Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Eron's Epically Complete Guide To Buying The Best Chef's Knife [Or At Least A Good One]





Let me tell you a story. It's dark and involves knives, but maybe it will sound familiar? Once upon a time, there was this guy who liked to cook so his parents went to something like JC Penny Outlet and bought him some random chef's knife that was on super-sale which he used for 8 or 10 years now. Whenever our protagonist had to do some serious chopping he bitterly stared at the knife and wondered what other knives might be out there in the wide world.

Now our protagonist, he wasn't rich, but he understood the value of buying quality-made items. So he steeled himself (oh, accidental knife joke, did you like that?) and went over to local merchants at The Surly Table to buy a new knife. Standing in front of the glaring lights of the knife cases, he froze. Between the shear variety and the often massive prices tags, he started to sweat, then fidget in panic. Some helpful salesperson wandered out of the forest of pans starts talking to him about the 17 generations of samurai-dragon-ghost-blacksmiths that have worked to perfect the knife rising from the block in front of him, and how it can only be pulled from the block during a full moon while shinto priests intone prayers. Dazed and defeated, he end up walking out of the store with some sherry vinegar and coffee filters.

The End, Or Is It?

At least, this was my personal experience trying to buy a knife. It was pathetic, I know, but I highly doubt I'm the only person who has felt that way. When I got home I went out on the internet hoping to learn more. But the information online wasn't any better considering all I learned is that I would probably need a materials sciences M.A. and a 10-year internship as a knife-sharpener to begin to understand all of the jargon of micron-burring correction with cryogenic treatments or standard Rockwell ISO hardness variations in specific forging methods. Probably more useful than samurai banter, but I don't actually know because it still sounds suspiciously like marketing-speak to me.

Dammit! I just want to be able to cut up the damn garlic and zucchini for a dozen friends at a dinner party without hating life. Why is that so bloody hard? What is it that makes a knife worth $200? Is a $100 knife any better than a $50 knife? (The short answer is, "probably yes.") If so, what are the things I should be looking for to maximize the one thing I need the knife to do: efficiently cut food things in the kitchen.

But let's back this whole discussion up. One of the first things that wandering through the forest of knives of all shapes and makes made me realize was that I needed to know what kinds of knives you should have in your kitchen.






The inimitable Evan Kleiman, host of NPR's "Good Food," who I must tangentially also thank for making sure Callie makes some of the best pies around, took some time out of her busy schedule to answer this question for me. She even made a blog post about it. Follow her blog if you don't already, since there are always great articles going up over there! 

I'll sum up what she said, and combine it with what my experience in the kitchen has taught me as well:

1) You need a chef's knife, between 8" and 10".

2) You'll need a utility knife. A shorter, burly steel knife for general purpose jobs — Think santoku or such. 

3) You'll need a pairing knife, but it doesn't have to be amazing. Evan even mentioned that she rotates a couple of the cheap plastic-handled ones.

In addition, there are three other knives that you might use depending what you do in your kitchen:

1) While I hardly ever need these, Evan said that if you are boning chickens or filleting whole fish with any regularity, you'll need the correct boning knife/knives for that job. I wish you luck there, as I have no experience. She says to get one flexible and one rigid, if that helps.

2) From my own experience I would add a "non-knife cutting-tool", which is a good pair of kitchen shears.

3) Additionally, if you love that no-knead bread recipe as much as I do, a decent bread knife will be handy. 

But for now, let's ignore everything but the chef's knife because even I, Mr. Lowly Home Cook, have found that the old saying, "your chef's knife is your primary tool in the kitchen," to be increasingly true as I get more serious about cooking. To return to the core question I set out to answer in this increasingly long article is: What chef's knife do I get? 

Based on an article in Lucky Peach #2, that the lovable asshat David Chang (<3) buys massively expensive, samurai-grade Japanese knives for the folks who work the line in his Momofuku kitchens, but his outlook on this topic, like most topics, seems a bit extreme. But if you look around the internet, there are a huge amount of sites that say the exact opposite — that any expensive knife is just a ripoff. 

To clear up the matter, I did what any self-respecting food nerd would: I hopped on Facebook and asked a random selection of my favorite chefs and restaurants what they use in their kitchen. After all, who better to ask about what actually matters with a knife than someone who spends all day using one!






Before we get to specific recommendations, two general topics came up often in the replies which can summarized as: 

1) You need to have solid knife skills. 
2) You need to keep your knives sharp. 

In fact Perfecto Rocher, the chef at Lazy Ox (who also worked at El Buli) said these two points almost verbatim in his reply.  "[what] is most important is how well and how often it is sharpened, and the skill of the person using it." 

I'm not sure how good my knife skills are, but I've cooked and chopped an awful lot in my day. I still want to take a basic knife skills class at a local cooking school as a refresher sometime in here, and I would recommend the same if you are serious. For the self-learner, there are also books on Amazon that include videos on knife skills. For the lazy, I'm sure there are more than a few articles online that could teach you some basics, like how to hold a knife. Your knife skills are yours alone to judge.

As for the more complicated issue of sharpening, let me share what I have gleaned from the internet ("gleaned" is a great word for internet learning, isn't it?) First, what the layman calls "sharpening" is actually split in to two separate processes. 

What you actually do when you use one of those steel rods at home, is called "honing." This is a rudimentary maintenance process which has the purpose of reconditioning the metal on the edge of the knife but does not actually remove metal nor change the shape of the edge. Sharpening proper is a much more complex and skill-based process of actually grinding away metal to make/sharpen the edge of the knife. 

Honing should be done before every session when you use the knife. Sharpening is best done by a professional as the knife gets dull — that is, when honing doesn't keep the knife sharp anymore. You can sharpen your knives at home but from the videos I've seen, correctly sharpening a knife looks like it would take lots of practice (http://www.chefknivestogo.com/knshforne1.html).  For the brave soul who wants to work through those videos, you should probably practice on a cheaper knife at first to get a feel for the process. 

As for me, I would love to learn to sharpen my own knives, but there is a guy named Gary at many of the local Los Angeles farmer's markets who does knife sharpening and comes highly recommended (as does Ross Cutlery in downtown LA). If you aren't in L.A., I'm very confident there are places or services to get your knives sharpened near you!

If you are considering getting an electric knife sharpener: don't. There are a myriad of ways that they will wreck your knife — I have unwittingly used one and over time it has jacked up my knife irreparably. (Which is a decent part of the reason why I have to buy a new knife. But sob for me not, dear reader, my tragedy and subsequent nerdery, will be your boon.) 

I'm getting ahead of myself here, but regarding honing and sharpening, Japanese knives (and this will be important later, once we get to the recommendations) tend to be more brittle and thinner in build, so they require a bit more finesse in both the honing and sharpening phases.  A regular steel honing rod can possibly chip some of the more brittle of the Japanese blades. Ceramic honers are actually preferred for this process depending on the knife. The more exotic the Japanese knives, such as those $400 one-sided "yanagi" knives you probably drool over at the sushi bar, the more specific the sharpening has to be. But don't fret, none of the knives I'll be recommending are overly fussy.






To move forward with actually buying this mythical knife: retention of sharpness is one of the key points that  Nguyen and Thi Tran from Starry Kitchen brought up in regards to selecting a knife: "Choosing a knife is probably two-fold in decision making: #1- one that doesn't dull after 30 min of use. If you have to sharpen/hone your knife often it becomes a pain in the ass." 

What this means to us as potential knife-buyers is that getting a knife that is sharp and stays sharp is actually priority #1 for getting a good knife. None of the marketing speak nor gilding matters if the blade won't keep an great edge while you cut. It's such an obvious point that it's easy to miss.

Getting a simple answer like that is the whole reason that I asked specifically what brands of knives get used in real restaurant kitchens — I figure that if a knife can stand up to being used on the line at places like Lazy Ox, Baco Mercat and Starry Kitchen for years they will certainly hold an edge while you slice mushrooms and onions for a risotto at home a few times a week. 

But before we throw down and name some names, the second general criteria Nguyen mentioned is that "#2- ultimately how it feels and how comfortable it is for YOU to hold. Doesn't matter how expensive, everyone cuts a bit differently (posture, height, technique)…" Which means that, no matter how much you like the look or the idea of a knife it doesn't matter if it can't do its job. No matter how much your favorite chef uses one brand or style of knife, it's up to what feels good for you as you cut (as long as the edge holds it's sharpness, of course). 

This comes in to play most immediately in choosing the length of the knife you use. Most folks I know have an 8" chef's knife around. I wouldn't buy a knife any shorter than 8". I personally find a 9" or 9.5" knife much more balanced for how I personally cut. A 10" knife is longest commonly used chef knife by home cooks, and will require a cutting board that is larger than average in size. 

When it comes to choosing a knife, there are a multitude of variables from weight to different handle shapes, different steel types, different edge profiles (the curve of the cutting edge) etc. etc. etc. that are pure personal preference. As a home cook, you're not going to need to be quite as picky as a chef that is battling carpel-tunnel while cutting 10 hours a day. As long as you understand there is no universally perfect knife that will suit every hand and every kitchen, many of the mysteries that make buying a good a knife so complicated are deafeated. 






So that finally leads us to our list of recommendations. 

Chef Perfecto from Lazy Ox prefers Yanagi, Misono or Masumoto. 

[Eron's Note On Perfecto's picks: I didn't find Yanagi as a brand, but it is instead a style of knife — it's the samurai sword-style knife they use at sushi restaurants to cut raw fish. Misono is a very high-end brand that I've never held, but I'm sure their products are stunning. I've tried the 8" and 11" Masumoto chef knives and they were some of my favorite. Very functionalist in design, but near-perfect weight, grip, steel and balance.] 

Chef Thi via Nguyen: "My wife has a Masahiro chef's & santoku knife, but I most commonly see Global knives as they've got the balance of value (comparatively) and function. One of my other line cook has a Global, and others we've had come in have used quite a few Global (Japanese brand)." 

[Eron's note on Nguyen and Thi's picks: I got a chance to handle a couple of Masahiro knives I was impressed. Scary sharp, great balance. A touch light for my taste, but obviously excellent knives. I've also handled most of the Global lines of chef knives. They tend to have slightly smaller grips and lighter weights than average. I felt my hand was crowded on the handle of even the 10" chef, but I have fairly large hands being six feet tall. Again, wonderful knives especially for those of you with a lighter touch.]

Chef Josef from Baco Mercat: "I use MAC knives. I have used them for 10 yrs and they don't let me down." 

[Eron's note: MAC knives were a brand I had never seen before, but I tried a bunch of them at a local Japanese kitchen store and was tremendously impressed at their weight, balance and general feel. The MAC and Masumoto knives were the least esoteric ones am leaning toward buying. MAC has a number of lines of knives. The lower end knives were a great price-to-value ratio; the "Professional Mighty" knives were nicely weighted and perfectly built.]

Now what's amazing is that all three, Perfecto, who's at Lazy Ox (famous for his paella and doing a stint at El Bulli), Thi from Starry Kitchen (famous for being an underground restaurant and serving epic Vietnamese inflected asian fusion food) and Josef from Baco Mercat (which features transformative small plates) all use Japanese-made but western-styled chef's knives in the middle of the price range ($100-$250).

Additionally, The Wall Street Journal has an article where they got the chef from Crush in Seattle, Jason Wilson, to talk about chef's knives. Four of the five knives from the Wallstreet Journal's article were also these kind of Japanese knives.

These "Japanese-made, Western-style" knives have a name by the way, it's "gyuto."

So why is this? I can only speculate, so skip this paragraph if you value credibility, but based on rule #1 of picking a chef's knife, Japanese knives tend to be made from hard, very well-made steel. This means they are insanely sharp and stay that way. Additionally, a gyuto is thinner than a Western-made knife. This means that it is more nimble and controllable, especially while cutting vegetables. These restaurants all focus very heavily on produce, so such knives would make sense with their food. Being in Los Angeles, there is often a light Japanese or Southeast Asian inflection to the food, so perhaps the tools reflect the cuisine? Anyway, it doesn't particularly matter, so it's time to move back to the land of knife-reality.

As I mentioned earlier, Japanese knives are also a bit more difficult to care for than Western knives: They are more brittle and hence they are more prone to chipping so you should take care about banging them against hard objects; This means you probably shouldn't be hacking at bone-in meat with them — Instead, use a sturdy Western utility knife or boning knife for those tasks. Some Japanese knives have higher than average carbon content in their steel alloy which means they can rust if you don't keep them dry. Occasionally wiping these high-carbon knives while you work will prevent any issues. Wash and completely dry your knives immediately after use. Do not put them in the dishwasher. Repeat after me: Do not put any good knife in the dishwasher. You can't let these higher-carbon knives sit in a sink either. Please do not cut with them on anything but a cutting board or specially designed cutting surface. 

Since the knives that were recommended all hold up to heavy professional use, so they're obviously not THAT fragile. A few of the knives also have more stainless-steel properties than others so read the descriptions to pick the best knife for your kitchen. 

Speaking of cutting surfaces, the most recommended surface is getting a large "end-grain" block cutting board. These kinds of cutting boards keep the edge longer. They are not dishwasher safe. They aren't terribly expensive, making them a good investment. Get the biggest board your can reasonably use on your counter. At least in my kitchen, I can never have a large enough cutting board.






Now the knife-porn — these are the links to the 9.5" versions of the knives discussed in this article (since that's the size I liked, though almost all of these knives come in various sizes), along with some alternates that got mentioned on forums and in the Wall Street Journal. I'm mostly linking to Chef Knives To Go because their interface made it quite easy to navigate and they seem like a cool company. I have no particular relationship with them but I am happy to accept any and all free knives that they might send my way, wink wink nudge nudge. There are other places like Korin that are also reputable.

Chef Perfecto:
Masumoto Western Market VG 240mm gyuto $179.95 
Misono 440 240mm Gyuto $224.00

Chef Thi:
Masahiro Gyuto 240mm $136.50
Global GF-33 8 1/4" Forged Chef's Knife $164.00

Chef Josef:
MAC Professional Mighty Chef's Knife 9 1/2" $220
MAC Chef's Series Chef Knife $110.00

On a pesonal note, after my stop at The Surly Table, I was considering the Miyabi Kaizen because I liked the general vibe of the knife, but this post mentioned that while it's better than a Shun, at $200 it's rather overpriced. Of course, the fancy decorative pattern on the blade doesn't mean it cuts any better. The responder suggested going with one of these two other knives instead — both of which are great value knives:
Fujiwara FKM *Stainless* Gyuto 240mm $83.00 
Tojiro DP Chef Knife 240mm $99.95

From the Wall Street Journal, two knives that seemed like good additions to our list were:
A very traditional looking Japanese knife: Moritaka Gyuto 240mm $207.00
Or if you wanted a more familiar Western knife, the Wustof Ikon line 9" Chef Knife $180.00

To wrap up, I hope you've been able to take the story of my humiliation turned to determination as a way to learn a bit about knives. I set out to fill a major gap in the knowledge-base of internet by providing a comprehensive look at buying your first quality chef's knife. Hopefully you'll walk away from this article with enough knowledge to skip the marketing and the troll-nitpicking and a get yourself a good knife so that you can make good food! I spent a while away from my art (http://www.eronrauch.com if you want to see some of it) to write all this and hope this article can be of great service to those of you who, like myself, are fairly serious about cooking but by no means have the knowledge pool of a professional chef. Let me know about your experiences with getting a knife — Follow me on Twitter @eronrauch







Shout Outs:
Starry Kitchen is moving to share a kitchen at Tiara's. Go stuff your faces there and follow them on Facebook too! Nguyen and Thi are great people, who are always happy to answer a silly question, make amusing blog posts and make wonderful food. If that doesn't impress you, they are doubly amazing people for being so polite when I misspelled their names a couple of times in this article. Go team art school spelling bee! If you like the idea of eating at a place where a dude in a banana suit is cursing up a storm about how much he loves fish sauce with a bunch of Star Wars jokes around you, you'll be right at home.

Lazy Ox, where Perfecto resides as chef, was very generous in answering my questions. I've been going there since they opened, and they continue to be one of my favorite culinary venues in Los Angeles, forcing me to make agonizing choices about what dishes to order from their constantly changing menu.

Josef is easily one of my favorite chefs in town, weaving fascinatingly diverse but direct flavors together in his dishes at his restaurant Baco Mercat. Snag a reservation and have a whiskey before you eat. 

Evan Kleiman is host of KCRW's "Good Food" and one of the stewards of Los Angeles food, a master of Italian fare, and a guru of pies. Like her on Facbook, follow her blog and most of all, listen to her show which is one of the best food resources available!

I'd also like to thank Callie for persuading me to go ahead with bothering these amazingly talented folks with my silly questions and for putting up with endless hours of talk about knives around the apartment. 

PS: If you were wondering, I shot the photos and created the knife illustrations for this article. 

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