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Cutting Edge

To get your kitchen up to speed, start with a very good knife

Sam Gugino
Posted: June 27, 2001

 
 
  Above: Norman Weinstein, instructor at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School  
 
  How to Dice an Onion  
 
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Norman Weinstein, a knife-skills instructor at Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, looks at the three chef's knives I have brought him with the fascination of an archaeologist on a new dig. "Wow," he exclaims at the sight of my 26-year-old, carbon-steel Sabatier. "Haven't seen one of these for a while. I think I have some in my basement." He frowns at the Tommer, an obscure model my cousin gave me a few years back. "Too top-heavy." But, he grins widely when he sees my high-carbon, stainless-steel Wüsthof-Trident. "Now, here is a knife."

Weinstein has been teaching the fine art of dicing and slicing since 1985, and he knows the value of a good kitchen knife. So do his students, who are a mix of amateurs and food professionals. They pack his classes, and increasingly, are bringing with them better cutlery.

"Consumers are looking to buy higher-end knives first, instead of going through two or three sets of cheaper knives, then making the decision to upgrade," says Brian Huegel of Country Knives in Intercourse, Pa. Huegel carries 16 brands of kitchen knives, from old-fashioned, carbon-steel knives, such as my Sabatier, to the high-tech, all-steel, Japanese Global knives and trendy Kyocera ceramic knives. But with so many styles and brands to choose from, where does one start? Huegel and Weinstein both agree a good place is with a chef's knife, which one will find does the lion's share of the work.

A chef's knife has a rectangular blade with its widest part, or heel, along where the handle begins. The blade of the German-style chef's knife gently curves, whereas the less popular French style has a more or less straight cutting edge. Blade lengths range from six to 14 inches, with eight inches being the most popular size. But Weinstein tells his knife-skills class, which I attended, that a heavier 10-inch knife is better. "The heavier the knife, the more work it does, the less work you do," he says.

To demonstrate, Weinstein told us each to cut a rib of celery, first with an eight-inch knife, then with a 10-inch knife. The difference was startling. While the eight-inch knife, the kind I use in my kitchen, was unremarkable, the 10-incher cut through the celery like a hot knife through butter.

While size matters, the type and quality of the steel used matters even more. The higher the percentage of carbon steel in a blade, the better it can hold its edge. Most quality chef's knives are made of high-carbon stainless steel, which holds an edge well. Carbon-steel knives without any stainless steel in them (such as my Sabatier) hold an edge better than most high-carbon stainless-steel knives, but oxidize easily, even through exposure to the air. "Still, there is a small but dedicated group of carbon-steel-knife followers," says Alice Harrison of Fante's Kitchen Wares Shop in Philadelphia. Its displayed carbon-steel knives are greased to prevent discoloring.

The best knives are made of forged steel: metal slabs that are heated, hammered into shape, then put through both hot and cold treatments to create a durable blade that holds a sharp edge. Lesser-quality stamped knives are cut out of thin sheets of steel, in cookie-cutter fashion. As a result, they are about 20 percent lighter than forged-steel blades, and thus require more exertion on the cook's part, even if they're made from high-carbon stainless steel.

Stamped knives also don't have a bolster, which is a thick band of smooth, unsharpened steel that runs along the heel of the blade. Thus the heel of a stamped knife is quite thin, and with enough friction or banging, your forefinger could experience soreness or blisters.

While a good chef's knife should have sufficient heft, it must also be balanced. If the blade is too heavy for the handle, you'll have to exert too much force while cutting. As with tennis rackets, for example, a knife should feel comfortable in your hand, regardless of the type of handle used. Weinstein prefers plastic handles because they require less maintenance than wooden ones. Wooden handles are usually made in two parts, which are riveted on either side of the tang (the non-cutting extension of the blade). Then there's the elegant Global knife: The whole thing -- blade and handle -- is one piece of metal.

I tested eight knives, including my own. All of them are chef's knives and high-carbon stainless steel, unless noted. My favorite was the Chef's Choice Trizor Professional 10X. Its ergonomic molded-plastic handle felt like a part of my hand. The balance was excellent, and the thinner blade didn't stick as much as thicker ones, when plowing through large onions. My Wüsthof-Trident Classic came next. Its plastic handle wasn't as comfortable as the Chef's Choice's, and the slightly thicker blade was more prone to sticking, but the balance was very good and the knife performed well in all cutting jobs.

My carbon-steel Sabatier, the Global and Henckels' Friodur model tied for third. The Sabatier cut beautifully, but the straight French blade, unlike the curved German ones, didn't rock back and forth easily when I was chopping parsley. Its handle wasn't comfortable, either. The Global had the sharpest blade, which enabled me to dice superbly, but it felt too light in my hand and didn't have a bolster to protect my finger. The Henckels was similar in feel and performance to the Chef's Choice and Wüsthof-Trident, but a notch below in performance.

Arcos, a Spanish knife, and Fante's store-brand knife, made in Germany, were less satisfactory. Despite having a stamped blade, the Arcos cut rather efficiently. But it was too light, it didn't have a bolster, and its attractive rosewood handle was too small. The knife from Fante's was similar in design to both the German-made Wüsthof-Trident and the Henckels, but it wasn't crafted as well as they were. The handle was clunky and the blade too thick.

Bringing up the rear was the Kyocera ceramic-blade knife. Ceramic knives are the rage in some culinary circles because they are incredibly sharp and extremely light -- too light, in my opinion. This one felt like a child's toy in my hand. And while it diced shallots and onions beautifully, forget about using the small (5-1/2 inch), brittle blade to smash garlic or cut through large onions.

Maintaining your chef's knife is as important as buying the right one. For years, I've used a Chef's Choice sharpening machine on my knives. Weinstein prefers to have his knives sharpened once a year by a professional who only does cutlery -- in other words, not one who also sharpens lawn mower blades and makes keys. After each use, Weinstein hones the edge of the knife with a "steel," which is a hard metal rod used for sharpening blades (they can be found in kitchenware stores). Unfortunately, most people (including many butchers and chefs) don't hold the blade of the knife at the proper angle, 20 degrees, when honing on the steel. That's why Huegel prefers V-shaped ceramic rods -- no special angling required, and it's even harder than a steel. The Chef's Choice hones, too, so if you use one you won't need a rod or a steel.

And remember, while a good knife is crucial in any serious kitchen, it can't do everything well. When a student asked Weinstein how to chop nuts, he laughed. "I wrap them in a towel and mash them with a frying pan."

Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of the recently published Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock.

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