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An Edge in the Kitchen


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#1 Daily Gullet Staff

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 10:57 AM
















































target="_blank"> alt="" name="cover" width="234" height="285" border="0" style="background-color: #999999"> The Daily Gullet is proud to present an excerpt from Society member Chad Ward's new book, target="_blank"">An Edge in the Kitchen.


Common Knife Myths


Let's deal with the three biggest myths and misconceptions about
quality knives: forging, bolsters and full tangs, or the Historical Fiction,
the Convenient Fiction and the Outright Lie.

Stamp of Approval

Nearly every piece of advice that involves knives contains some variation
on the idea that forged knives are superior to stamped knives, conjuring
up images of a burly artisan lovingly whacking a glowing bar of steel
into your soon-to-be-purchased knife. Conversely, stamped knives are presented
as being punched, cookie cutter style, out of thin, cheap steel. Old World
hand craftsmanship versus crass automated garbage.

The real world is not that simple. If you compare a $100 forged knife
from the gourmet boutique to the stamped knife you picked up at the grocery
store in an emergency, forged knives do come out way ahead. But that's
about the only time the myth is true. The fact is that in a modern manufacturing
facility stamped knives aren't really stamped and forged knives
aren't really forged, at least in the way we normally think of those
terms.

But wait, you say, I've read that forging aligns the molecules
of the steel and makes it stronger. It also refines the grain structure,
making for better steel. Forged knives are heavier, and that's better,
right? And they have that bolster for balance and safety, you cry. Stamped
knives are flimsy and icky.

First, a little terminology.

For the sake of this discussion, I'm going to dismiss the cheapo
stamped knives. There is a sea of stamped knives out there. Some are decent
knives, some are garbage, but they are, in fact, made by punching a knife
shape out of a flat sheet of steel and putting a simple edge on it. They
tend to be very inexpensive and very light. Some have such a low carbon
content that they will never take or hold a working edge. Their handles
are usually molded plastic and they never have bolsters. For the most
part, you can ignore them. There is one inexpensive stamped knife that
I like a lot for starter kitchens and we will discuss it when we get to
that section. The rest aren't worth bothering with, even the ones
from reputable manufacturers who have gotten into the low-end market.
Later on we'll take a look at the warning signs so you know what
to avoid.

The knives we're really talking about here have been taking the
professional cooking world by storm for the last several years and they
are starting to make headway into the home market. You may have seen knives
by Global or MAC infiltrating your local Gourmet Hut. They are good examples
of this new type of knife. The blades are cut and precision ground from
a billet of high-alloy steel, a method that custom knife makers refer
to as stock removal. They are indeed laser cut or punched from a sheet
or thin bar of steel, but the level of finish that goes into them is equal
to any of the forged knives. Indeed, the manufacturing process is nearly
identical. I think of them as machined knives to distinguish them from
stamped knives. Professional chefs have been abandoning their heavy, forged
knives (and repetitive stress injuries) in droves for this style of knife.



Bring on the Heat

The method of shaping the blade of a quality modern chef's knife
is largely irrelevant. Why? Heat treatment. Take two pieces of the same
steel. Grind one to a given shape and forge the other into the same shape.
At this point in the process, forging does impart all of those wondrous
virtues you've read about. There is a difference in the internal
structure of the two knives, and the forged blade is indeed better. Sounds
pretty good so far, doesn't it? But we still have a ways to go before
we have a finished knife. Any difference between the two chunks of steel
is wiped out in the next step -- heat treatment, one of the most
important aspects of creating a quality knife.

Heat treatment? Is that some kind of spa bath for your knife blade? Well,
sorta. And as it turns out, it's all about the heat, baby. Give
those two knife blades the same heat treatment and the steel will be identical.
You wouldn't be able to tell them apart unless you have a scanning
electron microscope in your kitchen . Since they have the same shape,
they function exactly the same. One method takes a steel blank and grinds
away everything that doesn't look like a knife. The other takes
a steel blank, heats it up and squishes it into the shape of a knife.
Once they have been heat treated, that's the only practical difference.

Here's how it works. Knife steel is deliberately left soft during
most of its manufacturing. It's easier to shape, cut and grind that
way. One of the last steps before the steel blank gets fluffed and buffed
into a real knife is a soak somewhere between 1400 and 1900 degrees Fahrenheit,
which causes a radical change in the crystal structure of the steel. When
cooled rapidly -- quenched -- the crystal structure changes
again, creating an extremely hard, very brittle steel. It is under enormous
internal strain. Think 14 cups of coffee and an impending mortgage payment.
That kind of pressure. Ready to shatter at the slightest provocation.

The knife blank is then heated again to a much lower temperature, somewhere
between 400 and 700 degrees Fahrenheit, to ease some of the internal strain
a little, making the steel slightly softer (though still much harder than
it was initially) and a lot less brittle. At this point, all of those
internal changes have wiped the atomic Etch-A-Sketch clean. Any advantages
of the forged knife have been erased. And that's if the two knives
started out from the same steel. As we'll see, some modern stamped
knives take advantage of seriously vicious high-tech alloys.

Where does this idea of creating a superior blade by forging come from?
For centuries forging wasn't just a way to make better steel, it
was the only way to make steel at all. That's why I refer to this
myth as the Historical Fiction. But now knife makers no longer have to
melt their own iron ore and pound it into submission. They simply call
the steel mill and order up a batch. There is some great steel out there
now, better than anything ever before used for kitchen knives. It can
be drop forged or it can be laser cut out of sheets. With proper heat
treatment, the method of shaping the blade has more to do with manufacturing
processes and knife styles than anything else.

So why all the hype about forged knives? It's a great way to sell
knives, for one thing. For another, the forging process is more labor
intensive and expensive. No one is going to go to that much trouble to
make a lousy knife. Forged knives are good, they're just not inherently
better. At least not better than the modern crop of machined knives out
there. That's where the myth falls down. As I said before, if you
compare a $100 forged knife with a cheap grocery store knife, the forged
knife wins. No contest. Put that same forged knife up against a similarly
priced knife ground from a billet of modern ubersteel and properly heat
treated and you've got an entirely different outcome. There is no
clear winner. Each method can produce great knives, but they are knives
with wildly different characteristics. You've got a choice to make.

Forged versus Stamped Round 2: The Real Story

Forged knives and machined knives tend to be made in two distinctive
styles. The forged knife generally will be thicker and heavier. This can
be a good thing or not depending on what kind of cooking you do. Many
cooks like a heavy knife. The machined knife will be thinner and lighter.

The forged knife will generally have softer steel. Soft is a relative
term when you are talking about steel. It is steel, after all, but it
hasn't been heat treated to optimal hardness. The softer steel easily
can be resharpened at home, but won't hold an edge as long or take
as acute an edge as harder steel. The machined knife will generally have
harder steel. It will take an extremely keen edge and hold it for a good
long time. It will be more difficult to resharpen (unless you read my
chapter on sharpening your knives).

The forged knife will have a heavy bolster, the collar of metal between
the handle and the blade. The bolster will probably extend most or all
of the way down to the heel of the knife. The machined knife may or may
not have a bolster. If it does, the bolster will have been welded on rather
than being forged into shape. Either knife may or may not have a full
tang. We'll get to tangs and bolsters in just a minute.

So it's really more a matter of style and feel rather than quality.
Some chefs like a heavier knife with a thicker blade, the type of knife
that has been in vogue, at least in Europe and countries influenced by
European (read French) cooking, for a couple of hundred years. Other cooks
like a thinner, lighter knife that feels more nimble in the hands and
doesn't leave them feeling like they've been powerlifting
all afternoon. This style of knife is heavily influenced by Japanese knives,
known for their light weight, hard steel and screaming sharp edges.

The truth of the matter is that unless you are in a production kitchen
(where you're likely to be handed whatever knife was on sale when
the kitchen was equipped), it comes down to a matter of feel. Remember,
we're not dedicated to having knives that are all alike. We can
mix and match. Make your decision based on what feels right in your hands,
in your kitchen and on your wallet rather than any fictional virtues of
a particular manufacturing process.

Speaking of fiction . . .

Bolster BS

The traditional argument is that the bolster, the thick collar between
the blade and handle, adds weight and balances the knife. Both of those
things are true. Whether or not that's a good thing depends on how
you like to use your knife. The idea is to put a little weight behind
your fingers when you grip the knife with a chef's pinch grip. The
bolster, combined with the weight of the tang and handle material, counterbalances
the weight of the blade. I happen to like my knives to be a little blade
heavy, so a bolstered knife that shifts too much weight behind my fingers
feels awkward and slightly out of control. It's all a matter of
feel and preference. A bolster does provide a nice transition point and
can help keep moisture and crud from getting into the handle.

Contrary to the marketing brochures and the oh-so-helpful display down
at the Towels'n'Such ("full bolster for safety!"),
the bolster is not a finger guard, at least not on a chef's knife.
Any knife with the blade heel lower than the handle has just as much protection
for your fingers as a bolstered knife. The bolster does not prevent your
hand from slipping forward onto the blade, the difference between the
blade height and handle does that. The term butchers use is "stubbing."
That's when the tip of your knife hits something hard, forcing it
to a sudden stop and causing your hand to slide forward onto the blade.
You can cut yourself badly this way. However, it is really only a problem
on knives with blades the same width as the handle or narrower --
a boning knife, for example. That style of knife does need some sort of
extension below the handle as a safety feature. A chef's knife,
though, has a blade significantly taller than the handle. Stubbing is
nearly impossible. A chef's knife does not need a bolster, especially
not one that extends down to the heel. That style of bolster will either
keep you from using the full length of your knife's edge or lead
to the premature death of your knife.

The bolster is -- or at least used to be -- the sign of a forged knife,
which leads us back to the "stamped versus forged" argument
above. Nowadays, stamped knives are just as likely to have bolsters welded
on because that's what the marketing department and the general public
thinks a knife should look like. To be fair, a bolster does add an element
of polish and finesse to the look of a knife. In fact, if a manufacturer
makes more than one line of knife -- a budget line and a luxury line,
for example -- they will frequently put bolsters on the higher end knives
as a way to distinguish them from the cheaper knives. Bolsters add heft
and a certain gravitas to things. Like a cummerbund.

In addition to everything that the bolster doesn't do, what a bolster
does indisputably do is make sharpening your knives a serious pain in
the butt. If you've seen a chef's knife that has been sharpened
on an electric sharpener for any length of time, you'll notice a
scooped out area just forward of the heel that keeps the knife edge from
sitting flat on the cutting board. It also keeps you from using the heel
of the knife effectively. The same thing happens with any sharpening method,
it's just generally more obvious with electric sharpeners . The
collar itself is not the problem, but when the bolster extends down the
back portion of the knife toward the heel it causes the edge to ride up
during sharpening, changing the angle. Do this long enough and you'll
dish out a portion of the edge just forward of the heel and whole lot
of metal will have to be removed to get your knife back into serviceable
shape. At least one manufacturer of high end forged cutlery, Chef's
Choice, grinds its bolsters flat at the heel for this very reason. Wusthof
and Messermeister both offer lines of knives with the bolster only extending
partway down the blade back. Most machined knives either don't have
bolsters or only have a collar between the handle and blade. Either type
makes the knife much easier to sharpen. These are the only kinds of bolster
I can recommend in good conscience.

The myth of the bolster is a Convenient Fiction. Call it a feature and
claim it's a sign of quality. Clever. Luckily most professional
knife sharpeners offer a bolster reduction service. Think of it as liposuction
for your knives. It puts them back in fighting trim so they can be sharpened
and used to their full potential.

And now to the Outright Lie . . .

Sharp and Tangy

The tang is the tongue of metal that extends from the blade backwards.
It is where the handle is attached. A full tang is the same size and shape
as the handle slabs and is sandwiched between them. In direct contradiction
to nearly 9,000 years of metal knife and sword making, many knife manufacturers
claim that you absolutely must have a full tang for your knife to be any
good. You don't. A full tang is pretty, but hardly necessary, especially
not in the kitchen.

Let's look at this logically. Metal is expensive and hard to work.
You don't waste it and you don't pound it more than you have
to, at least you don't when you don't have power tools. That's
why knives and swords from the justly famous Japanese katana to the Viking
scramasax to the American Bowie knife had stick tangs or rattail tangs
hidden inside the handle. These are hard use blades, designed to cut through
rope, leather, armored people and just about anything or anyone that needed
cutting. The tang was a place to attach a handle. As long as it was long
enough to provide proper leverage, it was fine. Same with your chef's
knife.

In fact, it wasn't until after World War I that a full tang and
slab handles even became practical, much less desirable in the kitchen.
Stainless steel was introduced in England in 1914 , but it took several
years to work the kinks out (well, that and there was that pesky World
War to deal with). Until that time, and for quite a while afterward, knife
blades were made of carbon steel. Carbon steel rusts and corrodes readily.
The last thing you want is a way for moisture and goo to get inside the
handle. That's a big reason hidden tangs were de rigueur, there
was only one entrance point, the juncture between the blade and handle.
A full tang with riveted handles provides the equivalent of valet parking
all the way around the perimeter of the handle for crud to work its way
between the tang and slabs. In fact, there is a school of thought that
says the modern, injection molded handle with a hidden tang is more sanitary
for this very reason.

Unless you are planning to jack up your car or
pry open doors with your chef's knife, the tang plays little or no role
in its strength and durability. It does help establish the balance and
feel of the knife, but as we discussed with bolsters, there are many ways
to balance the knife. With modern manufacturing methods it is inexpensive
to place riveted handle slabs on a full tang. A full tang is a manufacturing
choice and a stylistic choice. If you like them, great, have at it. Just
keep in mind that any reasonably sized tang that extends at least two
thirds of the way into the handle will be fine.

If you insist on a full tang, you'll miss out on
a huge array of truly spectacular knives. Want to spend a couple of thousand
dollars on a custom made Japanese yanagiba (sashimi knife) hand forged
by a master craftsman with a 700 year history of knife making behind him?
Oops, can't do it, the yanagiba has a stick tang. Want a reasonably priced
chef's knife that won't expire if it finds its way into the dishwasher
every once in a while. Sorry. Hidden tang. You're out of luck.

The tang should be pretty far down on your list
of things to look for when choosing a knife or two to outfit your kitchen.


It might seem like I don't like traditional forged,
bolstered, full tang knives. Not true at all. I like them very much. What
I don't like is half truths that mislead the buying public into thinking
that because those features are part of a quality knife, that all quality
knives must have those features. That's like saying that because some
of the finest cars available are convertibles, any car that isn't a convertible
must be inferior. The argument just doesn't hold up. It's a big old world
out there. People's tastes and needs are different.

   
target="_blank"> alt="" name="machforgstmp" width="234" height="123" border="0" style="background-color: #999999">

Top to Bottom: Machined knife, forged
knife, stamped knife. (click on photo to englarge)
 
   
 
   

A Bit of History

Full tangs became popular during the Industrial
Revolution when water or steam powered trip hammers and drop forges made
mass produced knives affordable. In New England in 1830, John Russell
put his fancy new machinery to work drop forging punched out hunting and
skinning knives for the booming westward expansion. Settlers could hardly
afford the expensive, hand forged hunting knives that were the standard
until then. Drop forges could quickly bang a knife shape out of a blank.
Powered machines punched holes in the tangs so that scale handles could
be attached, a more automated and cheaper method than attaching handles
to hidden tangs, which had to be done by skilled craftsmen.




target="_blank"> alt="" name="bolster" width="234" height="157" border="0" style="background-color: #999999">

Top to Bottom: Forged chef's knife with partial bolster, forged French knife
with older style ferrule bolster and modern machined chef's knife with welded
on bolster. (click on photo to englarge)
 
   
target="_blank"> alt="" name="fulltang" width="234" height="205" border="0" style="background-color: #999999">

Full tang (click on photo to englarge)
 
   
target="_blank"> alt="" name="sticktang" width="234" height="76" border="0" style="background-color: #999999">

Stick tang (click on photo to englarge)
 
   


+ + +


Chad Ward (aka Chad) has been a writer and cook for more than twenty years. He is the author of Knife Maintenance and Sharpening, one of the eGullet Culinary Institute's most popular courses.



This excerpt from target="_blank"">An Edge in the Kitchen is presented with the kind permission of HarperCollins Publishers and the author. Copyright © 2008 by Chad Ward; photographs copyright © 2008 by Bryan Regan and Chad Ward.


#2 Dave the Cook

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 11:10 AM

Chad has kindly consented to let us subject him to questions on both this excerpt and his book, which, by the way, is exceptional.

The floor is open!

P.S. If you want to buy it, please use this Society-friendly Amazon link: An Edge in the Kitchen.

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#3 Peter the eater

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 01:38 PM

A few years ago I went to the Cumberland Pencil Museum in England’s Lake District and watched fifteen minutes of an interpretive film that detailed the 350 year history of the pencil. I’m a visual kinda guy, a prolific sketcher and overall pencil-lover but I have to say it was a mind-numbing quarter hour that I will never get back. Chad’s book is the opposite.

In the wrong hands, a comprehensive kitchen knife book could actually push someone over the edge. This book has passion and a mandate to set things right and I’m grateful.

My question: what’s the future of good kitchen knives? Will it be ceramics in every home? Will the ubersteel get more uberer?
Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

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#4 Chad

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 02:15 PM

A few years ago I went to the Cumberland Pencil Museum in England’s Lake District and watched fifteen minutes of an interpretive film that detailed the 350 year history of the pencil. I’m a visual kinda guy, a prolific sketcher and overall pencil-lover but I have to say it was a mind-numbing quarter hour that I will never get back. Chad’s book is the opposite.

Boy, was I happy to get to this part of the paragraph :laugh:


My question: what’s the future of good kitchen knives? Will it be ceramics in every home? Will the ubersteel get more uberer?

View Post

Interesting question. Yes, ubersteel will migrate downward from custom knives and exotics into more commonly available kitchen knives, I believe. The process has already started with Shun's use of VG10 and Chef's Choice's use of what is most likely 154CM or something similar. Now Shun is using an exotic powder steel, SG2, in its Shun Elite line and the new Bob Kramer collaboration. Dunno about ceramic. It has some nice advantages but it's too brittle. People don't want to see a $100 investment shatter if they drop it on the countertop.

I think the Japanese trend, started by Global in the 80s, will continue. Kitchen knives will be thinner, lighter, harder and sharper than ever before. If the Wusthofs and Henckels of the world don't adapt they'll find themselves on the downside of the cycle and on the way out before they know it. It happened before with the French, and before them the English. They are adapting by introducing new knives more in the Japanese style, but whether it will be enough is hard to say.

The US has the opportunity to be the next big player but I don't see any manufacturers stepping up. One of the most frustrating questions I have to answer -- and I get it frequently -- is "What's a good US-made kitchen knife?" And I'm forced to report that there aren't any. Yes, Dexter Russell and Lamson make kitchen knives, they're just not very good. That gap will soon be filled by China. Many manufacturers are already producing knives in China. If the trends hold true, their quality will continue to improve, they'll over come the "cheap import" stigma, and they'll probably become a dominant supplier of quality kitchen knives. Most people don't realize it, but not so very long ago knives from Solingen were considered low-quality imports. You only bought one if you couldn't afford the high class cutlery from Sheffield, England. That's the way the cycle works.

Sorry to be so long winded. It's a great topic. In short, there has never been a better time to buy a good chef's knife. And the quality just keeps improving.

Edited by Chad, 08 July 2008 - 02:17 PM.

Chad Ward
An Edge in the Kitchen
William Morrow Cookbooks
www.chadwrites.com

#5 weinoo

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 02:15 PM

I've had my copy for a week or 10 days now and think it's a great work - especially for gadget and knife freaks like me :smile: . Thanks not only for the book, Chad, but for being such a great contributor to eGullet and our forums. Congratulations, too.
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#6 Chad

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 02:19 PM

<quietly slips Mitch a $20>
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#7 Kerry Beal

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 02:47 PM

Chad, I have been thoroughly enjoying the book. You have managed to take a subject, that in the wrong hands, could be painfully dry, and by applying humour and excellent illustrations of the points you want to make, turned it into a true pleasure to read.

So the first thing I'd like to know more about is the research you did for the book. Where did you go, who did you meet? Was it all exciting, or were there some boring aspects?

#8 Anna N

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 03:00 PM

Chad,

Love your book! You hit every myth I bought into about knives (most of mine are forged, full-tanged and bolstered!!!!). You had me totally enthralled right up to the first mention of "angles and bevels" when my non-mathematical mind spaced out.

I just want absolution from you for all of us who, no matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we believe, we ain't ever gonna use a stone to sharpen a knife! We are the shamed and hidden knive-lovers who own electric sharpeners. :sad:

And for those who need even more practice with their knife skills and a tasty meal to boot, it's hard to beat this recipe:


Soup of the Bakony Outlaws
Anna Nielsen aka "Anna N"

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#9 Chad

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 03:04 PM

Chad, I have been thoroughly enjoying the book.  You have managed to take a subject, that in the wrong hands, could be painfully dry, and by applying humour and excellent illustrations of the points you want to make, turned it into a true pleasure to read.

So the first thing I'd like to know more about is the research you did for the book.  Where did you go, who did you meet?  Was it all exciting, or were there some boring aspects?

View Post

Thanks! When I tell people I wrote a book about kitchen knives I get one of two responses -- "Wow, I that's a book I could really use," and "Oh..., um, is there a market for that?" :laugh:

As for the research, unfortunately I didn't get to go anywhere really interesting. I spent time in commercial kitchens. I did a lot of phone interviews (Sara Moulton is a real sweetheart). I read a lot. The looks you get while perusing The Fundamentals of Physical Metallurgy at a volleyball tournament, for example, are almost worth the struggle of reading it.

Unlike a recent acquaintance who is on an assignment from the New Yorker where they pay for him to follow the story wherever it might lead (Japan, most recently), my production costs, including research, came out of the first portion of the advance. So, alas, no travels to far flung lands to study the knife making processes of primitive peoples. No visits to Solingen, Theirs or Sheffield, even though they have excellent cutlery museums. I did, however, get to buy a lot of really great knives. At one point I had more than 50 chef's knives. I've since worked that down to a much more manageable number, but I kept the best of the best. That's pretty cool.

Chad
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An Edge in the Kitchen
William Morrow Cookbooks
www.chadwrites.com

#10 racheld

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 03:22 PM

I kept the best of the best. That's pretty cool.

Chad

View Post


I'll say :cool:

And I'm Sorry, eGullet. I didn't know about the percentage. I used my 20% at Borders before I saw this.

And I originally didn't know it was YOU, Chad. I attributed the title to another member, until I read the review the day before I bought it. And you and I do stick together---we both know the plural of y'all is all y'all.

I'm not much of a tools person, but I can discuss handles and tangs and angles a LOT. I don't like anybody to sharpen my knives but me.

Edited by racheld, 08 July 2008 - 07:22 PM.

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#11 Chad

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 03:25 PM

Chad,

Love your book!  You hit every myth I bought into about knives (most of mine are forged, full-tanged and bolstered!!!!).  You had me totally enthralled right up to the first mention of "angles and bevels" when my non-mathematical mind spaced out.

I just want absolution from you for all of us who, no matter how hard we try, no matter how hard we believe, we ain't ever gonna use a stone to sharpen a knife!  We are the shamed and hidden knive-lovers who own electric sharpeners. :sad:

And for those who need even more practice with their knife skills and a tasty meal to boot, it's hard to beat this recipe:


Soup of the Bakony Outlaws

View Post


Hi, Anna. You're right. That is a great knife skills recipe. Looks tasty, too.

Okay, you're absolved. Little did you know, but your knives will be sharper simply for having bought the book. It has a mystical proximity effect on edges. Not something we generally tell the public, but we're among friends here, right? So just lay your knives on the open book and they'll get sharper :cool:

If that doesn't work as well as you might like, I would definitely try Dave Martell at D&R Sharpening Solutions. He does mail order sharpening and is one of the best in the business. Use your electric sharpener sparingly. If it's a Chef's Choice model 120 with the strop as the final stage, use that the way you'd use a steel. Run your knife through the strop stage only. Do that every once in a while and your edges will last a good long time. Definitely give Dave a try though. You'll be amazed at what he can do to revive a tired edge.

Thanks again for the kind words.
Take care
Chad
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An Edge in the Kitchen
William Morrow Cookbooks
www.chadwrites.com

#12 Chris Hennes

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 05:46 PM

Chad, thanks for writing this book: I have three knife books at the moment and this one is by far the most readable, and contains the most practical information. I especially appreciate the "knife myths" section: I was aware of some of them, but you articulate them so well I am trying to memorize your arguments to use every time I have to hear some random cooking-store clerk try to tell me that I absolutely must buy (full tang, drop forged, Wüstof, etc.).

My (first!) question is about damascus steel: it is my understanding that in modern practice there is no particular advantage in terms of hardness, resilience, etc. but that the knives do tend to cut differently due to the slightly different edge that the damascus takes after sharpening. Is this correct? Do you own any of these blades and have an opinion of them? They are certainly beautiful, but are they practical?

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#13 Chad

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 06:36 PM

My (first!) question is about damascus steel: it is my understanding that in modern practice there is no particular advantage in terms of hardness, resilience, etc. but that the knives do tend to cut differently due to the slightly different edge that the damascus takes after sharpening. Is this correct? Do you own any of these blades and have an opinion of them? They are certainly beautiful, but are they practical?

View Post

Hi, Chris. It's hard to say. As far as I'm aware there are only two people making true Damascus kitchen knives -- Bob Kramer and Murray Carter. Both are ABS certified Master Smiths, and both produce some of the most astounding kitchen cutlery on the planet. A Damascus knife from either one will cost you well upwards of a thousand dollars. Closer to two thousand for a knife of any length. I've handled Damascus knives from each. They are the absolute pinnacle of custom kitchen knife-making today.

When I say true Damascus, I mean layers of steel, heated and folded repeatedly to make thousands of layers of intertwined steel. Those layers make up the entire knife blade. I'm making a distinction because there is a lot of, well, faux Damascus out there today, from the beautiful Shun Classics found in any Williams Sonoma to Shinichi Watanabe's hand forged Kintaro-ame chef's knives. The difference is that what I'm calling faux-Damascus is actually a core of homogeneous steel wrapped in a Damascus jacket. The cutting edge is a solid center of (usually) high carbon steel. It isn't affected by the interaction between the different steels that surround it. The Damascus cladding is primarily decorative. This is true even of the $1200 Hattori KD gyuto.

In a true Damascus knife, the layers make up the whole of the knife blade. There is usually a lower carbon steel in the mix because the way the two (or more) different steels etch makes for the eye-pleasing pattern. The combination of high and low carbon steels will probably make for a difference in performance and feel when cutting, but I don't have enough time behind the wheel with that type of knife to have an informed opinion. They are pretty, though.

As for the more common Damascus-clad knives, sometimes called suminigashi or “ink pattern” because the style resembles an ancient Japanese paper decorating technique of the same name where drops of ink were carefully dripped into still water and blown into swirls, most are pretty darn good. There are the Shuns, of course, but also the excellent Hattori HD series, among others. They tend to have a core of VG-10, which is an excellent kitchen steel. If you like the look, it's hard to go wrong with this type of knife.

Take care,
Chad

Edited by Chad, 08 July 2008 - 06:36 PM.

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#14 Chad

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 06:52 PM

Chad, thanks for writing this book: I have three knife books at the moment and this one is by far the most readable, and contains the most practical information. I especially appreciate the "knife myths" section: I was aware of some of them, but you articulate them so well I am trying to memorize your arguments to use every time I have to hear some random cooking-store clerk try to tell me that I absolutely must buy (full tang, drop forged, Wüstof, etc.).

View Post


I wanted to respond to these points separately. I'm glad you are enjoying my book. I'm equally (well, mostly equally) glad that you purchased the others. Peter Hertzmann, author of Knife Skills Illustrated is, or was, an eGullet member. He produced a very good book. Norman Weinstein, author of Mastering Knife Skills, is by all accounts an exceptional instructor and a nice guy, too. I have his book and enjoyed it very much. The folks at HarperCollins will probably kill me for saying this, but the fact is if you are looking for an in-depth, straight knife skills book, his is probably a better choice than mine. He covers more techniques in greater depth than I do. I have a stronger knife knowledge, purchasing and sharpening sections.

I'm surprised that none of the food media has picked up on the fact that after years of nothing on the topic aside from the CIA's textbook, there are now four knife skills books out from major publishers. That is simply amazing. It tells me that Food Network, with all its dumbing down, has it completely wrong. There is a huge audience out there for more advanced skills in the kitchen. Maybe it's just that all of those people who bought trophy kitchens in the 90s have figured out that it is no longer sufficiently cool just to own them, you are expected to know how to use them as well, but something is going on.

Chad
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#15 kristin_71

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 07:26 PM

The only knives I use are MAC and I had to get those online, so imagine my surprise to read that they are becoming readily more available. Iam not questioning you on this Chad, just surprised because to get them I had to go through etailers, and still do. The only store I know that actually carries Global is Williams Sonoma, and after trying them there, decided that I did not like them. I really have to tell you I love the balance of MAC. I have a clever that I use for cutting chicken bones as it is suggested. It is a bit heavier of a knife but I would not trade it, or any of my MAC knives for the world. :smile:

#16 Chris Hennes

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 07:39 PM

As far as I'm aware there are only two people making true Damascus kitchen knives -- Bob Kramer and Murray Carter. Both are ABS certified Master Smiths, and both produce some of the most astounding kitchen cutlery on the planet. A Damascus knife from either one will cost you well upwards of a thousand dollars. Closer to two thousand for a knife of any length. I've handled Damascus knives from each. They are the absolute pinnacle of custom kitchen knife-making today.

View Post

Thanks for the info: it was indeed Kramer and Carter's knives I was eyeing (though Bob Kramer is not taking orders at the moment: I get the feeling his business exploded after his mention in some popular magazines. He has a three-year backlog, according to his website). I was thinking of the knife almost more like a work of art than just a tool, at least that's how I was trying to justify the expense to my wife! There are indeed some wonderful "faux-Damascus" knifes out there, and given Kramer's backlog I may end up going with one of those instead, so thanks for the recommendation.

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#17 Chad

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 07:41 PM

The only knives I use are MAC and I had to get those online, so imagine my surprise to read that they are becoming readily more available. Iam not questioning you on this Chad, just surprised because to get them I had to go through etailers, and still do. The only store I know that actually carries Global is Williams Sonoma, and after trying them there, decided that I did not like them. I really have to tell you I love the balance of MAC. I have a clever that I use for cutting chicken bones as it is  suggested. It is a bit heavier of a knife but I would not trade it, or any of my MAC knives for the world. :smile:

View Post

Hi, Kristin. Yup, MACs are still easier to purchase online than they are in a brick'n'mortar retailer, but that hasn't stopped droves of line cooks buying them because they are sturdy, lightweight, nice and sharp right out of the box, and can take heaps of abuse. MAC knives, especially the Professional series, are some of the best bang-for-your-buck kitchen knives available today.

The fact is that I've owned just about every chef's knife available. When my mom revealed that she didn't have a decent knife to cook with, the MAC MTH-80 is the one I bought her. In fact, I bought two. I know she is never going to learn to sharpen her knives, so I have a spare that I keep in top condition. Whenever I go to visit I take it and swap it for the one she's been using. I bring the sorely abused one home, clean and sharpen it, and keep it in my kit for the next time I visit. In fact, I was sharpening the spare MAC today in preparation for driving down to my parents house tomorrow.
Chad

Edited by Chad, 08 July 2008 - 07:59 PM.

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#18 kristin_71

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Posted 08 July 2008 - 08:39 PM

I let my mom use my MAC knives and she really loves them. I use a mix of the professional, chef series and at least one other.My dad and I are going to replace pretty much all of her Henkels knives ( except for the really nice filet knife, I don't blame her it is great.) with MAC. I for one am glad that MAC is considered 'professional grade' if you will and not available in the same places that other knives are sold. It sounds snobby probably, but if I wanted what everyone else had, I would have gotten it.I went on suggestions from people I knew and from people here and after dropping a bit of cash on the chef knife, ( 9 inch professional) the paring, a santoku ( I need this when I have help in the kitchen.) the clever, and filet knives I was so glad I did. It does make all the difference. Did I mention that I dealt with the people at MAC directly? Fantastic people! They actually gave me the cheese knife and the boning knife with my order. That is another reason I really love these knives and tell everyone about them.

I should mention that I saw in I think Food and Wine or one of the foodie magazines that they rated the MAC santoku ( it is the one that is dimpled, I am not sure of the number because my knives are not near.) a best buy. It made me proud :)

Edited by kristin_71, 08 July 2008 - 08:43 PM.


#19 nibor

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 04:12 AM

......The fact is that I've owned just about every chef's knife available. When my mom revealed that she didn't have a decent knife to cook with, the MAC MTH-80 is the one I bought her. In fact, I bought two. I know she is never going to learn to sharpen her knives, so I have a spare that I keep in top condition. Whenever I go to visit I take it and swap it for the one she's been using. I bring the sorely abused one home, clean and sharpen it, and keep it in my kit for the next time I visit. In fact, I was sharpening the spare MAC today in preparation for driving down to my parents house tomorrow.
Chad

View Post

Sweet. Your mother did a good job raising you.

#20 D & R Sharpening

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 05:11 AM

This is the best (well only really) book like this on the market. Yes there's knife skills books but no "knife books" out there that cover in such detail the great subject of kitchen knives. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who uses knives in a kitchen (and who doesn't, right?). :biggrin:


--Dave--

#21 UnConundrum

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 05:26 AM

Chad, there's been a recent discussion about scallions being hard on a knife's edge, dulling them quickly. Do some foods beat up an edge more than others?

#22 Chad

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 06:34 AM

Chad, there's been a recent discussion about scallions being hard on a knife's edge, dulling them quickly.  Do some foods beat up an edge more than others?

View Post


There are some foods that are tougher on edges than others. Lemongrass, for example can be hard on a knife. Scallions may be a special case. In that discussion, Scallions and Sharpness, chef Brandon Wick (Cascadia in Seattle) and chef Chad Gibson (Resort at Paws Up, MT) pointed out that scallions, like leeks, can absorb a lot of fine sand, which can be brutal on an knife's edge. Those guys have a lot more time behind a cutting board than I do, so I'm willing to take their word for it.

For home cooks, even enthusiastic ones, I suspect that we don't cut anything in sufficient volume to notice much of a difference in how it affects an edge.

Chad

Edited by Chad, 09 July 2008 - 06:38 AM.

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#23 Dave the Cook

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 12:40 PM

As a serious cook, I feel obliged to like knives, and as a guy, I'm attracted to bright shiny objects the way pre-schoolers flock to Crocs. But if you'd told me two weeks ago that I could read 230 pages about them and not only not be bored, but change the way I think about knives, I'd have laughed.

The joke's on me. An Edge in the Kitchen is a fascinating book, full of useful, sometimes esoteric information, pulled off with humor and style. It's also fearless, presenting what could have been a wonk-fest without condescension, and bucking myths as easily and clearly as a cat registers disdain.

Ward made me a fan right from the start:

While certain knife skills are timeless, knife technology isn't. We've put a dune buggy on Mars, yet many knife skills teachers are still clinging to fourteenth-century technology and beliefs, The advances in knife steels, knife production, sharpening methods (based on actual science and experience -- what a concept), and kitchen gear make the "common knowledge" about kitchen knives look like medieval dentistry.


It's arch, a bit snide in a "we're on the same side so it's okay to talk this way" manner; it echoes Alton Brown, not to mention that the full passage is reminiscent of Michael Crichton's better litanies. And then Ward takes you step-by-step through the whole process: metal, manufacture, methods.

He scolds. When discussing knife-set bread knives, he points out that "(s)errated knives are not delicate tools and certainly don't need to cost as much as your chef's knife. They are the plastic ballpoint pens of the knife world, cheap and interchangeable. Just don't expect much of them and you'll be happy."

He debunks: "The commonly recommended dilute bleach solutions are not as effective on wood cutting boards. Wood boards neutralize the free oxygen in bleach, negating its germ-fighting abilities. Vinegar works on every ttype of board."

He befriends with confession. By the time you reach the Hair Test on page 184 ("Don't shave the back of your head. Just pull down gently to see if the edge catches and tugs. I don't want any irate calls from your barber, hairstylist or spouse"), you suspect that exactly that might have happened, maybe more than once.

It's hard to disagree with the facts that Ward lays out, and the recipes, designed to sharpen (sorry, couldn't resist) knife skills look worthy and tasty. Where I part company with him is in the area of judgement calls: I tell beginners that a utility knife is more useful than a parer; I don't chop (and don't teach chopping) onions the way he does. These are picky, though. By the time you get through the book, you'll know enough to make your own decisions, and the confidence to act on them.

Which leads me back to the way I think about knives. Ward is so successful at his job that they start to seem alive. I subscribe to the custom of an afternoon cocktail (okay, two), and to make a cocktail, you gotta cut some citrus. In my rush to imbibe, I fell into the habit of leaving the knife on the cutting board between drinks. Two days after reading An Edge in the Kitchen, I saw that poor parer, its stunning VG-10, 17-degree edge being eaten microscopically away by citric acid. I immediately washed it, dried it and put it in its rack. The next day, I bought a Kyocera ceramic -- easier to change knives than change this particular habit. Although the author is doubtful about ceramics in general, I learned enough about them from reading his book that I was able to pick out the perfect tool for my purpose. My little Shun owes its life to Chad Ward.

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Eat more chicken skin.


#24 sygyzy

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 03:15 PM

Chad,

1. How can you tell if a knife is stamped or forged? Would you say most "commercial" brands (Mac, Shun, Misono, etc) are stamped, nowadays?

2. Would you say "screaming edge" is your favorite knife phrase?

#25 project

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 04:44 PM

Chad,

Thanks for writing the book and for posting the excerpt here on eG.

Your writing is fun to read!

Net, over time I looked into knives several times and finally did a terrible thing: I just gave up on the subject.

Why? I could never get any information that did much actually to help my selection of a better knife as a tool in my kitchen.

From my father, I did start with some good versions of some old information, that he had, say, 70 years ago. So, in the 1930s he got his Bachelor's in Industrial Arts and Master's in Education from Ohio State. He took courses in chemistry, strength of materials, metallurgy, welding, machining, etc. When WWII came, the US Navy noticed his background in both metalworking and education and recruited him to help in training people to maintain airplanes. Since the Navy would not let him enlist, he took a second job in shipyards: He got his high pressure steam boiler welder's license, did welding, did welding inspection, and taught welding. He went on to be the technical training education expert at the Navy's schools in Millington, TN where they usually had about 40,000 students at one time in engines, sheet metal, welding, electronics, hydraulics, etc.

I still have his wooden tool chest with his genuine Arkansas sandstone sharpening stones, etc.

He explained the role of carbon in steel, forging, heat treating, the workings and roles of sharpening stones, steels, and strops, etc. For knives, he emphasized carbon steel and regarded stainless steel as not ready yet (he may have been correct at the time).

Growing up, I spent hours sharpening blades -- knives for filleting fish, yard tools, pocket knives, etc. I put lots of oil on lots of stones. I learned that I could spend an hour trying to get a razor like edge on a sickle, for about 10 minutes have something that would make weeds fall over just from looking at it, and then have it dull again. Sharpen for a hour; use it for 10 minutes; BUMMER. I learned that for such a yard tool, it's better just to use a crude file and put something like a ragged edge on the blade.

So, when I got interested in cooking, I got a

Veritable Breswick
Sabatier Paris - France
Chef au Ritz

carbon steel chef's knife with a blade about 10" long. So, yes, it has a lot that you mentioned: It is 'forged', has a full 'bolster', has a 'full tang' with rivets, etc. I used it for years and never let it be damaged from rust.

I also got a sharpening steel, with a Victorian style, turned, furniture quality wooden handle, a triangular bolster, and a long rod with splines and about as hard as a file.

Eventually I wanted a more functional chef's knife and started a search: Yup, I looked at Wustof, Henckels, custom knives, jigs for sharpening with an adjustable, known blade angle, diamond sharpening tools, etc. I was considering some heroic Teutonic thing with a blade 12" or 14" long for over $200 plus more for jigs, diamond tools. etc.

Then I just gave up: Mostly the knife manufacturers would not provide any information on why their blades would (A) take a sharper edge or (B) hold a sharper edge. When they mentioned "balance" it sounded like something from a mystical, oriental religion instead of from my college physics course in classical mechanics. Mostly it was difficult even to find information on the blade hardness, e.g., on the Rockwell scale.

Heck, I was looking at items sold as wedding presents, not as well designed cutting tools.

At one point, I concluded that an exceptionally hard blade would require either a ceramic or diamond sharpening tool. So, off to look for those: In a woodworking supply shop, I found only some poor stock. So, a suitable diamond sharpening tool, e.g., that I could use in a jig to control the sharpening angle, would be not just a purchasing decision or shopping problem but an engineering development problem.

Actually on Oct 12 2002 I posted some of my thinking in

http://forums.egulle...ndpost&p=128582

with some output on blade angles from an arctan calculation from a little Fortran program I wrote.

Enough already: I concluded, just buy a knife with some standard knife metallurgy and hardness, let the blade be stainless steel, sharpen the knife a little more frequently (than I might wish with my dream metallurgy), with sharpening tools I already have, and save the time for solving an engineering problem.

After I gave up on the high end approaches, I still wanted something better than my old Sabatier that was letting my knuckles hit the cutting board. So, one day in Sam's Club I happened to see a piece of shrink-wrapped cardboard with two chef's knives for about $15. Gee, since I had been considering $200+, how much could I lose? So, I bought.

The packaging reads

10"
Stain-free high carbon steel
NSF
Tramontina
Made in Brazil

Yup, they look like they were cut from sheet stock, have no bolsters, no rivets, and have white plastic handles.

I tried one. I cut the usual suspects, onions, carrots, celery. I sharpened it on my old Victorian style sharpening steel. Also at Sam's Club I got a 'stick' that claims to have some diamond in it; I've tried it a few times, and maybe it works. If eventually I conclude that the steel is not enough and the stick doesn't work, then I'll just get out a piece of Arkansas sandstone and some motor oil.

I can find NOTHING seriously wrong with that knife: It sharpens and gets sharp. It cuts. The blade shape is quite traditional for a French chef's knife and, thus, makes appropriate contact with the cutting board for slicing, chopping, rocking, etc. It holds an edge about as well as I could expect. There is more room for my knuckles. The blade is thin which helps going through larger vegetables. It's light in weight which saves some effort. It presents no rust problems. It cleans easily. It's about as long as I can use on my usual small cutting board, and I don't like to move around enough items on my counter top to make room for my large cutting board to make room for, say, a knife with a 14" blade.

I still have a small interest in getting a chef's knife that has a longer blade, takes a sharper edge, holds the edge longer, has still more room for my knuckles, etc., but so far this knife from Brazil (and its spare still in the packaging) has saved me over $200 and some time for engineering means for using diamond sharpening tools, etc. So, I saved time, money, and effort, and the only thing better would be to save calories, time, money, and effort!

So, it was $15 for two chef's knives.

Where am I going wrong?

I did notice your:

"It tells me that Food Network, with all its dumbing down, has it completely wrong."

I fully agree that they are wrong: My explanation is that the powers at the Food Network believe in entertainment via traditional means of formula fiction, Hollywood, and TV and do not understand, like, or trust 'informative' or educational content. Often enough on eG I have described what they do as vicarious, escapist, fantasy, emotional experience entertainment where a viewer can 'feel' like they have cooked some terrific food, have hung out in a kitchen with a celebrity chef, and gotten praise from friends and, then, for some actual food get some carry-out pizza or Chinese food or unwrap something frozen and put it in the microwave.

So, I don't like the Food Network. Indeed, as I type this, I am looking at eG with the TV OFF.

In particular, I tried to help the Food Network in

http://forums.egulle...dpost&p=1132604

and subsequently I did once see Ms. Moulton do a program with some high school students, although the girls were not nearly as pretty as I remember from my high school years!

Ah, I should have paid more attention to those girls, and less attention to knife sharpening, back when I was young and rich!

Yup, since my father was in Millington, TN, I grew up in Memphis where the girls were pretty beyond belief: Cybil Shepard, and I believe Stella Stevens, both went to my high school and were not the prettiest girls there! I also must have eaten over 500 pounds of chopped picnic pork shoulder BBQ which apparently even eG still thinks is good food! Actually, it is! With pork fat, smoke, sugar, vinegar, pepper, and herbs, how can something be better?

Now, to get a good recipe for the coleslaw that was standard with that Memphis chopped BBQ: Then can use my chef's knife to cut the cabbage and chop the pork! It's been easier to get a suitable knife for $7.50 than a suitable coleslaw recipe!

The knife is real; the BBQ is easy enough; the girls are just a memory!
What would be the right food and wine to go with
R. Strauss's 'Ein Heldenleben'?

#26 C. sapidus

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 06:54 PM

Chad, I would love your opinion on a knife question. I will be giving a chef’s knife as a gift. The recipient has worked in professional kitchens, mostly on the pastry side. She loved my Ryusen Blazen, but prefers German knives for their durability.

One key requirement – she needs to chop up huge blocks of chocolate with the knife.

1) Would you recommend a German or a Japanese knife?

2) Any particular brand?

Thanks so much, and good luck with the tome – I will be boosting your Amazon ranking shortly.

#27 Chad

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 07:33 PM

Chad, I would love your opinion on a knife question. I will be giving a chef’s knife as a gift. The recipient has worked in professional kitchens, mostly on the pastry side. She loved my Ryusen Blazen, but prefers German knives for their durability.

One key requirement – she needs to chop up huge blocks of chocolate with the knife.

1) Would you recommend a German or a Japanese knife?

2) Any particular brand?

Thanks so much, and good luck with the tome – I will be boosting your Amazon ranking shortly.

View Post

If she liked your Blazen, it would certainly be sturdy enough for her purposes. If she's after sturdy but likes the German style knives for their heft and chunkiness, the Messermeister Meridian Elites are hard to beat. Similar (if not identical) steel to Wusthofs but with more comfortable handles, partial bolsters for ease of sharpening and some of the best factory edges I've seen. I spent a long afternoon peering through a high powered microscope at a wide variety of factory edges. The Messermeisters won, hands down. A good 10" Messermeister Meridian Elite would be an excellent choice.

Chad
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#28 Chad

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Posted 09 July 2008 - 07:36 PM

Dave, thanks for such a thoughtful review and critique. Project, thanks for your insights as well. I'm out of town for the evening. I'm taping a regional cooking show in the morning and my Internet connection is a little sporadic. I'll be back with more detailed responses tomorrow evening.

Take care,
Chad
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#29 Chad

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Posted 10 July 2008 - 05:24 AM

Chad,

1. How can you tell if a knife is stamped or forged? Would you say most "commercial" brands (Mac, Shun, Misono, etc) are stamped, nowadays?

2. Would you say "screaming edge" is your favorite knife phrase?

View Post

Actually I make a distinction between stamped knives and machined knives. Stamped knives, like the cheap Mundials, Dexter Russells and even the very fine Forschner/Victorinox knives available at restaurant supplies, are indeed punched, cookie cutter-like, out of sheets of steel, given a simple edge and put on the shelf.

Modern knives like the Macs, Shuns, Misonos, et al, are machined. They are precision ground from billets of high quality steel, a process that custom knife makers call "stock removal." You also have to remember that Euro-style knives like Henckels and Wusthofs aren't forged in the way we commonly think of forging. There is no burly Teutonic artisan lovingly whacking a glowing bar of iron into your chef's knife. It's a single bonk from a 20 ton drop forge or a slow squeeze in an electric compression forge, neither of which imparts all of the qualities usually associated with hand forging. The "forged versus stamped" argument is out the window with high quality knives these days.

Hmmm, I do use "screaming edge" a lot, don't I. I'll have to watch out for that.

Take care,
Chad

Edited by Chad, 10 July 2008 - 05:25 AM.

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#30 sygyzy

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Posted 10 July 2008 - 10:26 AM

Thanks for the response Chad! You're right, you do make a distinction between machined, stamped, and forged knives. This cutlery world is so complicated!