Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | March 2, 2009

Your chef’s knife 5: style and quality

Profile Geometry

Each chef’s knife is generally made in one of three styles, Japanese, German or French. The styles really refer to the curvature of the edge, and where that curvature starts and how steep it is.

Okay, so before I go any farther, a word about caveats.

There are few absolutes in this discussion. Which means that everything that follows must be accompanied by “generally speaking” or some other qualifier. Consider that as read.

Japanese knives don’t curve much at all. If there is a curve, it’s reserved to the tip (top third) of the knife. The point of the knife is either mid-way between spine and edge (balanced) or closer to the edge than spine. The profile of the blade is long and thin, even on the Western style chef’s knives, also called gyuto (which translates, roughly, as “cow sword”). The notable exception is the deba, a heavier knife usually used to hack fish bones. Aside from the deba, most Japanese knife styles are meant to be used for push/draw cutting as opposed to rocking/chopping. MAC and Global are good examples.

The French style knife is taller than it’s Japanese cousin – that is, there is more blade when measured spine to edge. And like a Japanese knifes the shape is triangular. However, the edge is more curved, with the curve starting in the heel (bottom third), sweeping gently but steadily through the belly up through to the tip. The point of the knife is located either at the mid-point of the blade, or between the mid-point and the spine.  These knives are meant to be used for rocking and chopping instead of a sliding push or pull cut. Sabatier is a great example of this style, and the higher-end Wusthof’s & Henckels’ also share this profile.

German knives split the difference. Like a French knife, it’s got a curve, but like a Japanese knife, the curve starts closer to the tip, about mid-belly and unlike a French knife, that curve is pretty generous. The point is French. The belly on a German knife is larger than either, and therefore the blade has more steel. It’s also the heaviest of the bunch. It can be used for either push/pull cutting with the back half of the knife, or rock/chopping on the front half. Messermeister and Shun have German profiles.

Some comments on the escalation of “brand quality”

The introductory knife just about everyone recommends is the Forschner Victorinox. For $30, you can’t beat this knife — which is why my cooking school uses them pretty much exclusively. However, these knives, while quite functional are not much to look at.

If you’re somewhat familiar with “upscale” kitchen cutlery, even money says you’ve heard of Shun. Shun has lots of lines of varying degrees of quality. For most buyers, a Shun will probably be their first expensive knife (true for me at least), that is, after than Wusthof set we all got as a wedding gift. Shun makes very nice knives. They’re known for taking good steel and arting it up with pretty patterns on the blades. Their “Classic” line (HRC 61) has a nice wavy pattern in the blade which is very pretty (non functional, but whatever). Their “Elite” line (HRC 64) has a really nice edge effect, again, very pretty. These are very fine knives, and about on par price-wise with the high-end Germans, so expect to spend ~$125 on a 10” Classic chef, twice that for the Elite.

I should mention that Shun has a lifetime warranty on all their knives – and will sharpen them for free, forever. Just send ‘em in, and they’ll come back to you in 4-6 weeks like new.

For most, I suspect that’s the end of the story. Not to knock Shun, but like Bose, there’s better ways to spend your dough. That said, I have a dozen Shun knives. Whoops. Did I mention the free sharpening?

For those interested in looking further, I happily recommend MAC. MAC knives are awesome. Relatively inexpensive, great quality, workhorse knives. When you see one in your friend’s knife block, you know they went for a great knife and not just a great marketing campaign. $150 will get you their top of the line Professional.

Global is another knife company that impresses me. I have a bread knife and a boning knife from them. Very modern looking. Again, great quality, great value, and I think, a cut above Shun, and about on par with MAC. $130 for their chef.

Oh, and all three are way nicer than Wusthof or Henckels – just to be clear on my biases. That said, the high-end Ikon from Wusthof, or even higher end Twin Cermax from Henckels, are very fine knives.

Unfortunately, that’s only the start of the story. If Forschner makes the Hyundai of knives, MAC makes Acura. We haven’t even gotten to the BMWs, much less the Ferrari’s.

In my opinion, the “Blazen” line, by a Japanese company called Ryusen, is just about perfect. $250 will get you into the equivalent of a BMW M series. Amazing fit and finish, great functionality. HRC is about 62. It’s a pleasure to hold, well balanced with a distal taper, awesomely sharp, and looks like luxury. Everything you’d want in a knife. Love it, but definitely not cheap. This is the most expensive knife I own.

Above and beyond this level of knife are artisan blades. One of a kind, hand made, works-of-art-masquerading-as-a-kitchen-tool. I’ve only very recently picked up a couple of these. I call this category “aspirational”. What differentiates these knives from the high-end is usually fit and finish. Rare woods, specialty finishes, designer flourishes, physics-defying edge geometry, hand-made by a master. Bob Kramer and Murray Carter are two mastersmiths that produce kitchen cutlery of an extremely high quality. Cooks Illustrated describes the Kramer’s knives as the “best chef knife ever” and I have no reason to disagree. Kramer’s knives are Western-styled; Carter’s are definitely Japanese. Expect to pay well upwards from $500.

Traditional Japanese knives are another matter entirely.

High end manufacturers are all small scale (or rather, smaller than KAI, the company that makes Shun). Masamoto, Watanabe, Aritsugu, Suisen, Shigefusa, Takeda, Tadatsuna — all make crazy good knives at a huge range of prices, from the merely expensive all the way to the astronomical, depending on fit & finish, size, and metal used. Hattori produces largely Western style knives that have a reputation on par with Carter or Kramer, and command similar prices. Masamoto, the grand-daddy of sushi knife makers, sells their top end for several thousands of dollars.

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