A primer on buying high-end kitchen knives
Charlie Trotter, chef-proprietor of Charlie Trotter's, Chicago's best restaurant, likens the difference to cars. "If you know what you're doing, you can make a meal happen with any kitchen knife," he says. "But using a top-quality knife versus a low-quality one is the difference between driving a Jaguar and a VW Jetta across the country. They'll both get you there. But the Jaguar will give you a much smoother ride."
By now this argument—buy the best—should sound familiar. It's been a mantra of the mid-to-late 1990s, especially in the home kitchen, where restaurant-quality equipment has become more and more common. But whereas chefs will differ as to whether a Viking range or a Sub-Zero refrigerator is necessity, luxury, or overkill for the amateur cook, they all agree that a good set of kitchen knives is as fundamental to cooking, no matter what level, as a gas flame. By all accounts, more and more of us agree with them. According to Neil Crumley, vice president of sales for Wüsthof-Trident of America, considered by many the leading high-end German knife manufacturer, sales of top-of-the-line kitchen knives have been steadily increasing over the past 10 years. "Seven or eight years ago," he says, "when we told people a knife set cost $200 they told us, 'You're crazy.' Today when we tell them one costs $459 they don't. Sometimes we're almost scratching our heads."
In a world where someone is willing to pay $1.8 million for a kitschy Jeff Koons porcelain figure, a $259 price increase in eight years seems modest indeed. More important, however, is that knives are one product where price and quality go up in direct proportion. The more expensive knives are better made, better balanced, and more durable. Here are some other guidelines professional chefs offer for investing in a set of knives.
- "Shop for functionality, not design," says chef-proprietor Daniel Boulud of Daniel restaurant and Café Boulud, both in New York. That's not idle advice, as most chefs say home cooks too often go for the knife that looks good.
- Match form to function. "You compromise speed and effort if you don't have the right knife for the right task, especially when you handle meat," says Rocco DiSpirito, executive chef-proprietor at Union Pacific in New York.
- Think about sharpening, as most good knives require regular maintenance.
- Most important, see how the knife feels in your hand. "The knife you like will depend on how big your hand is," says David Paulstich, executive chef at The Mark Hotel in New York, "and how heavy the blade is. You have to get a feel for knives before you buy them."
- Finally, learn to use the knives correctly. That's not as easy as it sounds. "We spent half of the year at school just on knife skills," says Deborah Stowe, who studied at the Ecole Supérieure de Cuisine Francaise Ferrandi in Paris and cooked in professional kitchens, including The Mark Hotel. "It really does make a difference, not only to the presentation of the food but to the amount of time it takes to prepare it. Knife skills influence both the art and science of cooking."
The one area in which chefs differ is whether to buy knives individually or by the set. The latter is the easiest option for the home cook—and cheaper. "The good thing about sets is that you're getting the knives at a 35 to 40 percent discount," says Crumley. "For instance, Wüsthof's seven-piece block set retails for $250. If you bought each piece separately, you would pay $425. On the Cooking Couple's set, which costs $459, you'd spend $700."
There are those, however, who take the diametrically opposite view. "We don't recommend buying sets because they're where the manufacturers put the dogs," says Steven Bridge of Bridge Kitchenware in New York. "They will put a seven-inch chef's knife in with the set, but we recommend an eight- or 10-inch one. Then they put in unusual pieces, things you just won't use. We only sell open stock, although sometimes we'll put together a set for someone." Says Paulstich: "It's better to mix and match. Although you can find a set to meet your needs, I really recommend buying individual knives."
Eight inches is considered standard for a chef's knife—but some chefs buy knives that are six, 10, or even 12 inches long as their mainstay. "Ten-inch chef's knives let you chop more at a time because the blade is longer," says Bridge. "But they're rather large and can be unwieldy. Since I cook for two at home, I use a six-inch."
According to the pros, the two criteria for choosing a chef's knife are the size of your hand and the amount of food you want to work with on the cutting board at any given time. "The standard size is eight inches," says Terri Alpert, CEO of Professional Cutlery Direct, a mail-order retailer that caters to home and professional cooks. "But many people prefer a six-inch chef's knife because it's not as intimidating as an eight-inch knife. And it's a good way to make the transition from cooking with a paring knife." Weight is also a consideration. "I use a twelve-inch," says Trotter, "because I like the weight. The ten-inch is too light for me."
Rocco DiSpirito says his 12-inch Misono chef's knife "acts more like a cleaver. I need it this size for certain things, such as chopping herbs. It's nice because it's very long and deep—almost four inches deep—whereas most of my knives are only one and a half to two inches deep. The 12-inch size feels more natural. And it has a nice rocking motion, which helps me do a better job at chopping. If I were using a slicing knife, I'd have to pull on it more."
Past this point, buying kitchen knives gets down to some not too difficult technical considerations and a knowledge of how the various brands stack up. Here's what you need to know.
There are two methods of manufacturing knives, forging and stamping, with the former producing a stronger, far superior blade. That's because a forged blade is made from steel that's heated in a furnace, then laid into a mold, after which a multiton hammer is repeatedly dropped onto it to create the blade shape. Later the metal is hardened by heating it to approximately 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit and then cooled to render it dense. In stamping, the blade is cut out of a sheet of steel the way a cookie is cut out of dough, resulting in a lighter blade. "Stamping is a much faster and less expensive way to form a blade, but the best blades are fully forged," says Crumley. (He should know, as Wüsthof-Trident manufactures both forged and stamped blades.) The way to tell a stamped knife from a forged knife: The former has no bolster. (The bolster is the part of the knife that extends vertically from the top of the handle to the bottom of the blade.)
Says Alpert: "The difference between a forged knife and a stamped knife is huge. There's no question that forged is better. It feels better in your hand because of the bolster and the balance. But it doesn't mean you need that level of quality for everything. It matters most with a chef's knife, paring knife, and utility knife. It doesn't matter for a bread knife or boning knives." DiSpirito, however, is more emphatic: He says, "You have to have a forged knife with a full tang if you want something good."
The tang refers to the portion of the blade embedded in the handle. (Knives are measured in inches based on the length of the blade from the tip to where the handle begins. In other words, the measurement does not include the tang.) Many stamped-blade kitchen knives, as well as a good many steak knives, have partial tangs, which means that they extend only part of the way into the handle. The best knives are full tang, meaning that the blade is made from a single piece of steel that extends all the way through the length of the handle, where it is bolted in place with rivets or set in place by molded plastic. "With full tang you're getting strength all the way down the blade," says Bridge. "If it isn't full tang, it can wear out or even break," says Stowe.
The best blades are made of either carbon-steel or high-carbon stainless steel (also called high-carbon no-stain steel). Each performs differently and comes with different caveats. (There are also stainless-steel blades, which are considered rather low-end, and ceramic blades, which tend to be popular with home cooks but highly controversial among professionals. See Handle with Care.)
Until the mid-1940s, carbon-steel, a mixture of iron and carbon, was the only metal used for kitchen-knife blades. Its great virtue is that it is softer and less brittle than stainless steel, which means you can grind the blade extremely thin to produce a razor-sharp cutting edge. "It's very easy to put an edge on carbon-steel," says Stowe. ("Putting an edge" on a knife means sharpening the blade to the maximum.) "You can get the knife incredibly sharp—so sharp you could shave with it. And a very sharp knife lets you work faster and more safely."
However, carbon-steel blades are high-maintenance. Because the steel is soft, the blade loses its edge more easily and the tip is more prone to chipping. "The edge will wear out within a week of heavy use," says Stowe. "You have to sharpen carbon-steel knives all the time." Carbon-steel also corrodes easily and stains when used with acidic foods, which means these knives must be washed and dried immediately after use. Finally, because carbon-steel blades are so sharp, they require extra concentration to avoid accidents.
Some chefs, however, prefer carbon-steel knives even with the drawbacks. Those chefs include DiSpirito, who says that carbon-steel knives are by far the best for cutting meat and fish. According to him, the key to avoid staining the blades is not to use them to cut fruit (lemon is the worst) or certain vegetables—especially white vegetables (like turnip and celery root) and eggplant, which, DiSpirito explains, makes the blade turn dark-gray or black. As for sharpening, he sees it as a pleasurable daily ritual.
The other main material used for blades is stainless steel, which is a combination of carbon-steel and chromium. It makes for a stronger, rust-proof blade—one that will hold an edge longer than carbon-steel. It also doesn't react to foods, which means it remains extremely shiny over time. Low-end cutlery and "never-need-sharpening" knives are frequently made of stainless steel.
The problem with stainless steel is that its hardness makes it more difficult to sharpen and, say pros, prevents it from ever reaching razor sharpness. "It takes longer, and is much harder, to put an edge on a stainless-steel knife," Stowe explains. "But when you have an edge it lasts longer than carbon-steel." As DiSpirito puts it: "You sacrifice a lot of finesse with stainless steel."
Hence the development of high-carbon stainless steel, created by adding tiny amounts of vanadium and molybdenum to the stainless-steel formula. Knives that are made of high-carbon stainless steel are considered by many pros and manufacturers to be the best of both worlds. Such knives can hold a very sharp edge and withstand rusting, abrading, and breaking.
"High-carbon stainless-steel knives stay sharp longer, and they are easier to sharpen," Bridge says plainly.
"I like the combination because it helps you keep an edge longer," states Paulstich.
Says Daniel Boulud: "I prefer high-carbon stainless steel because it maintains its sharpness longer."
Here chefs base their preference mainly on how the handle feels in their hand, but they also match handle to task. The bigger the job, the heavier the handle should be.
Traditionally, knife handles were made of wood, including ebony, cherry, and rosewood; almost every pro with whom we spoke still prefers them. "I definitely prefer wood," says Trotter. "I like the feel, and wood doesn't slip as much as plastic or metal." DiSpirito concurs. "It feels better and it's far stronger," he says. "Plastic slips and melts when it comes into contact with heat." Boulud prefers wood because "it has a nicer grip and a better feel. It's also not too slippery. Plastic is functional, but I like it much less."
But, says Crumley, "Wood is less durable than plastic. You can't put it in the dishwasher. During manufacturing it's difficult to get the seams around the handle consistent with the filler, so the upkeep is more difficult. I've seen Wüsthof knives that are fifty years old brought back to us for replacement because the wooden handle has disintegrated. And when that happens, food particles can get trapped more easily, which can lead to bacteria growth." (For its high-end knives, Wüsthof-Trident no longer uses wood.)
Bridge concurs. "Yes, plastic handles will melt if you leave them on the hot stove, and wood has a better texture than plastic," he says. "But wooden handles won't last. Even if you take good care of them, the wood pulls away from the rivets and disintegrates over time. My mother-in-law has some great Wüsthof knives from more than twenty-five years ago. You can see that the wood has separated from the tang at the bolster. With plastic, the consistency is the same every time." Food & Wine's executive food editor, Tina Ujlaki, agrees—to a point. "Wooden handles definitely have a durability problem," she says. "They require more care. You can't put them in the dishwasher or leave them handle-down in soapy water. But if you're careful, they still last for decades."
Chefs often generalize about knives based upon the nationality of the manufacturer. And in fact, knives manufactured in the same country share characteristics, with the most distinctive being French knives: Generally, they have a straight blade with a rounded bolster. Most of the chefs to whom we spoke felt that the best knives are made in Germany and Japan. Here is a rundown of the major knife manufacturing countries and the top brands in each one.
According to DiSpirito, the Japanese are the best knife manufacturers in the world. "They'll custom-make any knife for you," he says. "They measure your arm length from wrist to elbow, and your hand from wrist to fingertip. The type of steel used is tied into the tradition, and sharpening stones are made of a certain type of clay taken from riverbeds. Many of the best brands cannot be bought in the United States, and their names aren't translated into English. But then, there's a misconception in the West that the Japanese make only sushi knives with bamboo handles. It's just not true."
In fact, top Japanese manufacturers do make gyutou (pronounced "gee-oo-toh"), their equivalent of what are called "chef's knives" in Europe and the United States. They generally have odd measurements—8.2 inches instead of eight inches for the standard knife—and a completely different edge: sharp on one side, flat on the other. Whether they are suited to preparing Western dishes—in particular, those involving meat with bones and large quantities of tough vegetables—is the question. According to DiSpirito, they are. Others, such as Paulstich, say their use is limited. "Japanese knives are great for sushi," says Paulstich, "but when I julienne, for example, I like to have a twelve- or fourteen-inch blade with a two- or three-inch heel so I can lift the blade high. With a Japanese knife, if you lift the blade that high you'll cut yourself because there is no bolster." Trotter has one or two Japanese knives in his collection. "They have wooden handles and long blades," he says. "They're great for fileting salmon. The blades have great weight. You can let them do all the work." Boulud likes using Japanese knives made of carbon-steel for certain tasks because "the feel is very good and the sharpness is extra fine. But they are adapted to preparing Japanese food."
Rocco DiSpirito prefers Misono knives so much that he gave each of his cooks one as a holiday gift last year. According to DiSpirito, Misono knives are suited to just about anything, from slicing to boning. "Misono knives are very light," he says, "and great for fine cutting. You can get a beautiful slice of onion with one, and you don't have to work to raise the knife. Some Misono knives have a granton edge, which is made of small holes or ridges, so that there's less sticking when you slice." Mariko Hashimoto, the manager of the Korin Japanese Trading Corporation, a leading import company based in New York that supplies cooks and professional chefs nationwide, says the best Misono knives are those in the UX10 series, made of Swedish high-carbon stainless steel. "The design and balance of the UX10 is very different from the other lines," says Hashimoto. "When you hold them, you realize it immediately."
Known for its sleek, contemporary-looking high-carbon stainless-steel and carbon-steel blades and dimpled steel handles—as Trotter puts it, "they're designer knives"—Global is the only Japanese brand that Bridge Kitchenware carries. "They have a razor-sharp edge, which is why the pros like them," says Bridge, "but they're also a popular choice because they look great." The caveat: "They are very labor-intensive," he says. "You have to sharpen them frequently with a diamond steel and a very fine whetstone, and the blades have a different angle than German knives, which means you have to learn a different sharpening technique."
One professional chef who prefers Global knives above other brands is chef-proprietor Charlie Palmer of Aureole in New York. "I've been using Global a lot lately, for everything," he says. "When I'm working the line, I set four Global knives down on the counter before me, and that's pretty much all I need. I like the feel and the balance, and they hold a good edge." He also says that he likes the Global handles. "The texture is great, and the grip is good." Palmer adds that sharpening the knives is neither time-consuming nor difficult, but he is a minority in this regard. "They're nice knives, but I try not to look for knives I have to sharpen all the time," says Paulstich. DiSpirito is blunt: "I don't like them at all," he says. "They're hard to sharpen. The shape is aesthetically nice, but they don't pass easily over the stone."
"As with German cars, German knives have a reputation for excellent craftsmanship," says Crumley. "They come out of an apprenticeship system that has been in place for centuries. You can't just sit down and decide to start making knives in Germany. It takes years of training. The knife-makers are very serious about what they do."
German knives are generally considered the strongest. "They have thicker, heavier blades than the Japanese knives," says Boulud. "Like French knives, they're more adapted to a multilevel of preparation."
"German knives are good for heavy cutting and chopping, especially meat with bones," says DiSpirito.
The blade of a traditional German chef's knife has a curved shape, which "allows the knife to rock slightly when it hits the surface of the cutting board," says Stowe. This is why, Bridge says, many chefs prefer them. "With a German knife, there's a lot more up and down movement when you're slicing," says Alpert. "With French knives, which have a straight blade, you use forward motion."
This company, founded in 1731 in Solingen, Germany, has the most international recognition of any cutlery manufacturer. The chefs with whom we spoke agree that J.A. Henckels produces solid, reliable knives. "I have a case of Henckels knives that someone gave to me," says Boulud, "and I use them all the time. I like the weight and the handle." Trotter, who has one that's 15 years old, says, "they're great knives."
The top J.A. Henckels line is Zwilling, which means twin in German, hence the "twin" logo on the blade. The two best Zwilling knives are the Pro-S and the 5-Star models. The former is made with a classic, triple-riveted handle; the 5-Star has an ergonomically designed, molded handle with no rivets. Knives six inches long and smaller have forged blades; longer knives have blades manufactured through a combination of forging and stamping.
According to Bridge, the big problem with Henckels knives is that "Henckels uses ice-hardened steel, the same as surgeon scalpels and disposable razors. They come out of the bag razor-sharp, but we found that customers just couldn't keep them sharp, so we got rid of them."
Wüsthof-Trident By many accounts, this company, which has also been operating in Solingen since 1814, is the best German knife manufacturer. It's the only Western knife that Bridge Kitchenware carries in any significant quantity, for as Steven Bridge says, "With proper care and maintenance, Wüsthof knives could last a lifetime." Says Palmer: "They're the knives you see most used in professional kitchens. They're good, and they hold up well. I use Wüsthof-Trident knives at home all the time." One of Ujlaki's favorite knives is her Wüsthof bread knife. "I adore it," she says. "It's fairly heavy in the hand; I find the edge configuration great for slicing bread. It's functional—it's perfect."
All Wüsthof-Trident forged knives are made of high-carbon stainless steel, and almost all have a full tang. The top-of-the-line knives are the Classic and Grand Prix, both of which are "hand-forged," meaning that a blacksmith manually takes each steel blank from the furnace using tongs. "Both the Classic and Grand Prix have handles made of high-impact polypropylene," says Crumley, "and they have almost the exact same weight and balance. But the handle shape's a bit different. One's not considered better than the other. What is totally different is the way they feel." Bridge agrees, then adds, "personally, I prefer the balance on the Classic line."
Paulstich says that he prefers the Classic line because "the knives hold an edge well, and sharpen pretty easily. I also like the way they fit in my hand, especially the feel and the weight of the handle."
Knives from 200-year-old, family-owned Friedrich Dick (referred to as "F. Dick") are forged in Esslingen, near Stuttgart, and according to Professional Cutlery Direct account for 95 percent of the knives found in U.S. culinary schools. They are made of a high-carbon stainless steel that's harder than most other brands', which makes them more difficult to sharpen. "They're good workhorse knives," says Alpert, "but the back of the blade is very sharp." Paulstich likes his F. Dick cleaver because "it has a lot of weight and a nice, sturdy handle." Palmer owns an F. Dick boning knife and a serrated slicer. "I like the serration on it," says Palmer. "It's really gentle, which makes it good for slicing crusty things." However, says Steven Bridge, "F. Dick is very good but very expensive for what it is, and it has a limited product line." (An eight-inch chef's knife costs approximately $67.)
According to Terri Alpert, this manufacturer's San Moritz line is top-quality and is unique in having an exceptionally short bolster. "The length of the bolster affects the sharpening of the knife," she explains. "If the bolster is long, you won't be able to sharpen the back part of the blade, which means that over time the blade won't sit evenly on the cutting board. An abbreviated bolster allows you to sharpen the whole length of the knife." Another plus, she says, is that Messermeister polishes the back of its blades more, which makes it more comfortable to use a proper grip—with the thumb and forefinger on opposite sides of the blade and the back three fingers wrapped around the handle. Palmer also likes them. "They are not as well known," he agrees, "but I have a really nice, scalloped Messermeister slicer that holds an edge really well; it's slightly flexible and has a good spine, great for making thin slices of lamb or duck breast."
They are singular for their shape: a straight blade with a rounded bolster. In Bridge's opinion the straight blade makes French knives more difficult to use. "It's easier to chop incorrectly with the French knife," says Bridge. But Boulud disagrees. "The French knife does have a rocking motion to it, but it's a very light motion," he says. "It's not harder to use—it's just different." Ujlaki, who learned to cook using French knives, prefers them. "I like the elongated blade," she says, "and the fact that they tend to be thinner at the base, where the tang is."
Alpert says that she loves French knives because "they have such a different feel in the hand. They're much more nimble, and can get into tight places more easily. The blade is more triangular, which gives you far better control over the tip. They're also thinner and lighter. And yes, there is less rocking motion than with a German knife, but it's a question of subtle degrees. It's a matter of personal preference."
The most well-known brand of French knife—Sabatier—is also the most generic. "There are thirty-one manufacturers working under the Sabatier name, almost like a franchise," says Bridge. "It's like calling a photocopying machine a Xerox. There's no consistency from one to the next."
The best French knife available today, according to Bridge and Alpert, is Thiers-Issard, which Bridge says is hard to find in the United States. (Professional Cutlery Direct carries it.) "The factory manager, Gilles Reynewaeter, puts his heart and soul into these knives," says Alpert. "He's found the best handle fitters, the best knife grinders. If you want to buy a traditional, French-shaped knife, this is the brand." Thiers-Issard knives can be recognized by the four stars and elephant logo on the blade; they come in both carbon-steel and high-carbon stainless-steel styles.
According to most professional chefs, we are not the sharpest blade in the drawer. "It amazes me," says Palmer. "Why doesn't someone in the United States make better knives? It's like bone china. We could do it, but it's as if it just hasn't occurred to anyone."
LamsonSharp, which has been operating in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts, since 1837, is the only American company that professionals we interviewed considered on a par with the best European and Japanese knife-makers. "The shape is traditional German," says Alpert, "but they put a really good curvature on the blade, which is wider than many. The blade is made of high-carbon stainless steel from Solingen, but the workmanship is American. They are wonderful knives to use." Ujlaki, who has several LamsonSharp knives, including a six-inch chef's knife, concurs. "I like the handle a lot," she says. "It's very comfortable in the hand." According to Bridge, however, "While LamsonSharp is good in the wooden-handled category, they're very expensive for what they are."
Here is a field guide to the knives mentioned in this article. All of the knives shown are eight-inch chef's knives, except for Misono's, which is 8.2 inches long. Prices may vary, depending on the retailer.
Zwilling Pro-S ($87)
Zwilling 5-Star ($87)
These high-carbon stainless-steel blades are manufactured through a combination of forging and stamping. Pros say they're top-quality.
Grand Prix ($79)
Both of these top lines are hand-forged of high-carbon stainless steel. The Classic line, Wüsthof-Trident's original series, is its most diverse: The chef's knife comes in 11 sizes, from five to 14 inches.
Forged series ($67)
Almost every chef praises the knives from this venerable, family-owned knife-maker. The caveat: They are more difficult to sharpen because they're made of a harder grade of high-carbon stainless steel. But once sharpened, they keep an edge longer.
San Moritz ($75)
Unique in that they have a shorter bolster, which experts say allows you to sharpen the entire length of the blade. Forged of high-carbon stainless steel.
The UX10 line is the company's best, made of Swedish high-carbon stainless steel.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel ($70)
Great-looking but high-maintenance knives. "You have to sharpen them frequently with a diamond steel and a very fine whetstone," says Steven Bridge of Bridge Kitchenware in New York.
There are three different handle styles for LamsonSharp's top-of-the-line forged, high-carbon stainless-steel chef's knives. Rosewood, featured above, is made of natural wood imported from Cameroon and has brass rivets. This knife must be treated occasionally with mineral oil.
The best French knife made today, also available in high-carbon stainless steel.
Handle with Care
Most cooking experts agree that ceramic kitchen knives by Kyocera, the Japanese manufacturer of cutlery, electronics, and synthetic gemstones, are beautiful. The question is: Are they worth the exceptionally high price—$167 to $225 for a six-inch chef's knife? (Kyocera claims the price is high because the material is "advanced" and the U.S. government puts "an unusually high import duty on advanced ceramic products.")
According to the chefs with whom we spoke, the answer is not yet.
Kyocera knives are made of two materials: zirconium oxide (above right), which is a glossy white color that resembles porcelain; and zirconium carbide (below), which turns black when fired and is slightly more durable than zirconium oxide. The blades are made by molding ceramic powder into blade "blanks," which are then fired at extremely high temperatures, ground on a diamond wheel, and polished to form the edge. According to the manufacturer, the only substance harder than a Kyocera knife is a diamond.
Although Kyocera claims that its knives are virtually unbreakable, most pros say otherwise.
"I first saw a Kyocera knife seven years ago at the Frankfurt fair," says Steven Bridge of Bridge Kitchenware in New York. "It dropped off the counter and cracked. Yes, a Wüsthof-Trident could crack, too, but it's much less likely." And, he adds, Kyocera knives are high-maintenance. "If you don't use a water stone to sharpen them all the time, they won't hold up. You have to baby them constantly. But they are razor sharp." (In fact, Kyocera recommends sending them back to the company for sharpening.)
"Just drop 'em on the floor and see what happens," laughs David Paulstich, executive chef at The Mark Hotel in New York. "Yeah, if you have an Art Deco kitchen and tons of money to spend, Kyocera knives are fine. But they're not really practical. They wouldn't fit into a professional kitchen."
"I'm not crazy about them," says Charlie Trotter, chefproprietor of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. "But I haven't used them enough to really make a judgment. However, I can tell you that I have 24 cooks in my kitchen and not one has a Kyocera knife." Charlie Palmer, chefproprietor of Aureole in New York, says, "I tried one at a show and broke it."
However, Terri Alpert, CEO of Professional Cutlery Direct, disagrees. "We've had almost no problems with breakage of Kyocera knives," she says. "You do get tiny chips in the cutting edge, but they don't affect the cutting ability. We've even thrown them on the cement warehouse floor and they haven't broken. If anything, the only disadvantage to Kyocera knives is that they have the look, shape, and feel of a stamped knife. But these knives are not stamped—they're molded."
As for sharpness, Alpert says that the white zirconium oxide blade holds an edge for a long time and to average consumers seems very sharp, but it's not as sharp as a well-maintained high-carbon stainless-steel knife. The black zirconium carbide blade, which only comes in a six-inch cook's knife, is "really, really sharp," claims Alpert. "With a lot of use, it will need to be sharpened, which can be done for a nominal fee by Kyocera."
There's a knife for just about every task you may face at the cutting board. But according to Steven Bridge of Bridge Kitchenware in New York, you can deal with almost every home-cooking task with these five knives. (Wüsthof-Trident's forged, high-carbon stainless steel Classic line.)
Six- or eight-inch chef's (or cook's) knife
"You use it to chop or slice almost any substance, from meat to vegetables."
3.5-inch paring knife
"It's an all-purpose utility knife. You use it to peel and segment vegetables, or to carve them, such as stems out of tomatoes." As an add-on, Bridge suggests a 4.5-inch paring knife, which he says "gives more blade length."
Five-inch boning knife
"It's for boning meat. It's very strong and not flexible, so that you can carve into joints without damaging the meat."
10-inch serrated bread knife
"This is for slicing bread or vegetables. The standard used to be an eight-inch knife, but today's loaves are bigger."
10-inch carving knife
"For carving meat and large vegetables or fruit. Use a straight edge for poultry, a serrated edge for red meat. You can use the serrated edge for poultry, but it'll tear the meat and make strands."
We asked this quartet of top chefs which chef's knives they prefer. Here's what they told us.
The Mark Hotel
The one stamped knife that many professionals say is excellent is made by Forschner/Victorinox, the original manufacturer of the Swiss Army knife. (The company also makes forged knives but, say the pros, they're just average.) "Their high-end, stamped knives have good balance and a three-quarter tang," says Terri Alpert. "They're about the same caliber as F. Dick and Henckels," says Deborah Stowe, "very solid quality, good for home use." Daniel Boulud likes them, as does David Paulstich, who prefers their butcher knives. "It's a good, sturdy knife," he explains, "and the handle is made of good wood." Rocco DiSpirito uses a Forschner/Victorinox knife for paring. "It's sharp all the time, and it's inexpensive." (The eight-inch chef's knife shown costs $28.)
High-carbon stainless-steel knives should be sharpened from two to four times per year, carbon-steel knives daily. All of the chefs with whom we spoke recommend that home cooks learn to sharpen their knives. That's because sharpening services use a process called grinding that ultimately can ruin a knife. "The services I've seen all grind knives," says Rocco DiSpirito, executive chef-proprietor at Union Pacific in New York. "They work, but over time they'll grind away the blade." Steven Bridge of Bridge Kitchenware says that if you do send knives out for sharpening, make sure the service uses a cold-water-bath method, in which the sharpening stone turns in a tub with cold water running through it. "It keeps the blade cold," he says, "and from becoming brittle." (The only company that Bridge Kitchenware recommends for grinding, and which uses the cold-water-bath method, is Henry Westpfal & Co. in New York (212-563-5990).
The key to sharpening knives correctly by hand is to make sure you match the sharpening stone to the knife and that you pass the knife blade over the stone at the correct angle, 10 to 20 degrees (45 degrees for cleavers). The stones themselves come in varying degrees of fineness like sandpaper, and they include oil stones, which are lubricated with mineral oil to moderate the friction; whetstones, which use water; and diamond stones, which can be used dry or wet. There are also "tri-stones," which have three different grades of fineness on one stone. "The tri-stones are the easiest to use," says Charlie Trotter, chef-proprietor of Charlie Trotter's in Chicago. (To find out which stone to use, consult the manufacturer.)
Then there are manual and electric tabletop sharpeners, the best-known brand being Chef's Choice. "We don't recommend them because once you use them, you always have to," Bridge says. "The machine puts a proprietary edge on the blade. And the electronic ones take an awful lot of steel out of the knife." Comments DiSpirito: "They're a shortcut. They don't do a great job. I wouldn't recommend them."
But don't confuse sharpening with steeling (also known as honing), which requires a steel such as this Multicut model by F. Dick ($75). "Steeling is like sharpening a pencil point," says Bridge. "You bring it back to razor sharpness. When the steeling no longer works, then you sharpen the blade again."
The alternative is a table-mounted sharpening steel device from Chantry (approximately $46). Its virtue is convenience—the correct steeling angle is already set up, so all you have to do is insert the knife and draw it through. "The problem is that you never learn how to find the angle yourself," Bridge says, "which means that you probably won't be able to steel the knives yourself. With a traditional steel you learn the technique."
Korin Japanese Trading Corporation
(Japanese Knives Only)
Professional Cutlery Direct
(Sells All The Knives Featured In This Article Except Misono)
$ 1 800-859-6994;
$ 1 800-243-4032;
Travis Neighbor is an Atlanta-based contributing writer for Departures magazine.
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