Every kitchen has a few knives, but from our experience, a kitchen containing good quality knives stored carefully and sharpened to a razor edge is comparatively rare. If there is anything to blame for this, perhaps it was the several-decades-long decline in cooking skills that coincided with the rise in pre-prepared processed foods. Consumer confusion borne from the introduction of cheap stainless steel knives hasn’t helped (recently I came across the ultimate in cheap: an 8″ chef’s knife for $5.59, hanging at the end of a grocery store aisle). When I was a boy watching my mom preparing food, she used a patinated old carbon steel paring knife for a lot of her cutting. It was worn thin, but it cut very well. She kept it sharp by “steeling” it against another knife, which, upon first observation, fascinated me so much I wanted to take on all her sharpening.
Life on the farm where my mother grew up was pretty basic, as were the tools. The only processed food her and her contemporaries knew was what they made themselves, starting with raw ingredients like squash and live chickens. It’s hard to imagine them not having a basic appreciation for a sharp knife and the skills need to make it that way. Over the years, since watching my mother use her knife, I owned a number of knives: a couple made from carbon steel, the rest stainless. The carbon steel ones were like my mother’s knife: quite hard yet easy to sharpen, with decent edge holding. In kitchen stores I saw that German knives dominated the high-end segment, and yet after buying a few stainless models (admittedly not the very best line), nothing changed: I was still struggling to achieve a sharp edge. The stainless ones were very, very stainless, but a trip to the sharpening stone was an exercise in futility. Never any satisfaction. They sort of got sharp if I used my imagination, but that only lasted for the first few cuts. Like many, I came to the conclusion that finding a good knife must be elusive; perhaps they exist and perhaps you do have to go forgo stainlessness if you want a good edge. Unconsciously I felt that if my knives wouldn’t give something back for all the effort I put into their care, then I better spend my time on something else.
What knife aficionados know
As time passed, I grew more sophisticated with my knife understanding. Learning about knives is like learning wine: there is more complexity the deeper you delve, and yet with the depth there is also satisfaction. The elevation of the knife from humble workaday tool to flashy kitchen star makes more and more sense as we witness the beginnings of a revival in traditional meal preparation. Professional and serious amateur chefs tend to revere their knives. They do so for at least these reasons:
- the exotic steel in their knives responds predictably to sharpening and it stays sharp
- knowledge and pride that each of their knives is ready to cut with razor sharpness, a concept most people understand but few experience
- knowledge that a well made knife is around for the long haul, and is actually very eco-friendly in that sense
- respect for the ancient and primal relationship between us and the knife: care for the knife and the knife pays back when you need it most
- they know they can laugh in a tomato’s face (actually I think most would just thank the tomato for surrendering itself to a good meal)
Common beliefs of the uninitiated
Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but sometimes you kick yourself when you find out what you’ve needlessly missed out on for many years, especially if it involves pleasure. Here is a sampling of common knife misinformation.
- carbon steel makes the best knives. Good carbon tool steels do make great blades. But some of these steels are also fairly painful to maintain. Meanwhile, modern stainless steels intended for knifemaking have a lot of research behind them. These steels form exotic carbides (eg chromium, vanadium, or niobium carbides) above and beyond the iron carbides in traditional carbon steel blades. Those extra carbides bring a lot to the table in terms of edge retention. Their improved stain resistance makes them easier than carbon steel to care for.
- stainless steel knives are inferior. Yes, if it’s that lowest-common-denominator stainless we are used to seeing. The only good thing about that stuff is it’s as stainless as a spoon. Modern stainless tool steels, on the other hand, have well over 1% carbon plus those alloying metals like vanadium and molybdenum in addition to at least 14% chromium. These steels would best be called highly stain resistant, but what they give up in stainlessness they make up for in edge retention and toughness. Worldwide, many high-end knives are now made with specialty knifemaking stainless steels and even among the knife making community the controversy seems to be over: there is no reason not to make a blade with top grade stainless knife steel. A manufacturer who’s proud of the steel they use will tell you exactly which type it is. You can then do your research to see how well it ranks for the purpose. Be wary if all they tell you is that it’s “high carbon stainless.”
- the best knife for cutting tomatoes is a tomato knife (ie one with a serrated cutting edge). These type of knives act sort of like saws and work primarily because the sharp areas between the peaks of the serrations are protected from dulling by the peaks. If you imagine cutting into a tomato with a straight razor, that’s what it’s like when you use a quality chef’s knife. It’s 25 times as much fun to use as a tomato knife.
- it’s most economical to buy a set of knives. Well, that depends on a lot of things. Our attitude is that you should buy few but buy good. Even pro chefs tend to favour a small subset of the knives they own, often because those few knives do most of what they need and feel good doing it. A small set of go-to knives is also easier to keep care of. In the end, two or three great knives will probably be all you need, probably not cost as much as a several piece quality knife set, have the quality you need to save you prep time year after year, and be a joy to use. Purchasing individual knives only as your needs grow may therefore be the most satisfying strategy. Also, if you don’t have every knife under the sun it makes it easier for someone to give you a knife as a gift.
- glass cutting boards are the most sanitary. True. But glass is harder that typical high-end knife steels, so if you cut on glass you will damage a steel knife. Same goes for taking shortcuts and cutting that orange or pineapple on a plate. Of course, if your knives are unrespectable creatures, it doesn’t matter much if you cut on glass. But like your wife, your fine knives deserve respect, lots of it. No cutting on anything harder than steel. Never. The preferred cutting surface is a hardwood cutting board. Polyethylene and phenolic plastic boards should not damage your knife, but any board should be replaced before its surface becomes too marred.
Maintaining your knife
As the owner or prospective purchaser of a top quality knife, you are probably bobbing your head at all the above. The point I’ve been trying to make is just that knife care presupposes a certain context: the knife has to be good enough that your maintenance work has an effect. The specific things you have to do beyond that are pretty simple as long as you pay attention to a few details. First, avoid unnecessary knife damage:
- cut only on surfaces that are considerably softer than knife steel
- when not in use, store the knife away from hard things that will dull the razor edge you went to the effort to establish
- do not wash a fine knife in a dishwasher. Instead, hand wash, dry and store. Besides the potential for edge damage in the machine, dishwasher detergent is quite corrosive and can easily stain or rust a good knife steel
- do not use a knife for jobs it was not intended for. For example, a delicate Japanese knife that was designed for slicing sushi will have an almost foil-like cutting edge that won’t stand the strain of cutting into heavy vegetables like squash.
With abuse eliminated, the core elements of knife care are sharpening, cleaning and storage. In our summaries of these topics we have tried to filter the huge amount of information, particularly that on sharpening tools and techniques, into something comprehensible, not only for the knife expert but the newcomer to fine knife care.