Posted by: Part-Time Audiophile | July 22, 2009

Day 1 of Culinary Techniques 101

I was in class the other day, in my role as volunteer/gofer for a Chef Instructor at L’Academie, when he started talking about knives and knife maintenance. Given my recent obsession with all things pointy, I was poised to take some notes, and perhaps ask a salient question or two. I mean, surely, a chef with 30 years of professional cooking under his belt could be relied upon for some deep insights.

Let’s just say I was, perhaps, over generous in my expectations, and that there is a rather large gulf between using something for the 30 years and knowing how to care for it or even know what it is that you’re using.

Some rather egregious examples:

  1. An “edge” is not a “bevel”. A bevel in a knife is where the angle of the blade deviates away from the flat of the blade and the march toward the edge begins. Some knives have two bevels. In those cases, the back, or secondary bevel, is the the part of the blade between the flat of the blade and the cutting, or primary, bevel. The back bevel is set at an angle more acute than the cutting bevel, and in many cases, the difference in angle is profound. Most manufacturers, citing the fact that most users will not maintain their knives at all, also note that more obtuse angles are more wear resistant, and are less likely to roll, indent, or chip. Hence, they cut really fat bevels into their knives. Like 50* or more. Of course, this is akin to being told that you’re too stupid, uneducated or untrustworthy to drive a nice car, hence, we’ll only sell clunkers — and charge a premium while we do so, because those clunkers last. I think this is why Honda and Toyota are doing well, and bringing the analogy home, why Shun, Mac & Global are kicking so much ass in the home knife market. That aside, a cutting bevel really ought to to be closer to the back bevel — just a couple of degrees difference provides very satisfactory results.
  2. The burr is an artifact of the sharpening process, and yes, it’s something you want to generate when sharpening. However, you want to take it off through good technique, a progression through finer grit abrasives, and some manual techniques if that isn’t sufficient. In no circumstance do you want to leave the burr on the knife — the knife isn’t finished until the burr is gone. A burr is a really thin, fine, and terrifically sharp sliver of metal on the very extremity of the edge and will flip back and forth with lateral pressure. Direct, perpendicular pressure (ie, using it to cut a carrot) will cause that burr to fold right over the second you bury it into a cutting board. And there goes your “sharp” edge.
  3. Sharpening and steeling are not the same thing. The honing steel that comes in your kit is for aligning the micro-serrations in the edge and straightening that edge into a single line. It is not for removing the burr. Or straightening the burr. Or making it sit straight up. You use a steel before you cut, kind of like stretching before a run. You use an abrasive sharpening system when your edge no longer cuts well, and with proper technique, care, use, and good steeling, you’ll only need to sharpen every couple of months, if that.
  4. Sharpening stones really ought to be flat in order to maximize blade-to-stone contact when grinding a blade against the stone. Demoing sharpening techniques on bowls (stones that are so worn they have edges a full inch higher than the centers) is just bad form.
  5. Diamond steels are incredibly abrasive and will remove steel from your knife with a quickness and if you’re not careful, your edge along with those steel filings. They have grit ratings all over the place, from 300 (insanely coarse, and usually reserved for using on badly chipped knives) up to 2000 grit, which is where most sharpening professionals think you should start if you’re about to start a sit-down sharpening session using waterstones. If you’ve already done this, and moved up a progression from 1000 or 2000 grit all the way 5000, 8000 or even 12000 grit, then beating on that edge with a 2000 grit rod simply undoes all that work at a swipe. If you need to “bring your edge up”, use a sharpening system, like a waterstone, not a rod. If you need to align your edge, use a smooth steel or borosilicate rod. No steel removal and will align your edge just fine, thank you.
  6. Never use your chef knife as a cleaver. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you ought to. Respect your tools and your tools will last you. Beat them like rented mules and they’ll kick you in the head. You need to break down some chicken backs for stock and want to work out some anger management issues while you do it? Use a cleaver.
  7. Japanese knives are not favored by the Japanese because they’re Japanese.
  8. Japanese knives are different from Western knives in many obvious and superficial ways. More strongly, it is an easy argument to make that Japanese knives are actually better than their Western competitors. The reasons for believing that this is so are pretty straightforward: their steels are of higher quality which means they are tougher and wear better, the blade geometries are more efficient which means they’re sharper and therefore cut better, and they’re tempered to a higher degree of hardness which means they stay sharp longer.  And yes, Japanese manufacturers do make knives for the Western market leveraging their superior skill, steel, metallurgical techniques and knife geometries to create fantastic offerings without needing any special skills or maintenance. All this adds up to the conclusion that Japanese knives are actually easier to use than traditional Western knives, and when results are all that counts, that means they’re better. Sorry. It isn’t just marketing.

Anyway, aside my internal diatribe on knives and maintenance, class was pretty fun. Got to wander the tables and demo the pinch & claw, how to skim, and bust some chops on basic food hygiene & sanitation. Too funny.

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