Knife Info 101

When I began at Sur La Table I had no idea what made a knife nice, especially not what made a knife special enough to spend hundreds of dollars on a single piece. Now I know that there are so many different kinds of steel, and they all perform differently. A great knife is one of the most cost-effective ways to upgrade your cooking experience. Prep work will go faster and your cuts will be nicer, easier, more precise.

Shun Sora and Global

When I chatted about the new additions to my kitchen, I mentioned that the Japanese steel is sharper and will hold its edge longer. Simply put, Japanese knives can be sharpened to a much more acute angle than German knives, and will stay that way longer, however one must be more careful with them because the sharpness of the steel translates to hardness, and tendency to chip. German steel is softer, more malleable, which dulls more quickly but sharpens up nicely, and doesn’t chip (unless something really drastic happens). Many cooks have one or two of both kinds.

For this reason, someone who has made a real investment in their knives should get the proper honing steel, as well. A German honing steel, for example, isn’t a hard enough metal to clean up the edge on a Japanese knife. A Japanese steel is harder than a Japanese and German knife, however, and can be used for either of them. There are inexpensive ones out there. How do you know if it’s time to use a honing steel? Carefully draw your finger down from the spine of the knife and past the sharp edge of the blade. If you feel a little catch or hook at the edge, it’s time to hone. Never, ever check the sharpness of a knife by feeling the sharp edge with your finger–they can be sharper than you think!

Holding a Knife

If you don’t know already, here’s an awkward picture of how to hold a knife. Pinch the point where the blade meets the handle. Then wrap the rest of your fingers around the handle to form your grip. This puts the knife in line with your whole arm, and relieves the wrist of unnecessary work. If it feels weird, do your prep work while holding the knife this way for a couple of days, then try the “old” way. My guess is that the old way will now feel more awkward and unwieldy!

As far as choosing your new knife, the best thing to do is find an opportunity to try out several brands, shapes, and styles. My store lets customers test them, and I have seen other kitchen stores that also provide this option. If they don’t have any food for you to chop, at least take the opportunity to wrap your hand around the handle and fake it. The weight and handle should feel good. There’s not really one “best” knife for everyone, that’s why there are so many options out there!

And a quick & dirty review of my choices: I love the two I chose. They are both light yet well balanced.

  • Global is a favorite brand of those in the restaurant industry because they are durable and a cinch to keep clean (since they’re all one piece). Some people don’t like the handle because they’re so unique and seem a bit small, but I really like it, especially for a small knife life my nakiri. This is and will continue to be my go-to prep knife for small jobs.
  • The Shun Sora line just came out. They are not only less expensive than Shun Classic but the bright reflective steel should resist rust/patina more than the damascus pattern of the Classic. It cuts like a dream through everything. We made tacos the other night and cutting lettuce, tomatoes, and even cooked steak (medium and well done) was effortless. I look forward to many happy years together with this knife ;)

What kind of knives do you have? Are you in love with them or are you interested in upgrading?

The Small Print: I wasn’t paid or perked to write my knife posts, in fact I bought these knives with my own cold hard cash after lots of hemming and hawing about what to get. I did use an employee discount. Lots of bloggers get free stuff in order to write reviews; I am not one of them. 

Knife Upgrades

It has come to my attention that since I’ve worked at Sur La Table for going on a year and a half, that people assume my kitchen is full of top-of-the-line products. Not so! Surprisingly most of my paycheck actually does come home with me (as opposed to being spent at work). We are still using more or less everything we registered for when we got married in 2010. Most of the stuff we were generously given was good quality, and replacing it would be an exercise in needless expense. I’m so grateful for this fact!

That said, the knife set (Farberware, not carried anymore; see similar) that we were given is good, not great. I knew nothing about knives when we registered at Target so I signed up for one that included LOTS of knives. Just in case, right? I it’s a 20-piece set (includes 8 steak knives), which is HUGE for a knife set! After 3 years, some were getting a little dull, so last spring I took them to work and got them re-sharpened. They were good to go for a while longer, while I decided what I really wanted to get. Some of them are developing brown patina spots, and that’s our own fault for putting them in the dishwasher (see the end of this post for knife care tips).

After much agonizing, I finally decided to make a few upgrades to the knife corral. Here’s my lineup before upgrading… a photo I took so I could visually see what I was working with, and do some brainstorming.

My Knives, Before

Many chefs will tell you that a person needs three good knives in their kitchen. A chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a bread knife (with serrations). I like having a bit of a larger arsenal, but overall I agree with this rule of thumb. Therefore, some of my good not great knives are perfect for less-frequent, specialty jobs.

This meant that I wouldn’t need to replace my:

  • Cleaver (far right). Pretty standard, nice and heavy. Does its job well.
  • Carving set (center). Believe it or not I rarely make poultry or roasts that need to be carved. ;) These are in fine shape.
  • Bread knife (long, serrated). In my opinion, all bread knives are pretty similar. Not a splurge-worthy area.
  • Miscellaneous knives (far left). The yellow one was a gift from J.A. Henckles, from attending a training event for work. It is wicked sharp! The gold one’s brand is Kuhn Rikon. It’s also wicked sharp, and cheap. You may recognize it from my sister’s food-themed bachelorette party favor bag.

The knives on the chopping block (pun intended) were my:

  • Chef’s knife (2nd from right). The most-used kitchen knife, I was ready for something sharper made of higher-quality steel.
  • Santoku (3rd from right). My second-most used kitchen knife, I use a 7″ santoku for most fruits and vegetables.
  • Paring and utility knives (3rd and 4th from left). Using the yellow-handled knife has me spoiled! A longer utility of equal sharpness would be amazing.

Since I finally had a chance to pull out my knives all at the same time and evaluate them, I was able to make a decision on what new knives I would get without getting overwhelmed. Now, the knife block boasts two newbies!

Knife Block

Shun Sora and Global

I chose a Shun Sora 8″ chef’s knife and a Global 5.5″ nakiri to replace my chef’s knife, santoku, and utility knife. Two in, three out! I got Japanese knives since they are sharper and more precise than German knives (which the rest of mine are), and they will keep their sharp edge longer. I plan on doing a more in-depth review on these two, and a quick and dirty rundown on Japanese vs. German cutlery later this week. It’s too much info to squeeze into this already-long post, but it will go a long way towards helping anyone make an educated purchase of their own knives. Oh yes, and I promised you some tips to keep your cutlery in top shape:

Tips to make your knives stay sharp and last longer:

  • Use a honing steel to maintain the edge of the blade regularly. This allows you to go longer between sharpenings.
  • Don’t put knives in the dishwasher! Harsh surfacants in dishwasher soaps can damage the micro-sharp edge.
  • Don’t let them sit in water (in the sink, in a puddle on the counter). Brown rust patina spots can develop. Keep your knives dry!
  • Store them in a wooden block, on a magnet, or with edge guards in the drawer. This protects the blade, and your hands!

Do you have a favorite knife brand? See you later this week for more knife talk!