after dinner sneeze

a lot of g says, t says

for kitchen knives

with 5 comments

t says: There are three camps of people when it comes to kitchen knives: 1)  those who want the absolute sharpest knives possible, 2) those who want sharp knives, and 3) those who don’t care (or those who believe that sharp knives are more dangerous than dull ones – which is untrue).  If you fall into the third group, then the only bit of shopping advice I can offer is get something that looks pretty and feels comfortable in your hand.  For the rest who want more than a fashion statement from their knives, read on …

A “sharp” knife is one that is capable of cutting something with very little pressure applied to the handle; these knives effortlessly glide through the food they’re cutting (duh!).  There are two ways to have what is considered a “sharp” knife.  The first is to have a sharp cutting edge.  For the most part, this has to do with the angle of the cutting edge (think of a cross-section of the knife – the cutting edge makes a “V”).  The steeper the angle of the edge (i.e. the steeper the V), the easier it’ll be to push that edge through whatever you’re cutting.  Most department store knives are sharpened around 20 degrees – some might be steeper to 15 or so degrees.  It is possible, depending on the knife, to get the angle down into the single digits, but more on that later …

The second way to have a sharp knife has nothing to do with the cutting edge, but the thickness of the knife.  If you have a thick knife, it’s going to take more effort to force the blade through the food.  If you have a thin one, then it’ll sail right through.  There’s a trade-off, though – if you have a super-uber-thin knife, then the blade could bend and flex sideways, which is usually not desirable.  Keep in mind that blade thickness also has to do with how the blade tapers from its spine (i.e. the edge of the knife that you’re not cutting with) to the cutting edge – there’s some geometry involved.  But for the most part, thinner will feel sharper.

So, then the ultimate goal of knife shopping is obvious?  We want to find a knife that has a steep angle at its edge and is relatively thin, but not so thin that it bends …  Should be easy, right?

No, not really.  It’s not easy because a lot more has to go into your decision about buying a knife.  First off, there are some general things you should know about knives.  I posted them as a “The Truth” post here.  As I mention in that post, you will need to figure out a way to sharpen your knife – because there’s no real point in spending good $$ on something that is guaranteed to deteriorate in 6 months.

2 Ways to NOT Sharpen your Knife:
1)  So you know that long metal rod that come with that knife set you bought?  Sorry … it doesn’t sharpen squat.  Those rods (aka “honing rods” – often called “sharpening steels”, which is a misnomer) are used to re-align the edges of knives (i.e. “honing”, not sharpening) and, if used properly, can reclaim some sharpeness left in your knife – so it’s not totally useless.  However, they do not actually grind away any metal … meaning that they don’t sharpen diddly … meaning that eventually, no amount of honing will make a knife sharp as the day you bought it … meaning that your $200 Shun will do no better than a $10 Target Special.  Yes, there are some rods out there that do actually “sharpen” knives, but you’ll never find them in department stores, so chances are likely you won’t be able to find one.  Also, it should be noted that even if you did want to hone your knife, it requires good, well-practiced technique; most people attempting to hone knives like Gordon Ramsey in the beginning of Kitchen Nightmares will end up with a serrated bread knife when all is said and done.
2)  There are some home sharpening contraptions (like Chef’s Choice or the back of an electric can opener), however, these are usually a horrific idea for any knife you actually care about (and send shivers down my spine).  The one exception are those Chef’s Choice sharpeners “for Asian knives” … but even they produce mediocre results.  Overall, though, these contraptions tend grind away a lot of metal, the angle of the edge is 15 degrees at best, and the end result is seldom pretty.  And, if you have a knife with a thin, hard blade (i.e. any knife you spent real $$ on), you’ll pretty much end up with a butter knife when all is said and done.

3 Ways to ACTUALLY Sharpen your Knife:
1)  Take advantage of some sort of return-to-manufacturer sharpening service.  Shun, Cutco, and makers of ceramic knives often offer this service, and they should be free (except for shipping).  (Unfortunately, the only one of these three brands worth buying, Shun, was supposed to have discontinued this free service).  Note that ceramic knives cannot be sharpened at home or by professional sharpeners – only by the manufacturer – thus, I don’t recommend them (they also could shatter if dropped and in general aren’t sharpened to as steep an angle as steel knives, because they are so brittle).
2)  Send the knife to a professional sharpener (e.g. japaneseknifesharpening.com).  In addition to shipping, this costs anywhere between $5 and $40 depending on size and style of the knife (and they sharpen more than just Japanese knives).  It can be pricey, but you get what you pay for: excellent sharpening.
3)  Sharpen your own knives at home.  While this option is more economical in the long run, it is more labor-intensive and requires a bit of practice.  There are two types of stones that one can use to sharpen knives: water stones or oil stones (water stones are less messy – that’s what I use).  The process looks like this.  It actually becomes quite cathartic after you get the hang of it.  Plus, your knives will be far sharper than had you used the back of a can opener …

So … let’s get back to buying some knives!  Here are my little tidbits of information that I found helpful.

1) Knife sets aren’t always better than buying individual knives. If you do buy knives, you might be lured by sets that “save” you money.  Buyer beware; sets might not always save you money, rather, they may just give you a bunch of knives you don’t need (although sometimes they can save you money).  In my opinion, any normal human absolutely needs only two knives: a chef’s knife (7″-12″) and a paring knife (<3.5″). So, in my mind, if I’m going to spend money on “nice” knives, I’d want to make these two my priority (and that’s what I did).  Additional knives (which you can save money on by buying cheaper, but might be nice to have around) include a serrated bread knife (this is the only knife that should have serrations – I really don’t even like serrated steak knives), a utility knife (~5-6″) for trimming meats or other random kitchen tasks, and a fillet knife if you’re a fish-fanatic.  Carving/slicing knives are ok, but you’re going to have to be making/serving/eating a lot of big slabs of meat to justify buying a nice one.  If you’re really into fish and meat butchery, then there are more knives, still – however, I anticipate that people who are “in” to those sorts of things don’t really need a primer like this.  There is also a slew of very cool task-specific Japanese knives (e.g. for butchering and slicing fish), but if you’re considering those, then you definitely already know everything in this primer, already.

2)  “Stainless” vs. “Carbon”. In general, knives fall under two categories: “Stainless” and “Carbon”.  These monikers are a little misleading.  All knives [worth buying] are made of “high carbon steel” – but what categorizes a knife as “stainless” or “carbon” is solely the amount of chromium added to the alloy.  Above a certain percentage, knives will “stain less” and therefore be referred to as “stainless”, whereas those that don’t have enough chromium are referred to as “carbon”.  What does this mean?  Most knives sold in stores are stainless, so for most people, this doesn’t mean much.  But, if you do happen across a “carbon” knife, it’ll rust very easily if left wet.  Why would someone put up with that risk?  Well, back in the day, carbon knives could always yield far sharper cutting edges than stainless, but dramatic improvements have been made in stainless steels, so the difference is less noticeable today. In the end, you must decide which you want.  If you cook like g (i.e. you multitask – from chopping to stirring to frying to smelling then back to chopping), then carbon knives are not for you unless you can promise yourself that you will wipe down your knife each and every time before you get distracted (yes, even a few minutes left unattended may be enough for a carbon knife to start rusting).  If you cook like me (i.e. everything is chopped before anything starts getting cooked), then carbon knives might be more manageable (and you could potentially have a sharper knife!).  But, if you share your knives with someone who cooks like g … go stainless – it’s worth not having to worry about whether someone else is caring for your knives properly.  Also note that carbon knives will take on a patina over time, making them look dirty even if they’re not, so if you’re a neat-freak, go stainless.  Furthermore, until they do get a patina, carbon knives may oxidize some foods (like onions and lemons), turning them a funny color and giving off a weird smell.  Because of all this, I avoid carbon knives (g has a very sensitive nose) and know very little about them, so I’ll only be talking about stainless knives from here on out …

3)  “German” vs. “Japanese”. In general, the German knives out there are a little “thick” versus their Japanese counterparts.  Furthermore, the angle to which they are sharpened is also a little more obtuse.  The result is a knife that doesn’t feel as sharp as Japanese knives.  However, the Germans do have a benefit in that their edges are robust and can take a lot of abuse.  For instance, these knives will fare better when using cutting techniques that put a lot of pressure on edges (like that super-fast “rock-and-rolling” tactic to mince garlic that you see Jacques Pepin do).  Consequently, I tend to call this style of knife “sturdy”, and it includes the classics like the old school Wusthoff and Henckels.  You’ll find these on TV all the time in the hands of Emeril and Ina.

Japanese blades out there use a harder steel.  This allows their knives to be thinner and be sharpened to a very steep angle.  This is why knives from Global (e.g. as seen with Giada and praised by Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential) and Shun (e.g. as seen with Alton Brown) seem so much sharper than their European counterparts (although there are some Asian-inspired Henckels out there that are fighting back).  But the truth is that these commercially available Japanese brands are not the thinnest, hardest, sharpest Japanese knives out there; they are more of an “inbetween” category.  If you want to see real Japanese knives in action, turn on Iron Chef America and start squinting at the knives that you see Morimoto and the other Iron Chefs use (well, maybe not Bobby) as well as their challengers.  Better yet, check out Top Chef and look at their knives.  Hell – even Thomas Keller’s been seen wielding some nice thin Japanese knives.

Note that there are also differences in the shape of the two knives as well.  Germans tend to have more “belly” that allow for better rock-chopping, while the Japanese are a little flatter.  I also didn’t mention French knives which tend to have the thickness and steel of Germans, but the shape of the Japanese (well, technically, the Japanese based their shape on the French).  If you want to see a direct comparison, that can be found here.

So at this point, you are now inundated with knife knowledge.  Personally, I feel that the real question comes down to choosing a philosophy of knife – do you want stout-and-sturdy or thin-and-sharp or something inbetween?  I obviously prefer those thin-and-sharp, obscure Japanese knives – there’s something about their thin blades that makes me happy.  They are lighter than and can achieve/sustain a level of sharpness unmatched by their western counterparts, even if they can’t be handled as roughly.  If you, too, are drawn to this philosophy of knife, then here are some pointers on how to pick out your first Japanese knife.

4)  A few words about Global and Shun (and Henckels). Global knives, although they look cool, are not actually super-wicked-awesome.  Sorry Bourdain – I got to call it like I see it.  They can get slippery when wet and are not the easiest to sharpen by hand (which I guess doesn’t matter if you’re getting someone else to sharpen it for you).  To their benefit, they are very light, but some people complain that they are too light – but if that’s your thing, then go for it (works for Giada).  But, be careful because there are a lot of Global knock-offs out there, so eBay is NOT your friend for these.

Shun knives (from the “Classic” line) are not that bad.  They have a great fit and finish, and I cannot remember anyone ever saying that the wavy pattern on the blade (called “damascus”) wasn’t “cool”.  For the price (if you get them on sale), Shuns aren’t too bad.  Shun also has a slew of more expensive lines of knives – they’re all reasonable for what they offer, but unless you really get “in” to knives (e.g. sharpening them on your own), you won’t really notice much of a difference between them.  I will say that the big black eye of Shun is anything designed by Ken Onion or any of their lines that resemble the ones designed by Ken Onion – those knives are definitely not worth their price under any circumstance [in my opinion].  What’s really going to hurt Shun in my mind is that Henckels has really been stepping up their game, releasing some thin, high-hardness knives in their Miyabi lines.

5)  Cutco knives suck. Don’t fall for the marketing.  They aren’t made of a super-special steel.  They aren’t any “sharper” than any other knife.  Their handles aren’t spectacularly comfortable or ergonomic (unless you hold your knife like a hammer, which you shouldn’t).  They also dull like every other knife – I don’t care how many penny-corkscrews they make for you.  And, because they are no better than any other knife, there is no reason they should cost as much as they do.  If you feel that they are comfortable in your hand and promise to make use of their sharpening service and want to support whatever family member or friend is hawking them and don’t mind not having the sharpest knives possible, then go for it.  They’re not for me.  (n.b. they only seem sharp at the in-home demonstration because the knife they compare it to – the one from your home – probably needs to be sharpened)

6)  Pick a long chef’s knife. The chef’s knife should be your go-to knife.  Ideally it should be at least 8″.  I realize that for most people a knife that is 8″ or more could be quite disturbing – but the length is definitely useful when you properly cut veggies and meats.  Knives called “santokus” are all-the-rage nowadays (curse you Rachel Ray!!), but they’re kind of short (usually 7″) and the tip is not as pointy, so in actuality the knife doesn’t really offer much benefit above a standard 8″ chef’s knife; none of the “three virtues” is done any better with a santoku than a normal 8″ chef’s knife.  That said, we do have one, and g does like it (but I vow to convert her) – I suspect because she has very small hands (not that mine are much bigger).  So what size should you go for?  If this is your first time ever committing to using a chef’s knife (i.e. long knives have always scared you, so you use a butter knife for everything), go for at least 8″ (or 8.25″ aka 210 mm), but know that you might even go longer, later.  If you’re already used to 8″ chef knives from brands like Wusthoff and Henckels, upgrade at least to 9.5″ (240 mm) when you buy a Japanese knife.  Japanese knives are lighter than their German/French/Target counterparts, so a 240 will be just as nimble as an 8″ German.  And really, 240 mm is not long at all.  Trust me.

7)  Where to buy “sharp knives”. If you want sturdy knives, you already know where to go – they’re in every department store.  But to find these obscure Japanese knives, you’ll have to check out a few other places: cuteryandmore.com, chefknivestogo.com, korin.com (and they have a showroom in NYC so you can hold them and feel what you like), japaneseknifeimports.com, and japanesechefsknife.com (awesome customer service, but it is a small, obviously Japanese operation).  The owner of chefknivestogo has some videos throughout his website to let you see knives before you buy, and if you email him, he is usually a pretty good resource for helping you find what you need from his ton of available options – BUT his return policy is absolutely lame (stupid re-stocking fee).  There is a also restaurant supply shop off Rittenhouse called Previn – I need to check it out, but rumor has it that they have the best prices on MAC knives (a Japanese brand fairly well known in professional kitchens) in the country.

8)  Which ones should you buy? Japanese knives come with price tags from $20 to $2000 (and more).  And each has its ups and downs.  Because of the importance of good chef’s and paring knives, I present to you a sampling of my favorites (all stainless) for different reasons.

Top Paring Knives under $60 (in order of descending cost):

Misono Molybdenum 80mm Paring ($71 @ Korin).  Thin, sharp, and stainless.  Everything you need in a paring knife and nothing more.  However, when we bought this knife, it was only $46, which made it essentially the same as a MAC Pro, except a little less commonplace (and no colored ink on the blade), making it automatically cooler.  But now that they raised the price, I’m not sure if the enhanced coolness coefficient is worth it.

Shun Classic 3.5″ Paring (@ everywhere).  It’s ironic that after I ragged on Shun, I’m going to recommend their paring knife.  They make an actually good paring knife, especially if you want some bling bling in your kitchen.  Sure, you could buy an even fancier paring knife than this (Shun offers a few – but they’re thicker, which defeats the purpose of a paring knife), but there’s really no need … it’s just a paring knife …

MAC Professional 3.25″ Paring
($46.50 at Previn; also @ cutleryandmore.com).  Thin.  Sharp.  Stainless.  Period.  (Just make sure it’s the Professional model.)

Honorable Mention: Forschner Rosewood 3.25″ Paring
($9 @ cutleryandmore.com). No, it’s not as sexy as the other knives (it’s not even Japanese!), but here’s one that is super-thin and so cheap that you could probably just throw it away and get a new one instead of resharpening it!  (But if you did want to re-sharpen it, it sharpens up fast).  There’s also a plastic-handled version out there that’s half the price, and most people actually do throw these out instead of bothering to re-sharpen ’em.


Top Chef’s Knives under $160 (in order of descending cost)
:

Masamoto Sohonten 210mm Gyuto
($159.95 @ Korin).  This is perhaps the iconic Japanese chef’s knife.  There are cheaper Japanese knives (“J-knives”) out there, and there are sexier ones out there, but this one is the no-frills workhorse that has no real faults.

MAC Professional Mighty 8.5″ French Chef’s Knife ($131.25 @ Previn; also @ cutleryandmore.com).  It’s promoted by Thomas Keller so it can’t be that bad, right?  My skepticism of celebrity-chef-endorsement aside, this is actually a pretty good knife with fabulous fit and finish, making it an excellent choice if this is your first foray into J-knives.  It might not sharpen up to as awesome an edge as the Masamoto, but it’s darn close.

Fujiwara FKM ($75 @ chefknivestogo).  This is one of the cheapest gateway J-knives.  Once you try it, you won’t look back.  No, the steel is not as hard the steel in the above Masamoto or MAC, but it gets the job done very well indeed.  Welcome to the sharp side.  Or, if you have large hands, Tojiro DP ($80 @ chefknivestogo) could also be considered – they just have larger handles than most other J-knives.

Honorable Mention: Forschner Rosewood ($35.95 @ cutleryandmore.com)  The plastic-handled version of this knife wins best buy in Cook’s Illustrated all the time.  That’s because it’s very thin and very cheap.  That said, I much prefer the wood-handled one which costs $10 more, because – let’s face it – the plastic-handled ones look like toys.  I think these are also fantastic if you’re learning to sharpen on stones for the first time and don’t want to accidentally mess up a good, expensive knife.  And, at the very least, it sure beats anything you can find at Wal-Mart.

There are tons of other knives out there – this is not even the tip of the iceberg (it’s like the speck of dirt on the top-hat on the head of the penguin standing on top of the tip of the iceberg)!  Some knives have Japanese “wa-” style handles.  Some have super-fancy damascus patterns on the blade (even swirlier than Shun!).  Some have hammer-mark patterns.  Some are made of fancy powdered steels.  Some are single-beveled (like the yanagi knives you see at sushi places).  The list of features could go on and on.  If you’re interested in learning more or need help picking out a knife (or sharpening stones) don’t hesitate to email!  Alternatively, you can peruse the following online communities: kitchenknifeforums.com and foodieforums.com (“Fred’s Cutlery Forum”).

Finally, remember that no matter how cool a knife is, it’s only as “good” as the skills of the person using it and the skills of the person who sharpened it last …

8)  Cutco knives are not better than any other knife. Don’t fall for the marketing.  They are no better than any other knife.  They aren’t made of a super-special steel.  They aren’t any “sharper” (remember the two paths to sharpness) than any other knife.  Their handles aren’t spectacularly comfortable or ergonomic (unless you hold your knife like a hammer, which you shouldn’t).  They also dull like every other knife – I don’t care how many penny-corkscrews they make for you.  Because they are no better than any other knife, there is no reason they should cost as much as they do.  If you feel that they are comfortable in your hand, promise to make use of their sharpening service, and don’t mind not having the sharpest knives possible, then go for them.  They’re not for me.  (n.b. they only seem sharp because the knife they compare it to – the one from your home – probably needs to be sharpened).

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Written by afterdinnersneeze

15 February 2010 at 3:37pm

5 Responses

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  1. I will shop at tsujiki masamoto shop in Tokyo this fall. I have heard that they are comparable and very similar to Sohonten. Have you any experience with these?

    Jon v

    23 July 2011 at 10:15pm

    • t says: No, I have yet had the opportunity to visit Japan. That said, for a short time we were planning a trip a few years back (but it fell through) and tsujiki masamoto was on my short list of knife places to visit. They make some very nice, reliable blades – of similar (and some argue superior) quality to Masamoto Sohonten – except that their kanji is usually engraved rather than stamped – so it’s prettier. If you’re picking up Japanese-style, single-beveled knives (I like their honkasumi lines and better), I don’t think you can go wrong with any of their offerings – it won’t be cheap, but it will be nice (and I assume you know how to sharpen these bad boys). If you’re looking for double-beveled knives, their knives are fine, but not super-special unless you start dropping upwards of $300 or so. Oh, and by the way, don’t be surprised if 98% of the knives are NOT stainless.

      afterdinnersneeze

      23 July 2011 at 11:58pm

      • I ended up picking up a 270 mm gyuto there. Now I wish I had bought a couple more! It’s fantastic. I will have to return some day. And definitely get to Japan – it’s amazing.

        Jonathan Van Dalen

        9 October 2011 at 4:21pm

      • I’m envious – we are still trying to plan a trip. Did you go 270 carbon? Wa- or Yo-style handle? I can find them in NYC, but it’d be a much cooler story if I could buy them at Tsukiji.

        By the way – beautiful pics on your blog!!

        afterdinnersneeze

        9 October 2011 at 9:38pm

  2. I ended up with a stainless western handle 270mm. So far, so good. The stainless doesn’t feel brittle at all, and I don’t see any little chips or anything yet. Cutting has been very clean and sharp.

    I am returning in late March and plan to pick up a smaller version of the same gyuto, as well as a utility knife and possibly a santoku.

    It’s worth visitng them in Japan – you will absolutely love the fish market they are located in. The will also engrave your name or some text right on the knife as they sharpen and finish it.

    Jonathan Van Dalen

    19 January 2012 at 9:14pm


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