Knife Play

When we have friends loitering in my kitchen I will often get asked about my collection of knives. The friends who cook will say “oh yeah, I have one of those” or something similar while the non-cooking friends will ask if I went to a garage sale. I don’t have a set of knives in a block on my counter, I have a collection of tools stuck to the wall on a magnetic strip.

Knives are deeply personal to a chef, each one reflects specific intended usage and other things that you just always do with a specific knife. The length and shape of the blade, the balance, and most importantly, how the handle feels in your hand all come together to simply work for you, or not.

When we were first married, we combined houses and Lisa had a set of Global knives that entered the kitchen. She bought them because the salesperson in the store said they were some of the best and they also feature very cool integrated metal handles. They do look cool and have great edges, but I hated them because I was constantly knicking myself with back tip, near the handle, of the blade. The blade does not have a bolster, the bulge that you will see on a Henckels chef knife, where the blade transitions to the blade. Many chef knives have no bolster but what is different about the Global is that the shape of the blade is such that the trailing point pulls back toward the handle and I knicked myself repeatedly with that point. This is a detail that could never be determined without regular use of a knife and, well, I grew to seriously dislike that one.

By comparison, the Henckels Professional knives are, to my hand, a work of art and example of excellence in metallurgy. Here’s the thing about knives, they are a tool and the fancy handles and exotic Damascus or etched steel may improve the aesthetics and retail value but not necessarily the business end in the kitchen. The edge that a knife takes is a balance between sharpness, corrosion resistance, and durability, and German knives have mastered this balance.

Japanese knives have become very popular in recent years and they are some great knives, I have 2 that I use daily. Japanese steel is, traditionally, harder than western varieties which mean they will hold an edge longer. However, the tradeoff with harder still is that it is more brittle and will take less abuse than a German knife. The opposite is true of western knife steel, it is softer and may require more frequent sharpening but will hone better and will withstand rough chopping, pounding, and any other abuse you can throw at them. There are many other technical aspects of a knife that affect performance, like grind angle, and entire volumes can be written about knives. I prefer German knife steel, have a preference for Japanese knife profiles, and like big handles so my knife collection is a grab bag of knives.

Without further ado, let us get on with it.

Starting with the three most used knives in my kitchen, paring knives. The Shun Kaji paring knife features a very short blade, just 3.5″, and that is why I really like this knife. It has fantastic control and is perfect for detail work. The Henckels 4″ paring knife is a true workman special. It does everything you could ask of a paring knife and has a big heavy handle that contributes to perfect balance. The third paring knife I rely on is a Le Thiers 5″ knife, which I received as a gift from my friend Patrick and I can’t even find a link for online. It’s an interesting knife with an arched handle and a heavy blade, which you would never expect to be easy to wield for fine work, but it is.

Santoku knives have become popular in recent years and for good reason. The shape and edge are perfect for vegetable work, and the hollow grinding gives you a knife that will quickly release vegetables at they are sliced. These knives work and are essential, in my opinion, but skip the smaller versions of the Santoku as these are lightweight knives are are easy to handle, therefore there is no reason to not go with the larger version. Wusthof has a western-style version of the Santoku that has holes punched into the blade, rather than hollow ground, and a metal bar that runs the length of the blade. It is a fine knife but the design is right-handed only and is no better than a traditional Santoku.

A boning knife has one purpose, to cut meat off a bone. The shape is the key and without it I would be hard-pressed to cleanly butcher a chicken or butterfly a pork loin. My boning knife works fine but I should replace it with a shorter flexible boning knife, like the 6″ Victorinox. Not only is this a superior boning knife, but it is less than $25.

Now we are getting to the main attraction for cutlery, the mighty chefs knife. I have an 8″ Shun and a 10″ Zwilling Kramer. The Shun is an excellent knife and with the polished Damascus steel, it is attractive. The Zwilling Kramer is a true surgical weapon.

First, a little about Bob Kramer. He is a blacksmith in Washington state who has developed a reputation for making some of the finest kitchen knives in existence. His handmade knives take 3 days to complete and feature welded steel with over 1,000 layers. They are exotic and only available through an auction process, which indicates just how desirable these knives are. Kramer knives can fetch between $6,000-8,000 for a chef and paring knife set. This is not in my budget.

Kramer partnered with Zwilling to offer chefs knives as a more reasonable price point. Featuring his blade design, and more importantly his steel recipe, these knives are high carbon steel that take an edge like no other. High carbon steel comes with some specific care requirements, as you cannot let these knives sit with water or food on the blade as it can rust or stain. I will add that for a knife that is a full 10″ in length, it handles amazingly well and while I was pretty cautious with it at first, I have since become very comfortable as I work with it. This is truly an amazing knife, to look at and to use.

Rounding out my collection is a serrated Global that just works really well. Serrated knives come in smaller versions, sometimes referred to as a tomato knife.

Lastly, a few words on sharpening. The ChefsChoice sharpening machine is one of the best on the market. I use it a couple of times a year to freshen up my knife edges, but keep in mind that properly cared for a knife will not dull frequently. Use a cutting board, don’t chop aggressively, and using a honing steel frequently. A honing steel is a must have knife accessory. Looked at under a microscope, a knife edge will roll over with use and while still cutting it will not be sharp. The honing steel straightens out the cutting edge and without removing any of the blade, as is the case with sharpening, the result is a sharper knife.