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Friday, April 20, 2012

Cutting Edge Cutting Edges

When it comes to kitchen knives, I've been a die-hard carbon steel partisan for decades. But I was hearing so many good reports about new handle shapes and grades of steel that about a year and a half ago, I ran a series of knives through extensive kitchen testing. A shortened version of the results appeared in Metroland. Here's the piece in its entirety.


“AT LAST! MY right arm is complete again!” cries Sweeney Todd (unless he’s portrayed by a southpaw) as he closes his fingers after many years around the chased-silver handle of his cut-throat razor. That sense of completion – of balance and totality – is shared by professional chefs, whose most-used kitchen implement is a knife that sits comfortable in the hand and, when wielded with precision and grace, seems a natural extension of the body.

In the home kitchen – at least in the kitchens of homes I visit – it seems to be the most neglected of tools. Cheap knives, stamped of inferior metal, abound, knives unable to hold an edge even if they were sharpened properly in the first place. Even the good knives too often hide in a drawer, dull and therefore dangerous. Do yourself a favor and get a good chef’s knife. Get one for a kitchen-minded family member. Get one so that visiting friends (like me) have something to cook with.

I tested eleven candidates, a variety having in common a ten-inch (or thereabouts) blade, priced from $70 to $295. Should you prefer an eight-inch blade, you’ll pay a little less.

As to the styles, let’s slice through a potentially confusing path. All of the knives I looked at are considered French Chef styles, with a blade that broadens and curves from tip to heel. Although there are considered to be distinct French and German subsets to blade design, having to do with the taper of the blade, this distinction seems to be eroding, and I’m lumping them into the category of German style in order to contrast with Japanese.

But I still mean French-style Japanese-designed knives, as opposed to the completely different Japanese santoku style. Therefore, in my reckoning, German knives sport a thicker blade and full-length bolster (the thick chunk of metal at the heel of the blade), while the Japanese variety is thinner, keener and bolster-free, often with a D-shaped handle available in right- and left-handed versions.

Knives are either forged from hot metal or stamped from a ribbon of steel. What kind(s) of metal goes into them, how they’re weighted, how they’re sharpened – all of this adds up to a tool that should become almost unnoticeable in your hand.

Knife geography begins at the point, with the first third of blade designated the tip. The thick ridge at the blade’s top is the spine, while the edge is where the sharpness lives. Use the heel, which is the rear third of the blade, to hack through tough (but not too tough) material – chicken bones should be the toughest. The bolster is at the join of handle and blade, typically a thick wedge of metal that runs from spine to edge. A half or open bolster typically only circles the handle. The tang is the section of steel that runs into the handle, which consists of scales (made of wood or plastic or a composite) fastened to the tang with rivets. Some knives also have an end cap.

Bolster and tang provide balance weight, which is one of the reasons you really should try before you buy. But keep in mind that a better knife will allow you to develop better knife skills, which may change your balance preference over time.
The metal at the handle end – bolster and tang – provides crucial balance weight, one of the reasons you really should try before you buy. But keep in mind that a better knife will allow you to develop better knife skills, which may change your balance preference over time.
Handle and steel (and price, of course) are what distinguishes these knives from one another. Handles used to be fairly straight, with a rounded bulge at the end, but more ergonomic thinking has added more curves.
Basic chopping, where the heel does most of the work, calls for you to wrap your fingers around the handle only. When slicing, which is done at the tip, you move your hand forward so that forefinger and thumb grip the blade near the bolster. Look for a handle that encourages such travel, such as the Victorinox and Wüsthof knives described below, and, especially, the Henckels Twin Profection.
All of the knives tested sport full, visible tangs, and the Hammer-Stahl adds a perpendicular layer of tang as well for even more heft.

The Rockwell scale measures steel hardness, with higher numbers indicating a harder material that’s likely to hold its edge longer – but harder steel is also more difficult to sharpen. Japanese knives are harder because of the country’s different culinary requirements, and require a different approach, typically with a series of whetstones. Rockwell numbers, where available, are given below.
Your new knife should be sharp right out of the box. After a certain amount of use, the microscopic saw-edge gets pushed out of alignment, which you can correct by running the blade over a steel, a long, tapered sharpening tool made of steel or ceramic. When honing fails to restore sharpness, you need to apply a new edge, keeping in mind the angle at which the blade originally was sharpened. Be sure to check with the knife manufacturer for recommended sharpening and honing techniques.

Miyabi 7000 MC
What do you get for $295? That’s the Miyabi 7000 MC, a Japanese-style knife made by Henckels. Japanese blades are thin, hard, and extremely sharp, and lighter than their Western counterparts. The core is Rockwell-66 hardness micro-carbide steel wrapped in two layers of stainless, sharpened to an incredibly fine edge: tomatoes surrender without protest, and potatoes don’t discolor when sliced. This is Henckels’s Japanese label, and the gyuoto style apes the Western shape but without a bolster and with a D-shaped handle. Light and effortless to use.

Shun DM 0707 Classic Chef’s 10
Very similar, but priced at $238, is the Shun DM 0707 Classic Chef’s 10. The wavy look on the blade is Damascus cladding, in which the 16 layers of steel show their edges – and reduce sticking. The pakkawood D-shaped handle is hand-specific, so lefties need to special order. A very sharp, very light knife that shows the best of Western-styled Japanese material.

Mac MBK 95
Japanese-style chef’s knives (called gyuto) have half bolsters and, in the case of the above two, D-shaped handles specific to your left or right hand. A more traditional handle is found on the Mac MBK 95 ($200). Mac bills itself as having “the world’s sharpest knives,” and this blade certainly sports one of the most razor-like edges of the bunch. Key to its claim is steel that holds its edge for a long time. The handle appears shorter than most, but that’s because the half-bolster is built in. It’s the lightest knife of the bunch, and therefore excellent for long sessions of cooking prep.

Tojiro DP F-809
The Tojiro DP F-809 ($150) is a little shorter, with a 9 3/8" blade, but its size has made it my wife’s favorite. Tojiro knives are a little harder to find than the others, but imports them directly from Japan. Layered steel protects the sharp edge at the core, and the round half-bolster sits on the handle, giving weight where it’s needed but tapering to the blade for grip versatility. Devilishly sharp, it fits well in the hand.

Wüsthof Classic Ikon 10" Cook’s Knife
The classic French chef knife can be further divided into French and German styles based on the broadness and sweep of the blade, but this distinction seems to be eroding, and I’m lumping them into the category of German. These feature a thicker, softer blade than the gyuto, with, usually, a full-length bolster. But not these two excellent and very similar examples: the Wüsthof Classic Ikon 10" Cook’s Knife ($225) and the Victorinox Forged 10" Chef's Knife ($175.00). Both feature curved, ergonomic handles that facilitate the switch between chopping, where the knife heel does most of the work and your fingers wrap around the handle, and slicing, done at the tip, with your forefinger and thumb gripping the blade near the bolster.

Victorinox Forged 10" Chef's Knife
The Victorinox sports a long, curved handle ending in a half-bolster and tapered finger guard. At nearly 12 ounces, it’s the second-heaviest knife in the bunch, but it’s the one I reach for when I’m facing a pile of onions. The ergonomics of it work well for me, even if the blade actually measures only 9 7/8".

The Wüsthof is a full 10" and lighter, at 10.5 oz. As with all the knives in its Classic Ikon series, it sports a gently curving handle with half-bolster and endcap. Weighted for good balance, I can switch between chopping and slicing with ease and like the full ten-inch blade length, offering plenty of area for re-gathering the food as I work through it.

Henckels Twin Profection 8-inch
Very much designed for lots of slicing is the Henckels Twin Profection 8-inch ($175). A ten-inch blade isn’t available in this new knife series, but it’s such a different design that I spent time with the eight-inch model. Milan-based architect Matteo Thun designed these knives to accommodate the blade-grip hold that should be used for chopping, and the curved open bolster and sleek handle make this a joy to employ.

Henckels 10-inch Professional S
Henckels, a big daddy of knife manufacturing, also offers the Henckels 10-inch Professional S ($190), as classic a chef’s knife as your going to find. Traditional shape, handle, bolster – in appearance, it’s the ideal of the chef’s knife, and in daily use it has an easy, natural feel. Softer steel than its Japanese counterparts, so know your honing and sharpening techniques. And the blade is a true ten inches, so be sure you’re comfortable with all that cutting area.

Saber 10-inch Chef
You can pay a lot less if you’re willing to take a chance with a new company. Saber Knives are the brainchild of Rich Menefee, who wanted to provide German-style knives at accessible prices. His Saber 10-inch Chef, an excellently weighted, traditionally designed knife, sells for a startling $70, and is as good as those costing double or triple the price. The granton edge (little dimples along the blade) keep sticky things like potato slices from clinging. Better still, it’s available in an impressive set (check out Costco and Amazon) and individually at If you’re tempted to upgrade and worried about the price, I guarantee you’ll like this one. And you’ll throw out your Cutco crap.

Forschner Forged 10" Chef's Knife
The familiar entry-level professional chef’s knife is often one of Forschner’s stamped blades with a plastic fibrox handle. But this Victorinox division also offers the Forschner Forged 10" Chef's Knife ($123.60), which has a better grade of material and a slightly longer (10 1/8") blade that gives a solid, hefty swing that is at its best for chopping, but can serve as an all-around workhorse.

Hammer-Stahl 10-inch chef’s knife
The weight and balance of the Hammer-Stahl 10-inch chef’s knife ($165) are coordinated by bolster size and handle composition. This is a heavy knife – heaviest of all I tested – but the big blade is offset by a busy tang that runs through the handle as a cross. The scales, which look like rosewood, are actually formed from pakkawood, a layered hardwood and resin mix that is attractive and durable. When you get beyond the surprising heft of this knife and use it for a long day of kitchen work, you’ll appreciate the good balance and well-curved handle. It’s difficult to switch to a lighter knife after this one. It’s also a beautiful knife to look at, adding an aesthetic touch to your kitchen.
Learning to cook is as much about learning to cut ingredients as anything else. If you can’t find a training kitchen for hands-on lessons, try The Complete Book of Knife Skills by Jeffrey Elliot and James P. DeWan ($35, Robert Rose Inc.), an excellent, well-illustrated course that begins with knife manufacture and goes on to show the different knives and different cutting techniques needed for the more common kitchen tasks. I learned to slice quickly because I had a hot-tempered chef hollering at me, but this was years ago and this book reminded me that I needed some brush-up work. I can’t recommend it enough.

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