by Bill Smyth
When you first attempt to take on the kitchen, it’s crucial to know the ins and outs of the tools you’ll work with. Your knives are the most important utensils in your prep-arsenal. They must be taken seriously… very seriously.
So you think you’re a successful guy and know your way around. You know the city in and out, might drive a Beamer or a Benz, have an upstate lakefront property, own a couple of cases of Macallan 18 or a fine 1995 vintage Cabernet Sauvignon and smoke “God of Fire” Fuente cigars at leisure. Yeah, you know your way around luxury and are proud to show it off.
Now enter the kitchen, into an area of the apartment that is being more and more claimed by men as part of their natural domain. Celebrity chefs aside, the average city man is seeing the stove more than ever these days and, typical man, likes his high-tech gadgets. An expensive cutting board, fancy grill pan, cast iron cooking pots, Pat LaFrieda porterhouse with Barilla oil and you’re ready to grab your… what, one cooking knife? Take a look in your utensil drawer. What are you packing? Do you even know what makes up the qualities of a Porsche in knife terms? Does your knife have a serrated or straight cutting edge? Stainless or high carbon alloy? Well, what grade? Has it a half ‘tang,’ full ‘tang’ or triple full ‘tang’? Is the shape European or Asian? Is the handle plastic, metal or pakkawood? Things you probably didn‘t think or care about… until now. If you’re going to have equipment make up most of your life, you need the right cutting edge. Knives are a sharp bunch and here’s how to pick the best ones.
Steely Dan. A few weeks ago I came across Gunter Wilhelm Executive Chef Series knives and the minute I saw, held, and worked with them I was blown away. I found my “Porsche.” It drove me to understand better what we need to be looking for while we select our new blades. What is the most important thing to look for when assessing the right knife? There’s a lot so start off with the basic, but ultimately most important: the metal properties in the blade. Always look for high-carbon no-stain (stainless) steel, which is a hard metal that will keep its edge longer, will be easier to maintain and with good care remain rust-free, unlike the standard carbon steel. Most chefs are used to the softer steels that are used in typical restaurant kitchen knives. But many have discovered the wonder of high carbon stainless steel alloys and don’t have to stop their production because of dull knives. High-carbon stainless steel is harder and will last longer. But which alloy is the best? There are various kinds of High Carbon Alloys used in knife making. The most popular has been the 440 grade. However, there are several flavors of 440, ie. 440A, 440B and 440C all having different amounts of carbon and other metals. On the low end is 440A, which has 0.65-0.75% carbon. On the high end is 440C, which has 0.95-1.20% carbon. All 440 steels are 16-18% chromium, which contributes to their no stain (stainless) quality. The higher the carbon means the blade holds an edge better. There are big price differences between low-carbon 440A and the high-carbon 440C… always use 440C. Another hidden parameter that determines how long your edge will stay sharp and how easy it will be to maintain, is the hardness of the metal. While you can’t see it when you look at the knife, the rewards of harder steel will be evident after many hours of cutting without the need for sharpening. Steel hardness is measured by a Rockwell scale. It is adjusted by various heat treatment processes. Most German knives have a Rockwell rating of 54-56 while many of the Japanese knives are 60-61. The harder the steel the longer the edge will last. However, hardness doesn’t come without compromise. Harder blades are more brittle and are difficult to sharpen. The GW knives have Rockwell of 58-59 which is the perfect balance of edge retention, ‘sharpenability’ and brittleness.
Put it to Good Use. Blade material aside, you have to know what types of
blades are out there. Professional chefs will typically use a 10-12 inch blade because of productivity and ease of use. French style knives, preferred by many, tend to use a more curved section on the front of the blade which is good for a rocking motion or up and down style of cutting. Asian style blades are more straight, or triangular, good for slicing. The blade surface of a Japanese-style santoku knife has hollow, beveled indentations ground into the blade to create pockets of air to reduce friction and minimize sticking. There are probably upward of 20 styles used in a professional kitchen, but in a typical kitchen the most essential knives are a 3.5” paring knife for peeling, coring and fine slicing, a carving knife for meats and cutting large fruits, an 8” or 10” prep knife such as the classic chef (French) knives or the Japanese Santuko knife for slicing, dicing and chopping, a boning/filet knife for trimming fat from meat and for filleting fish, and an 8” or 9” bread knife. A carving fork is always handy for those holiday turkeys and roasts.
First Blood. Many male readers will be familiar with Rambo films, Sylvester Stallone and his ripped biceps and his hunting knife with the jagged, serrated edges. A serrated edge actually tears and saws the food, which might be okay for John in the jungle but is compeletely unsuitable for a mature and sophisticated city dweller such as yourself. When choosing a knife, always look for a straight blade edge, especially for sharpness. Also, you want a blade that you can sharpen and no one can sharpen a serrated blade
Forge Ahead. Now that you know what steel and what style of knife to purchase, let’s look at how they are constructed. In today’s market, there are two ways to put a knife together: stamping it from sheet metal or forging it from a piece of metal. The best knives are forged because forged knives are better balanced, more comfortable, weightier and make a better edge. Stamped knives are cheaper and easier to produce. Forging permits the differing thicknesses of metal which is necessary for a heavy raised bolster between the knife handle and knife blade giving a completely different feel and balance from a stamped knife. The most important part of any handle is how it “tangs.” That section of steel in the handle is the knife’s tang and when it runs the entire length of the handle, you have a “full tang.” Some knifes such as GW, have a “triple full tang.” A triple tang “turbo charges” your knife. It gives power and ease around curves that a single tang knife can’t offer. This is achieved through a unique weight and balance. A full tang (single or triple) will offer a chef better quality of knife, as well as better balance… something you new chefs will definitely need.
Into the Woods. Unless you’re very unlucky, the part of a chef’s knife you’ll have the most contact with is the handle. So you’ll want to make sure it’s comfortable and fits your hand. It shouldn’t feel slippery or cause you to have to grip excessively hard. Most knives have a wooden handle over manmade or even other natural materials such as ivory or bone. Don’t be fooled. Hardwood handles, and especially pakkawood, is the preferred choice on the market. Selected foreign and domestic hardwood with phenolic thermosetting resins are subjected to heat and pressure creating multiple layers of hardwood, giving the handle a weather and moisture-resistant stability. While the average household has entry level knives (mostly stainless steel) that won’t stay sharp and hold an edge, always look for the UNLIMITED lifetime guarantee from your top of the line knife carrier. It’s called standing by your product and it makes a difference when purchasing a set. You know they’ll always have your back.
So in conclusion, and like every other activity, you are probably best using what the professionals use. Things to look for include 440C stainless steel, a forged knife, full tang (triple is preferred), a straight edge blade, and pakkawood handles. But that comes at a price. As does anything worth having. Quality costs but it pays in the long run. If you want to be the master of your domain, the knives you use need some love too.