Kitchen Gear: The Knife Post

October 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

E: This may be the first of several of these posts about kitchen gear. However, I don’t really have a clear idea of what other posts may follow in the series. This post is happening, regardless, for a few simple reasons: knives are a critical part of any kitchen, so many people’s knives are inadequate or uncared for, and I have recently begun to discover the great world of knives and I am—always a tech junkie—completely addicted.

But I don’t expect everyone else to have the same passion for this as I have acquired, so I’m going to try to make this post useful for everyone. For those of you who are also into knives (if there are any of you reading this), there are some more detailed pictures (choil shots and spine shots) at the end of the post. For those of you who just want some basic reviews, and perhaps some advice as to what knives to get or how to take care of them, that will come first. If you really want to know more about knives, I suggest searching around on some hugely helpful internet forums like knifeforums.com. There’s an “In The Kitchen” section that should be a required resource for anyone serious about acquiring great knives for their kitchen.

The main knives in our house at the moment are as follows, though we have some cheaper knives as well for other use:

JCK Kagayaki VG-10 chef's knife

JCK Kagayaki VG-10 gyuto (chef’s knife), 240mm in length

This knife is really nice, in my opinion. It is by no means the best available, but for a stainless-steel knife in a reputable steel at its price point, there are few better options. Fit and finish is really nice, and the handle has an attractive and subtle purple color—difficult to see in this photo. The knife is thin and glides through just about everything. (As a plus, Joanna thinks it is really pretty . . . I think she covets the handle a little bit.)

Minamoto-Kanemasa carbon sujihiki

Kanetsune Minamoto-Kanemasa sujihiki (slicer), 210mm in length

This is a small Japanese slicer in 2N carbon steel. It is now developing a patina nicely, though I’m still working on getting it fully sharp. Note that—and this is a common “problem” with Japanese knives—the edge it came with was not very sharp. This is predicated on the idea that the end user will shape the edge to his or her uses, but does mean a potential user has quite a bit of work to do to get the knife to its best. Keep that in mind if you buy one. The handle to this is black, resin-impregnated wood. The fit and finish isn’t perfect, but I asked the guy I bought it from to pick a good one, and he did a pretty good job.

Wusthof Ikon santoku

Wusthof Ikon santoku, 7 inches in length

This is Joanna’s primary knife. I bought it for her when she moved into her new place. I find it too short for me, and it certainly isn’t as sharp and my gyuto, at least out of the box, but it is nicely finished and quite thin. The knife balances slightly behind the blade, which bothers me a little bit when I use a pinch grip. But if you use it by the handle, as Joanna does, it seems to work just fine.

Wusthof Classic paring, 3.5 inches in length

A nice, solid paring knife. It isn’t very sharp, but it works just fine for cheese which is what it gets used for most of the time.

Knives you should (probably) have:

For your average home user, which this is directed for, I’ll suggest the 2 major knives that you’ll use for most tasks, and then a couple of other ones that are more useful for special situations. Whether you need all of these or not depends largely on your diet, but even if you bought every one in this section you would have 5 knives, which isn’t too many for a single user. Keep in mind that I’d advise against sets in general. They generally have a lot of knives you won’t use, and better deals can usually be had if you know where to go to buy open stock.

1. Chef’s knife (or gyuto/santoku):

This is your basic all-purpose knife. I’m a big convert to the Japanese—albeit western-inspired—gyuto design, which is generally thinner than a German chef’s knife and narrower in profile, more like a French design. This flatness gives the knife more board contact, and generally makes the tip more accessible. I also like the lightness of the Japanese design, which makes longer gyuto easier to wield than comparable German knives. I’d definitely suggest a real Japanese knife over most of what’s available in stores here in the US, and some are quite affordable compared to the big names.

The gyuto vs. santoku question is a personal one. I think, if you are comfortable with a longer knife, you should definitely do a gyuto. They can do everything a santoku can and more. But if you want a knife closer to 7 inches in length, try both and see what you think.

2. Paring knife:

Invaluable for fine cutting tasks, these also double as great every-day knives for cutting slices of cheese or fruit. Pick one you like and go for it. I’d particularly suggest, however, avoiding ones that are too flexible. We’ve got a cheap plastic-handled knife we use for things like cheese and I absolutely hate it every time I pick it up, because the blade just wants to bend laterally.

3. Bread knife:

The two above knives cover most of your cooking and prep tasks. The next thing I’d get is a bread knife. If you only eat soft-crusted bread I can tell you from personal experience that a sharp gyuto will do just fine. But using a fine-edge knife on crusty bread is a good way to a) chip your knife and b) get very frustrated.

4. Boning knife (honesuki):

These are going to be important only if you eat a lot of meat, particularly bone-in meat. Since we don’t I don’t know much about them. A western-style boning knife is going to be flexible, while a Japanese-style one is going to be short and stiff. Choose something appropriate to your style of butchery.

5. Slicer (sujihiki):

I’d say this is last on the list of critical knives for a home cook. A thin gyuto can often double reasonably well as a slicer. The main advantage of a dedicated slicer is a narrower blade that reduces sticking and subsequent tearing of foods. The sujihiki is the modern Japanese version of a slicer.

Other knives:

There are many other knife shapes with their own purposes:  nakiri, deba, usuba, yanagiba, chukabocho, and even more rarefied creations like the fuguhiki, made specifically for preparing blowfish. Most of these you won’t need for any home cooking. If you want to acquire them, go looking around. There are plenty of resources out there.

Steels:

I have neither the metallurgical background nor the experience to talk in-depth about steels. I just want to give a few quick pointers about steels.

First off, all steels can and will rust. This is true even of so-called stainless steels. Leave them in water long enough, and you’ll have a problem. “Stainless” just means the steel is alloyed with a particular amount of chromium.

Second, carbon is a good thing in knife steel. But take note that marketing copy often exaggerates the qualities of particular steels, and “high-carbon” is by no means the only thing one should be looking for. Each steel has different levels of strength, wear-resistance, rust-resistance and other properties. And the process the maker uses to work the steel, the care they put into the forging, shaping and heat treatment often has more to do with a good knife than the steel it uses.

Regardless of whether your knives are “mostly-stainless” or straight carbon steel, take care of your knives. Don’t leave them wet. Wipe them down after use. And never put them in the dishwasher. Some can survive it, but most won’t. Just don’t do it, please.

As a general rule, look up the steel at someplace like knifeforums.com before buying a knife. My first knives have been stainless, but I’m really liking my carbon sujihiki.

Care and sharpening:

Now, a detailed sharpening guide would take many pages, so let me just give some general pointers. If you want to take good care of your knives, you need to be able to sharpen them. I think the best, safest option is a good set of stones.

There are lots of reviews out there to help you decide what to get. Generally (at least for Japanese water stones), you’ll need something in the 1000 grit range, something in the 4000 grit range, and some sort of stone flattener to keep the stones level as they wear. A lower-grit stone could be useful if you need to make big changes or repairs.

On honing rods: these are often mistakenly called “sharpening steels.” Don’t be fooled. They don’t sharpen anything. Their use is to align the edges of western knives when they roll during use. But most commercially sold honing rods are grooved. Those grooves actually remove metal from the edge, tearing it away and resulting in a very rough edge. This can initially result in the appearance of increased sharpness, but over time it simply degrades the integrity of the knife’s edge. Most Japanese knives, with their harder steels, won’t roll at the edge. Using a grooved steel will only cause chips and further damage the edge. Smooth rods will work (carefully) on Japanese edges, but most people I’ve heard from suggest that a ceramic rod, used lightly, is best for refreshing Japanese knife edges between sharpenings.

(And no matter what kind of honing rod you use, don’t do it like they show on TV! Whenever I watch anything on Food Network and see a celebrity chef hitting their knife and honing rod together in an egotistical frenzy, I get very upset for the knife in question. Slow, careful application is the way to go.)

Extra photos:

The JCK VG-10 next to the M-K suji

shot along the spine of both

Choil of JCK VG-10 on left, and M-K on the right

Good choil shot of the JCK VG-10

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