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Knives, Knife Work and Sharpening

Julia Child said a home cook can get along nicely with two knives, an 8- or 10-inch chef’s knife and a good paring knife.  Mmmm…all right.  Certainly so, if you are helping to outfit the kitchen of one of your kids or grandchildren.  Additional knives might include, in order of priority, a serrated bread knife, a boning knife and perhaps a long slicing knife.  But, the new home cook is better served getting two knives of high quality than a bargain set of all the above.

Knife blades are either forged or stamped.  Forged knives are better but cost more.  Top of the line forged knives include Wüsthof Trident and J.A. Henckels from Europe, Lamson Sharp made in the USA, and Global from Japan. There are many stamped knife manufacturers.  Forschner/Victorinox makes the best of them in Switzerland.  An 8-inch chef’s knife from Wüsthof will cost about $90.00.  Henckels, Lamson Sharp and Global chef’s knives are a little less.  The Forschner/Victorinox chef’s knife costs about $30.00. 

If the weight, size or mass of the traditional chef’s knife is too much for you, the Japanese version of the chef’s knife, called a santoku, is worth a test drive.   I bought one in Japan some 20 years ago but didn't use it much (frankly, I didn't know what I had).  However, after wielding a 10-inch Wüsthof at school for a year, I rediscovered the santoku at home and have come to favor its lightness, balance and razor edge.  Today, most of the forged knife manufacturers offer a santoku knife (shown below).

Which brings us to the subject of sharp knives.  “Sharper is safer” may strike the home cook as counterintuitive, but it's a truism of the trade.  Here is a supporting operational sequence (with apologies to lefties): 

·   Put the product to be cut on the table.
·   Position the body over the table and eyes over the product.
·   Hold the product with the left hand. 
·   Then, place the left hand fingers together, 
    o   nails down 
    o   and thumb tucked behind the index finger. 
·  With the right hand and arm, move the knife forward in a cutting (non-chopping) motion.

Thus postured, arrayed and applied, a sharp knife will cut clean, straight and safe.  A dull knife is prone to slip and move the product, as more pressure and effort must be applied to complete the task.

OK, so sharp is better.  The good news is that good quality knives keep their edge and seldom need to be sharpened, even when used a lot.  What they do need is a frequent realignment of the edge, which is accomplished by passing the knife along a honing steel (sometimes called a butcher's steel) in two or three practiced swipes. The "steel" is made of super hard steel with a micro-rough surface that realigns the molecular edge of a sharp knife without wearing away the knife's metal.  Use it often.  (At work, we would clean, trim and cut a dozen beef tenderloins at a time with 6-inch flexible boning knives that we “re-steeled” about every other tenderloin.) 


However, a honing steel will do nothing for a dull knife.  So, you have to sharpen it once in awhile.  Electric sharpeners and other mounted gadgets are available.  I haven't tried them.  In my chef’s tool box, I have a hand-held two-sided diamond “stone,” about 5 x 1 x ¼ -inch, with a same-size folding handle.  Diamond Machining Technology (DMT) makes these in various shapes, sizes and coarseness. There is even a tapered round-shaped one (see photo for the all-red sharpener) for serrated knives, which are a hassle to keep sharp since they should not be steeled.  Most cutlery stores carry them.  They are pricey (about $25), but one fine/very fine course stone (colored-coded red/green) is all one really needs.  Nice gift too, come to think of it.

Folding Santoku Chefs Knife

It seems that every time we're on the road, I have need of a cooking knife.  Friend's kitchens all have them, our favorite summer place in Duck, NC has one in each mini-kitchen, even hotel room wet bars often have a knife.  All have one thing in common:  they're dull.  Still, I always fail to pack a knife from my kitchen.  I'd have to wrap it up, put it in a suitcase, check it as baggage and hope that the TSA won't pull the bag off the belt when it sees a nine inch knife in it.

A.G. Russell, a respected knife manufacturer and retailer, offers a Japanese made folding chefs knife of high quality designed for travel.  The blade is 4-1/4" long and 1-5/8" wide, santoku-shaped, with a  fine edge. When closed, the knife measures 5-1/8", which makes it easy to pack and less threatening.  When opened, the blade locks securely. 

Full sized chefs knives have wide blades that allow room for the fingers to rest under the handle without bumping against the cutting board. This area of clearance, from the handle to the blade edge, is referred to as the ricasso. A full sized chefs knife has a ricasso of 7/8" or greater.  However, since this knife blade must fold into the handle, the designers limited the ricasso to 3/8", otherwise the handle would be too wide and unwieldy.  It's a compromise I've learned to live with by not choking up on the handle but rather sliding the index finger back to the first handle-indent.  In this position one can rock the blade and slice with some clearance.

This is a very nice special purpose knife.  I can cook with it.  It will make every trip from now on.  It's available for about $70, post paid, at



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