Saturday, November 7, 2009

This Chef's Knives

This article was prompted by a visit from my good friends Carolyn and Bruce, a few weeks ago. They were out on a business trip from their home in beautiful Roswell, GA and we decided to spend the day up in Napa doing some wine tasting. Carolyn wants to get him a great set of knives for Christmas, and asked for advice. The "need" on his end was prompted by him hacking off the end of a finger with a dull knife, which he relayed to us as we were partaking in some rack of lamb, risotto and haricot verts, which I'd thrown together for Carolyn and her co-worker, and our friend Dave. Note that you CAN "throw together" a totally lavish meal in under an hour, after work. I do it every night.

But as I thought about recommending a set of knives, I decided to do what I tend to do, which is to dive into it more thoroughly, and present some pros and cons of several types, as well as a final recommendation. Keep in mind that this is purely my recommendation, based on knives and accessories that I use and / or have used, and specifically knives that are in my collection. I'm fascinated with the concept and supposed sharpness-factor of ceramic knives, but I've never used one so you're not going to see any discussion of them here. I'm not going to write about the $25 Forschner/Victronix 8" Chef's Knife which is touted universally as the best buy in a knife, but I use one that's very similar, which is made by Dexter, and I'll tell you about that one.

What you will read about are what's in my knife block, what's hanging on the two magnetic wall racks, what's in the drawer, why they're where they are, and what gets used the most. I'm not particularly into gadgets and gimmicks, but there are a couple that I'll mention, as well as some essential accessories.

Actually, let's start with an accessory ... Where do you store your knives? In a drawer? Wrong, unless they're in a wooden holder specifically made to hold knives. Otherwise they bang together which makes mince meat out of the blades. In a block? Ok solution, but not the best, and they're expensive and take up counter space. Assuming you have some available "side-of-a-cabinet" space near your work area, your best be is one or two magnetic knife holders. They run $15-20 apiece and hold six or seven knives safely, and within easy reach. As much as I love Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma, if you have a restaurant supply store nearby, that's where you should buy them. They're generic, and half the price of the afore-mentioned culinary temples of joy. I have two of them and they hold my most-used knives (with one exception, the Shun Ken Onion has its own bamboo holder).

My small collection includes:

(Top rack) 8" Henkels santoku, 8" Henkels chef's, 6" Wustof chef's, xxx, Forschner-Victronix 7" Granton edge santoku, Henkel's paring knife

(Bottom rack) Martin Yan Chinese cleaver, 8" Global chef's, 8" Dexter-Russell chef's, 4" Dexter-Russell utility knife.

In the knife block on the opposite counter is a Dexter bread knife, serrated tomato slicer, straight boning knife, curved Granton edge boning knife, Lamsonsharp Chinese cleaver, 6", 8" and 10" Lamsonsharp chef's, and kitchen / poultry shears.

(Top drawer knife rack) 10" Dexter chef's, my indispensible F. Dick steel, a couple utility knives, another Japanese cleaver (smaller version), and an Acu Sharp sharpener.

So what do you need all these for? Obviously you don't. Most home chef's specialize in a couple styles of food and can get by with very few knives. It amazes me that people buy huge knife collections and expensive blocks to hold them. Even the three-piece Global set that I bought, which seemed like such a great deal at Sur La Table, has proven to be a waste. I love the 8" Global chef's knife and use it daily, but the two utility knives have been used two or three times each, and they live in the drawer.

Regardless of your budget, your most used knife will be your main chef's knife. Some prefer a 10", I prefer an 8". I have several, they have varying degrees of pros and cons, but they get the most use by far. And the one that gets the most use is a Dexter 8" chef's which I bought prior to attending a six weekend Professional Cooking series at the California Culinary Academy. It cost me a whopping $25 in 1994, and it's still the most used in my collection. The Global chef's gets a lot of use because it's very thin, perfectly balanced, great for fine slicing and dicing, and a total joy to use. The Henkels gets used for things that require a heavier knife (great for chopping onions and smashing garlic cloves). The 7" Wustof is a great knife, and was a present from my wife-to-be, just prior to our marriage. I use it for in-between type jobs, and I use it a lot.

The 6, 8, and 10" Lamsonsharps get very little use, but the Lamsonsharp cleaver gets tons of use. I had the cleaver first and used it all the time, so I ordered the chef's knives having never used them. They're probably great knives, but I've never gotten the edge I want on them. Sounds like a good weekend project in my copious spare time. But the cleaver is a very nice knife, and quite likely the one I'd pick if I could only have one knife on a desert island. The Martin Yan cleaver is nice and stays very sharp, and it also gets quite a bit of use. A cleaver or a good santoku is essential, I feel. Both my cleavers have permanent "thumb" marks at the top rear of the blade, because I hold them at the front of the handle and upper rear of the blade, I've done so for years with both of them.

The 7" Victronix with a Granton edge is an awesome knife, and was under $30. Great all around knife and excellent for slicing meat and poultry. I also have a long ham slicer with a Granton (scalloped, not serrated) edge which gets lots of use around the holidays. Ideal for slicing a turkey, prime rib, pork roast or a whole beef filet section.

I have two 10" chef's knives, and I'm not exactly sure why I bought them. I probably read somewhere that every collection should have one, and I really don't understand why. I use the Dexter 10" for slicing half-frozen London broil meat into thin slices when I make beef jerky. And that's the only time I use it. The Lamsonsharp doesn't rock well, so it goes unused for the most part.

I have a couple of utility knives that I like. My 4" Dexter gets as much use as the 8". I use it constantly when I'm cooking. I believe I paid about $6. for it. The Henkels 4" on the other hand, was likely five times as expensive, and I almost never use it. I also have a small curved knife which was sold as a cheese slicer at one of the garlic stores just south of Gilroy. It's absolutely the perfect knife for slicing tomatoes, which is all I use it for. And I slice EVERY tomato with it. I believe I paid six bucks for this one too, and I've had it for well over ten years.

Last but certainly not least, is my latest acquisition and pride and joy ... an 8" Shun Ken Onion chef's knife, which comes with its own bamboo holder. If you've never used a Shun, make it a point to ask if you can try one the next time you find yourself in a Sur La Table or Willaims-Sonoma store. It's one of those things that's ridiculously expensive and worth every penny. I believe mine was around $200 which puts it at eight times the cost of the Dexter, a great knife in its own right. This was a gift from my wife, which is the only way I'd ever get one. No way I could justify paying that much for a knife. But they're absolutely awesome looking and feeling, perfectly balanced, very unique handles, a blade that looks like a samurai sword, and it's the sharpest knife I've ever used. It literally glides through an onion. It also garners lots of "ooohs and aaahs" from guests who hang around the kitchen when I'm cooking. But a more expensive knife won't make you a better cook.

A dull knife can make your prep time miserable, but virtually any knife can be sharpened to a fine edge. Good ones hold their edge better, but you can make do with what you've got, if you know how to use the knife and of course how to sharpen it. I've tried every kind of sharpener and I have two extremes that I use exclusively. I have a three-slot Chef's Choice electric sharpener that can put an edge on anything (including granton and serrated edges), without ruining the knife. Great sharpener, but they run about $125. Again, it was a gift, and I love it. I also use an Acu-Sharp sharpener that works phenomenally well on dull knives and costs about ten bucks. Sharpening stones work great if you have the patience to use them. I don't. I have a couple of them, and they sit in the back of the drawer.

While knife brands and sharpeners are debatable, one constant that you'll find among butchers is the type of steel they use; the steel of choice is made by German company F. Dick, and at about thirty-five buckes, this steel's a steal. They've been in the knife and steel making business since 1778, and they've got it down. I was introduced to it on the first day of a three weekend butchery class at the culinary academy, and it's the only one I use. Learn how to use a steel correctly and do it after every use of the knife. If you're doing a lot of cutting with one knife, stop and steel it every now and then. A steel doesn't "sharpen" your knife, but rather keeps the edge straight and the inevitable burrs that develop, at a minimum. Mine's on the counter within reach the whole time I'm preparing a meal.

Along with being the most expensive and unique looking of my knives, the Shun also has one additional feature. While they say you can use a Shun sharpener and get good results, they recommend you keep the original packing box and ship it to them once a year. They're more than happy to sharpen it back to factory standards at no cost other than the postage. Amazing toy, for sure.

So to get back to the original intent of this article, what would I recommend to my friend Carolyn for Bruce's Christmas present of a set of knives? A set of Globals that includes an 8" chef's, the larger santoku wth a granton edge, a utility knife, and of course an F. Dick butcher's steel would be all he needs. A nice set of Henkel's with an 8", utility, slicer, and shears would also last a lifetime and he'd love using them every night. Both of these stay sharp, look great, and make your time in the kitchen a pleasure. Never put them in the dishwasher, buy a magnetic rack for them, steel them often, and watch the smile on his face the first time he uses them.

However ... you can't go wrong with a few Forschner-Victronix knives, and anything that says Wustof or Lamsonsharp will also last a lifetime, and of course if your budget will accomodate a Shun Ken Onion ... that's the best.

Oh, and Bruce ... ANY of these are capable of taking the tip of another finger off, by the way

3 comments:

Jennie said...

Fantastic post! I have a large collection of Shun classics that I really enjoy! I also have a 6 inch Wustof chef knife that I can't live without! I keep my collection on a wall magnet in my kitchen.

Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

Anamaris said...

Very informative article, Larry. I have the same Ken Onion and a few Henckels. Do you sharpen your Ken Onions yourself or do you have them done somewhere?

Larry said...

So far, I've only used the steel on the Shun. I'm sure there will come a day when I have to send it in to be sharpened. Since they're happy to do it for you, I'll let them! But I sharpen all the others myself. Love the Chef's Choice 3-stage sharpener.