Be a Home Superstar Chef (Part 4 – Knives)

shun_classicIn part one of this series we examined the importance of good pans. Parts two and three discussed shallots and pine nuts respectively. Today in part four we talk about the importance of good knives. Like with pans, purchasing a good knife is an investment, and a fairly significant one to boot.

I mainly use only 4 knives for everything, plus one specialty blade (an ultra-sharp salmon knife). A serrated knife for bread and a few other things, a pairing knife, and a fillet knife. The fourth is my chef’s knife, and it gets used for at least 90% of what I do. That is the type of knife we will focus on.

There are so many choices when buying knives, they range from inexpensive blades from the supermarket, to medium priced ones hawked by celebrity chefs, to high-end Japanese and German cutlery, to exceptional knives that are beyond the scope of this post. We will spend no time on the cheap ones, and very little on the mid-priced ones. If you are serious about cooking a top end knife, like top end cookware, is a necessity.

Getting a great knife can be a life changing event. That may seem hyperbolic, but it really is not. A high quality, sharp knife allows for thinner slicing and more uniform cuts. Tasks that are routine in the kitchen start to become much more enjoyable, and the results so much more beautiful. Those tasks are also accomplished much more quickly and safely. As long as basic safety techniques are followed, it is much less likely that a sharp blade will wobble or slip. Anything that can do all of that is worth the investment for anyone who spends a significant time working in their kitchen.

Low quality knives do not start out as sharp, nor do they hold an edge very well, and no amount of sharpening will change either of those facts. Dull knives do not make clean cuts, and crush and bruise the food that they are supposed to be cutting. They also wobble and slide, making precise or uniform cuts impossible all the while making the process quite dangerous.

As I am not a full-fledged knife geek, we will skip the discussion of the bolster, tang, etc. and stick to some generalities that should be enough to get anyone started on the road to finding the right knife that will allow them to become a home superstar chef. I also will not be doing any in-depth review of any of the knives that are mentioned. They are all good blades, and it comes down to personal preference on which one is right for you.

For anyone who reads this and really is a full-fledged knife geek, feel free to add to anything I say, or correct me if I get something wrong, but please keep in mind that I am trying to keep this article on a high level. Anything more specific that can be added in quite welcome, but I will not be covering it in this main post so try not to lambaste me too much for my ignorance.

I am going to break things down into two general categories, Japanese Knives and Western knives. While guaranteed to drive purists crazy, we will be able to discuss the differences between them in generalities this way that may help all of the knife novices decide what style to try.  Anyone looking for more in-depth information should be able to find it, the discussions regarding knifes on these Interwebs are exhaustive and endless.

Now to the basic differences that must be considered when making decisions about which knife to buy. Western knives tend to be heavier with softer blades. Fans of this style claim that the extra heft means that the knife can do more of the work for you, while the softer steel makes sharpening easier. The easy sharpening comes at the cost of not holding an edge as well as a harder blade.

Japanese knives are generally lighter, have a finer edge, and are made of harder metal. Devotees of these knives claim that the light weight lessens fatigue, and that they start out sharper and the harder steel keeps and edge longer. They also tend to have thinner, more flexible blades. The harder steel and thinness, however, makes Japanese knives more brittle.

As someone who has used both styles over the years, I have to say that the Western style knifes have a slight advantage when it comes to chopping, while the Japanese knives allow for greater finesse. I would never presume to declare one superior to the other. It all boils down to getting a knife that feels good in your hand and fits your style of cutting.

Which do I prefer? The Japanese knives fit my hand and my style best. I am a fairly strong guy, so the extra force needed to use a light blade does not matter to me, however having fairly small hands for a man, the styling of the Japanese knives feels better ergonomically to me. I also like the maneuverability of the Japanese knives. Besides the thinner blades, the handles tend to be more conducive to changing the angle of your cut easily.

Even though I prefer the Japanese knives, there are a lot of reasons to like Western style as well. To me they feel steadier, especially when chopping. There is a feeling of solidness and stability that comes not only from the heft but from the handle designs. Then there is the way they look. Western knives are all business, Japanese knives look like pieces of art. As I said, choosing knife styles is personal and based on preference, and that was the clincher for me.

Some very good knives to consider would include Wüsthof, Henckels, or Global. My knife is a Shun Classic 10-Inch Chef’s Knife and I am very happy with it. My kids refer to it as my samurai sword, and sometimes it feels like it to me too. It is certainly as beautiful as one.

Things to remember about taking care of a high quality knife:

  • Most Western knives have a 22 degree bevel and Japanese knives typically have around a 15 degree bevel.
  • Never put your knife in the dishwasher. Wash it by hand, dry it, and put it away right after using.
  • Learn about your knife, what sort of edge it has, and what sort of steel to use, etc.
  • A steel is not a sharpener, it is for aligning the edge which bends over with use and needs to be straightened.
  • Never pry with your knife. It is for cutting, chopping and slicing only. It is not a screwdriver or a can opener, no matter what you may have seen on Top Chef.
  • Use a composite or wooden cutting board. Anything else will damage the blade.
  • Store in a block, sheath, or on a magnetic strip.
  • Either take the time to learn how to sharpen your knife correctly, or find someone who knows how to sharpen YOUR style of knife properly.

Change your life, buy a good knife. They make kitchen tasks easier, more fun, and your food prettier which will make those who eat it think it tastes better. You can’t be a home superstar chef without one.

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