by George Ozegovic
Every kitchen needs only three knives: a chef knife, a paring/utility knife and a serrated knife. Anything more constitutes a weapons cache. Sure, you can add butcher cleaver and slicing knife but how often will you need these tools in your home kitchen?
The chef’ knife is the most versatile and essential knife in the kitchen. It chops, slices, dices, minces and cuts with impunity. With sizes ranging from 6 – 12″ you will find an appropriate fit. Make sure the knife is secure, well balanced and feels comfortable in your hand. I personally use a 10″ blade on an everyday basis.
I grew up with the conventional wisdom that the best knives were full tang (where the blade runs from tip through the handle), forged blades. Heavier knives meant better quality and, if it sounded remotely Teutonic, they must be good. Well, times have changed. Japanese knives are finally making their deserved impact in North American cooking circles and for good reason. Lighter in weight, different sharpening angles, sharpness retention and “good looks” are most oft-mentioned. Back then a light weight knife meant it possessed inferior metal or that the construction was poor. But while it’s true that forged, full tang knives are generally superior — two of the knives I rate highest, MAC and Global, are both stamped and light in weight.
Of the many different sharpening tools I have tried I would only recommend two: the steel and wet stone. Many people are intimidated with the steel and slightly confused by the wet stone but with a little practice and attention to knife angle, sharpening your knives will become second nature. If a steel or wet stone is completely out of the question, I might recommend the ceramic water sharpener. They do a good enough job but require more frequent sharpening. Just make sure the type of water sharpener is suited for your knife, especially considering the different sharpening angles used by European and Japanese manufacturers. Try using a Wusthof ceramic wheel on a Global blade and you’re just asking for a visit your local professional sharpener. The worst case scenario when using the incorrect ceramic sharpener would lead to a complete reworking of your knife edge.
To reduce accidents and get through dinner prep more quickly, always keep your knives sharp. I also recommend practicing your knife skills — check out some videos: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RhfAE6McrM&feature=related
When it comes to knife storage forget about those clunky, hunky chunks of wood with more slots than the average casino. The ubiquitous knife block does nothing more than take up valuable counter space. Instead, try individual knife sheaths or a wall mounted knife magnet. Both the sheath and magnet dramatically reduces the amount of contact the blades make with dulling agents i.e. wood block. Not to mention a knife block will set you back $90 while a magnet or sheath can be purchased from better kitchen stores for around $15. The result is your knives will stay sharper longer while minimizing the chances of blade damage.
The ratings below are based on personal preferences. Regardless of where you go, what you read or whom you speak with everybody will have a personal bias towards a certain brand. In the end, the only thing that matters is how good the knife feels in your hand and how comfortable you are using it. When you’re ready for a better knife the general rule of thumb is don’t go below the $100 mark per blade. Just remember, blade size can dramatically increase the price of your knife. For example, the 8″ Shun Chef Knife retails for about $139 while the 9″ costs about $200. Also, European knives tend to be more expensive at the 8″ size than their Japanese counterparts but the moment you cross the 8″ threshold the Japanese knives spike in price (9″ Wusthof @ $170 vs. 9″ Global @ $190).
Also, be careful not to be taken in with some of the latest trends. Even though I have a Deba blade — I tend not to use it much and the wide tip means the knife is less useful for picking, poking and coring. In my opinion, the hollow grounds (scalloped) blades are more for show at shorter length and are only effective in long blades. Click on the links provided for images (external).
MAC (10 3/4″)
Weight: 206 grams
Very sharp, precise cuts. Stamped with welded bolsters. Riveted wood handle. Very easy and deep cut on reverse stroke. Cuts to tomato, green onions and meat were extremely clean.
Weight: 264 grams
I’m a fan of Henckels steak knives but I didn’t find this chef knife particularly enticing. While it felt sturdy in my hand and imparted a sense of “tradition” it didn’t fare as well as other knives in the comparison cuts. I slipped on the tomato skin before making the cut. It was also the dullest knife out of the box.
Weight: 269 grams
This is the heaviest knife in the group and I personally wouldn’t want to spend an afternoon chopping carrots with this bad boy. The blade was sharper and cuts more precise than the Henckels. The blade bend makes this knife most ideal for chopping while using a rocking motion.
Weight: 212 grams
This is the best looking knife in the group. The Damascus blade is made from 7 different types of metal and is supposed to reduce the amount of “food stick” resulting in faster preparation. In all honesty, all I really wanted to do is stare at this piece. The only downside for me to this knife was the handle. Shun claims the “D” design is superior in comfort and reduces fatigue but I just found it awkward. Love or hate the handle – this is still a great knife.
I shouldn’t have bothered with this knife. I don’t like anything molded, formed or otherwise pre-shaped “to fit” since it forces you to hold or manipulate the object in a specific way. The blade is apparently a German-type steel construction made in China(?). Also, the fact Rachel “Acronym Delish Happy” Ray endorses these products should have been enough for me to turn the knife inward. (Though I’m sure she’s a really, lovely lady.)
Weight: 167 grams
The lightest knife in the lot, this was my first departure from the traditional European style knives. Cuts were quick, precise and the degree of sharpness was excellent throughout the blade. I use the 10″ blade on a daily basis. Caution – if you use plastic as your cutting board, these knives will dull quicker than an Emma Thompson movie.
Weight: 249 grams
Arguably the most famous knife producer, the Wustof is a true classic. It is the prototypical, high quality German knife that single handedly evokes visions of high end restaurant kitchens. The cuts were clean but not as precise as its Japanese counterparts. I was disappointed with the sharpness of the blade straight out of the box.
George Ozegovic is Director of Product Development at www.aftertaste.ca and resident blogger at www.tasteofmelody.com