese one down to 13 or 14. Holy Shnike’s these guys are sharp, but I touch them up with the ceramic every couple of days. I can feel when it starts getting duller.
To be completely honest, I have collected a number of other knives over the years (see picture above) and while I do make use of many of them some are just not that useful (4″ chef’s knife anyone?). The scariest blade in my kit is a sushi type of knife purchased in Tokyo. This bad boy is so sharp that fish just falls apart when I take it out of its box!
So what about you? What is your favorite knife, and why?
PS. If you were wondering how I set up the first picture, here is a behind the scenes action shot.