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This is a new feature. In this series, I will be discussing, at some length, the tools of my trade and how I’ve come to choose them. I am a gear nerd through and through, so I get really excited when I get to talk about my tools and toys. In the first piece of this new series, we’re gonna talk knives. Chef’s knives, specifically.
I’ve used a lot of knives over the years, and during that time I’ve developed a lot of preferences. The first knife that I brought to work was an 8 inch, rosewood-handled victorinox. While it wasn’t anything particularly fancy or special, and it was probably as old as I was at the time, the feeling of bringing my own tools to perform my craft has always stuck with me. We cooks are craftsmen, and our craft is only as good as the tools that we use.
My obsession with shiny and sharp things began fairly young, with my dad. He was, and still is, a bit of a knife nut. He taught my brothers and I from a young age that these simple implements can be used in any number of day to day tasks that would be much more difficult to perform without one. He also taught us that maintaining these tools are critical to their success. That’s why I never go anywhere without a good, sharp pocket knife on me. I might not use it all the time, but if I need to, it’s always there.
The idea of using a tool whose concept has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years is pretty neat. From the prehistoric humans’ use of sharp stones attached to sticks, to the medieval European using a small piece of sharpened iron, these small, sharp tools have aided humans in manipulating their environment to facilitate their survival for tens of thousands of years. Now, I realize that knifemaking has come an awfully long way since then, but the fact remains; the design behind some of our most basic tools has stayed the same since the time of some of our earliest ancestors. Picking up a knife, for me at least, conjures up similar feelings as staring into a fire, the same feeling that a person from 2,000 BCE must have felt. It’s a link to our past, and I think that’s just the coolest thing.
Now, back to kitchen knives. Because of my early exposure to quality cutlery and it’s maintenance, I’ve always been somewhat of a knife snob. That’s not to say, however, that I feel the need to use the most expensive custom handmade cutlery that money can buy. In fact, I am a pure utilitarian when it comes to my kitchen tools. I value simplistic quality above all else. I don’t need some 67 layer hand forged damascus japanese antique to dice 5 gallons of onions. I need a quality tool that’s relatively easy to maintain, and one that won’t bankrupt me if it breaks when it inevitably hits the floor. Now, you also need to understand that the lower end of the knife spectrum does not sufficiently satisfy my cutlery criteria, either. I usually tend to shop right in the middle, always striving to find the best balance of quality and value.
Fair warning: the following section might only be interesting to knife nerds like myself. If you aren’t particularly interested in the finer points of fine kitchen cutlery, I invite you to give this next bit a read, but don’t feel bad if you don’t get it. I barely get it myself, and these facts have a direct impact on my own livelihood. So, having said all that, here we go.
Let’s talk steel. There is a dizzyingly wide variety of steels to shop for these days. From high carbon, to high polish stainless, and everywhere in between, it can be intimidating to sift through all of this information. Now, keep in mind I am not a metallurgist, and my conclusions have been drawn by my own research. I could be wrong in some cases, and in other cases you might find yourself fundamentally disagreeing with my knife-buying philosophy. As far as the specific type of steel, I just use the information below to figure out a general sense of what I'm looking for, and go from there. The specifics don't matter all that much for the average cook.
The method through which steel is tested for it’s quality and hardness is known as the Rockwell Scale. This scale is a way to measure the indentation hardness of a material, which is a value that linearly correlates with tensile strength. This correlation allows for an accurate and economical way through which to measure a material’s durability. While the rockwell scale has a great many abbreviations for a large variety of metals and materials, the abbreviation used for hard steels (the type of metal used in the manufacture of knives and other, similar cutting tools) is HRC. So, when you see the abbreviation HRC further down in this article, you’ll know what I’m referring to. The values that we will be looking into, in terms of HRC, range from the low 50’s to the mid 60’s, with some exceptions.
Now that we understand the way that a knife’s materials are graded, let’s discuss what that actually means to the user. A softer steel, while typically less prone to chips and breaks, won’t be able to take quite as keen an edge and a harder steel, and it won’t be able to hold the edge for as long. However, the softer steels are easier to sharpen, and they are more significantly affected by a honing steel, which makes day to day maintenance less of a chore. However, harder steels are capable of taking a sharper edge (although it takes a bit more work to grind the harder material) and holding it for much longer, which usually makes for a more effective tool in my opinion. I also don’t typically accept the extra fragility of harder steel as a detriment, because dropping your knives shouldn’t be considered common use.
Kitchen knives are generally split between two styles, European and Japanese. While there are obviously more styles than these two, the vast majority of knives that you’ll come across fall into either one of these categories.
Let’s start with European knives. The most popular European manufactured knives come from Germany. Wusthoff, J.A. Henckles, Zwilling, and Messermeister are some of the most popular brands, and they all manufacture quality cutlery. But, what are the defining characteristics of European style knives? Generally speaking, these knives are over-engineered, jack-of-all-trades kinds of tools. Sporting heavy duty features like full bolsters, western chef’s knives are meant to survive the rigors of a French Brigade-style restaurant, and are meant to serve a “lowest common denominator” user base. The grind on the blade is usually slightly thicker leading up to the bevel, and the steels used are generally on the softer side. These design features exist to minimize the chances of the cutting edge chipping during high volume use. The come at a cost, however, as they don’t tend to cut as effectively as their Japanese counterparts, and the softer steel means that they become dull more quickly. This is not to say, however, that a German made European style chef’s knife is incapable performing it’s intended purpose. A high quality Wusthoff, or other comparable brand, should serve you just fine for almost any task you throw at it.
Japanese knives are currently undergoing a massive surge in popularity in the west. Stylistically, they are a near perfect antithesis to their German cousins. While the European style tends toward general use and durability, the Japanese are strict utilitarians. There is a specific knife for every task you could imagine, and they come in all shapes and sizes. However, we will only touch on the most fundamental components of their design, because to list off every single specific type of Japanese cutlery is another article in and of itself. So, generally speaking, a Japanese knives are forged from much harder steel than their western counterparts. The harder steel allows these knives to be ground in a much thinner fashion, with the grind of the blade tapering into the cutting edge much more gradually than a European knife. The hard steel, combined with the grind makes for what is widely considered a superior cutting implement. The japanese also often utilize the chisel grind, in which the blade is ground completely flat on one side, and beveled on the other. The single bevel allows for precise cuts to be made with a knife that is built with a very thick spine, giving it extra weight to cut through large fish and similar proteins. Japanese cuisine often depends on thin, uniform slices, and their cutlery clearly reflects that.
Now that we have a general understanding of the materials and styles of chef’s cutlery, the final question remains. Which should you buy? Which is better? For my money, I tend toward Japanese style blades. However, I wasn’t always this way. The first knife that I bought with my own money was a Solicut 8 inch cook’s knife, made in Solingen, Germany. I used German knives almost exclusively until about 2 years ago, and then I gradually started making the switch. Now, the majority of the tools that I put on my roll are japanese made. However, because my first knives were German, I still prefer western style handles. Luckily, the two worlds of cutlery design have melded into what I consider the perfect design. For someone who is less experienced with knife skills and maintenance, I say go with a mid-ranged European chef’s knife. The softer steel and heavy duty construction will be a bit more forgiving to an amateur cook. However, as your knife skills improve, and you start to require better performance out of your blades, I suggest making the switch as soon as you feel up to it. You won’t regret it.