My knives are as dull as an
They're flung in a drawer unsheathed, neglected. I've cut on glass and porcelain -- just about everything the experts tell you not to do. Dicing garlic now takes half an hour and my full body weight, rendering the 60-Minute Gourmet just a Lenny and George pipe dream.
I'm willing to pay for my transgressions, but in return I want a sharp, handsome kitchen companion that can hold an edge -- and get me back my 30 minutes.
So, with a nod to Sarbanes-Oxley, my
testing team -- an operating room nurse (think scalpel), an ex-chef at Chez Panisse and Bouley, a food writer, two skilled-amateur cooks and one garden-variety kitchener -- grants you some knife options and how to expense them.
Japanese and Japanese-style knives are what everyone's been talking about for the past four or five years, ever since the Holy Three -- Tony Bourdain, Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray -- brandished them in their books and on the Food Network. But "trendy Japanese knives" is an Occidental oxymoron: Swordsmiths from Seki City and Sakai have been tempering steel since the 1500s, their wares slicing up sashimi 100 years hence.
Classic Western knives, circa early 19th century, from behemoths such as
J.A. Henckels and
Wusthof-Trident hail from Solingen, Germany; and Sabatier from Thiers, France, the historic home of guillotine blades.
For knifemakers, alchemical gold is a metal that can take a sharp edge and hold it. The quality of the steel (carbon + iron) and the use of alloys (see the 20s on your periodic table), and especially heat treatment, or tempering, give the blade its properties. Blades made from Japanese steel are thinner, lighter and more brittle, or harder, than standard Western counterparts, and thus have more potential for a sharper edge.
Haslinger's 6 1/4" Blue G10 Chef: $275
That lightness has given the santoku, a compact, stub-nosed, Japanese chef knife, and the longer and more Western-style gyuto squatting rights on international kitchen countertops.
Consider that cutting efficacy is not a function of weight but of blade sharpness, or that a wasted motion is as profane as a tomato past its prime. A day of making mirepoix or minestrone for the masses won't brand your hands with the calloused thumb and forefinger mark of the chef -- or repetitive stress -- but a few years just might.
In Canada, ex-chef and knifemaker Thomas Haslinger of Thomas Haslinger Custom Knives, having experienced hurting hands, crafts his knives accordingly. "My knives are designed for efficiency, simplicity and performance," he says.
We dubbed Haslinger's 6 1/4'' chef knife the "Silence of the Lambs" knife because it was so razor-sharp and succinct it scared the heck out of us. Once we got over ourselves, we fought (figuratively) to make Meyer lemons translucent, to julienne hunks of jicama. Our ex-chef carved a hazelnut into a rose with the tip.
When choosing a knife, forget about your gut and go with what feels best, most comfortable. Because size and weight vary, merchants will usually let you trial test their products. "You can get a good knife from Wusthof for about $180," says Haslinger. "But for a little more, I can custom-make you one."
Guns, Germs and High-Carbon Steel
Fortunately, the surfeit of knife choices is easily navigable once you decide which characteristics you want. Knives are made from three types of steel:
High carbon: At least 0.5% carbon. More carbon means tough and very sharp. It's not stain resistant and will discolor around those lemons and tomatoes. Great performance overall, but that screaming edge needs the most maintenance.
Stainless steel: The addition of chromium (roughly 15%) renders the steel "stainless," preventing contact with water and oxygen -- rust. Cheap, yes, but the steel isn't hard enough for the edge we want.
High-carbon stainless: Enough carbon to keep and hold a superlative edge and enough chromium to keep its good looks. It rules in the wet, acidic kitchen habitat. Difficult to sharpen, but the best will hold their edge. We bless the union.
Traditional Japanese blades are extremely sharp on one side and slightly concave on the other (lefties take heed). Individually they were designed for specific tasks, e.g., the long, fine-edged
for one-stroke sashimi; the cleaver-like
for filleting fish, butchering meat and hewing harder veggies.
So, sharper but more maintenance? How sharp is sharp, you want to know?
It's relative: Paper can give you a wicked cut. Steel, however, is measured for hardness -- again, its ability to hold a keen edge -- on something called the Rockwell scale. Japanese chef knives come in around 60R to 62R. Classic European brands offer softer, thicker blades from 52R to 56R, which makes sharpening at home easier and vastly decreases breakage.
Rockwell aside, Wusthof's and Henckels' most competitive edge may be in the marketplace. Both companies now make top-selling branded versions of Japanese knives. And I have to admit, that wee Wusthof celebrity santoku (7" Grand Prix II) was sharp out of the box and fun to work with. Priced at about $80, I'm calling it cute and capable.
Suisin Inox Honyaki 8.6" Wa-Petty: $214
Korin Japanese Trading will custom-cater to southpaws. At this Mecca in Tribeca for chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Nobu Matsuhisa and Patricia Yeo, you'll find those screaming-edged, silver-ringed, ebony-handled beauties that can easily eviscerate $3,000 from your bank account.
Clearly, a dull knife can be the difference between shaggy sashimi and something you'd eat: You shouldn't take a hacksaw to your hamachi. We sliced ahi with Suisin's honyaki wa-petty. Though its lightness was unfamiliar, the blade slid cleanly through the fish and almost right through my bamboo cutting board.
Tip: You'll want the Henckels Professional S 10" for your wintermelon soup.
Korin also sells a well-balanced, wooden-handled Inox gyuto from Suisin and its own all-steel version, both fine products for under $100.
The Porsche Is a Volvo
For chef/instructor Ari Bejar of the California Culinary Academy,
Chroma's type 301 knives, designed by F.A. Porsche, have everything he needs. "Great balance, they're flexible, and they can handle the heavy prep work," as well as the more delicate tasks, Bejar says as
carves a rose out of a carrot tip. "And forget about those granton edges -- food doesn't stick to these knives."
Chroma's type 301 7 1/4" Santoku: $80.95
Admittedly, we were put off by Chroma's futuristic, sleek, all-metal look. It made one of us think of the Viking stove she couldn't afford. But the pearl, which demarcates the end of the handle, made our novice feel safe and comfortable. "It's like a Volvo," she said of the santoku. "It rocks ... literally," says the food writer, who made a mean guacamole with the 10-inch model. "I can get used to this," says our nurse. Apparently several winners of the Bocuse d'Or chef competition in Lyon, France, already have.
"You start with gold, you get gold," smiles Bejar, who does have a knife relationship with the company.
Mokume-Gane is the technique of developing a pattern much like wood grain using at least two different-colored metals or alloys. Often called Damascus steel, nothing beats it for sheer beauty. Our testers fell deeply and straightaway in love with Hattori's Ryusen Damascus 8-inch gyuto, imported exclusively by World Knives.
Hattori's Damascus 7 1/8" Gyuto: $159
The blade has 60 layers of Japanese stainless steel. The harmonic convergence of looks; a lighter, Western weightedness; sharp edge; and ebony handle make it a best-friend contender at $159.
Across the bay from San Francisco lies the Berkeley jewel,
Hida Japanese Tool. Laminated to a high-carbon stainless edge, the 6 1/2" ebony-handled Fujitake was another stellar performer that felt great in our hands. Hida, Fujitake's U.S. importer, avers that the knife retains its edge longer than other stainless brands. Our ex-chef ecstatically made slaw from a brace of red cabbages; the novice marveled at her paper-thin bread and beet slices. It's a steal at $98.
We also sampled an Ittosai Kurouchi hammered, black-finished iron/high-carbon 8 1/2" santoku. "The one a traditional Japanese housewife used," says Hida. "Very sharp but not stainless." That and the replaceable basic wooden handle account for the low price. Other knives cut better, but for $34 and a little vigilance it's a unique gift or fair-weather friend.
Nearly all companies listed have a wealth of advice on knife care, sell sharpening stones or steels, and have or recommend sharpening services. Korin sells an instructional DVD.
If you're not ready to spring for a new knife, at least sharpen what you have. Then go out and buy a bunch of radishes. Things will start coming up roses.