Sunday, September 4, 2011

Knife buying advice and/or guide

Pretty Damascus pattern on my knife.

Before I get started I know I've been MIA on the blog for awhile and I'm sorry to my *cough* hundreds of thousands of readers (ahm). I blame the half marathon I ran last month coupled with the extra hours I pulled at work when the sous-chef's wife had a baby and then hard-drive failure on my computer. But I'm back! New computer and all. Let's get started and catch up.

Recently I bought a new knife. It's about time. I've had my old knife for a year. It was a very sharp affordable option - 6in high carbon steel Japanese style knife. My new knife is 8in high carbon stainless steel and it slices like a dream, gliding through that onion as if it were gliding through air. This is my first professional knife. I chose to get a Japanese knife because somehow I just got on that track and now it feels comfy and normal. Japanese knives can be lighter and thinner than western style knives - but it all comes down to preference.

Important factors in buying a knife:

What do you use your knife for? I recently figured out, after taking an interest in butchery, that my family has been using the same boning knife for much of their all-purpose cutlery needs since before I was born. While I had a laugh for a moment at this idea, you know what? IT WORKS. My family doesn't really need professional grade knives because what would they use them for? It's just home cooking, it doesn't have to look a certain way, and if you don't need it don't buy it. And while sharp knives are better than dull ones if you accidentally cut yourself (cleaner cuts) - I would still be a little worried they would slice off a finger or a hand if they used my knife regularly. It's not for everyone and it can be intimidating to use if you don't know how to use it properly (i.e. safely, check out this youtube video). My first knife was a regular 6in Wusthof and I think it was a good, comfortable knife with enough of an edge and strength that I would recommend it for domestic use for just about anybody. My second knife was from a Japanese store in Berkeley called Hida Tool. Their knives are very good and affordable for the quality. The family that owns the store is knowledgeable about the differences of the knives. My new knife is from a store in Alameda recommended to me by my sous-chef called The Japanese Woodworker. Their knives are a little bit pricier and also very good quality. Nevertheless - don't think that you can't go somewhere more mainstream and find a good knife. I still like to peruse Sur La Table.

That being said, I'm going to take you through some of my research as I was preparing for my big purchase. If you'd like to read on and someday purchase a higher quality knife - I hope this will help you. I really didn't know what exactly to look for at first, but as we do in this modern age I found a plethora of resources on the internet which I mixed with experience from work.

Starting checklist: Make sure that the knife is full tang. Full tang blades are made from a solid piece of steel that extends through the handle making the knife virtually indestructible (i.e. the handle will never separate from the blade). You also want forged steel as opposed to a cut or stamped knife. Forged steel is shaped under high heat and heavy weight, a more expensive process that will hold an edge longer and be overall way better quality. 

Edge: Steel is just iron with carbon in it. Other alloys (metal mixes) can be added to give the knife different properties, such as more strength, hardenability, wear resistance, decreased toughness, and more. The most common alloys are carbon, chromium, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, phosphorus, silicon, sulfur, tungsten, and vanadium. Their uses can be quite technical and frankly I don't remember them all so I'm not going to get into them here, but instead refer you to a website.

The most important detail to pinpoint in my opinion is the carbon content of your knife. Knives with higher carbon contents stay sharp longer and have harder edges. On the flip side they rust and require more wiping and maintenance and can be a little more brittle, perhaps dinging, chipping, or cracking easier. High carbon steel, according to wikipedia, is 0.6-0.99% carbon, and ultra high carbon steel is 1-2% carbon. More than that will be considered cast iron. Very rarely do I see knives displayed with the percentage of carbon content, but it will usually say stainless, high carbon, or ultra high carbon steel.

My blade is a mix. The center (Hagane) is high carbon steel alloyed with cobalt (for wear resistance), which is forge welded between two outside layers (Jigane) of stainless steel (for strength and rust resistance). Mind you when buying my knife I didn't really understand all this and it's not totally necessary to understand it all.  I'm wasting my time a little but this is fun isn't it?

Balance: Next to the edge and build this is most important. Especially for professionals, but also true for everyone, if your knife does not feel comfortable in your hand and nicely weighted then you're screwed. I have small hands and don't like heavy knives - but someone else might prefer the opposite. It all comes down to your comfort. To me a good feeling knife is not too light that your hand does all the work. A little weight will let gravity do the work but too much weight, for a small girl like me, will make my hand cramp up. Find the balance!

1 comment:


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Ferro Alloy
Special Alloy
Medium Carbon Silico Manganese
Non-Ferrous Scrap