Friday, February 4, 2011

Weekend Reads: Sharp as a...

The other day I made the observation that many people don't know how to sharpen their own knives. I have to admit, I'm always surprised by this, no matter how many times it comes up in conversation. For me a sharp knife means less cuts, faster work, and, if there is an accident in the kitchen the cut will be clean and easy to mend. Sharp knives, good knives - they are crucial in my kitchen.

I mentioned the conversation to my dad and joked that he should write the blog post for me. My dad, a guest-blogger, HA! And you know what? HE DID! He's amazing. He's also an amazing chef - and a knife pro. He knows more than I could ever hope to learn so I'm happy to give you, drumroll please, my dad's quick master class on kitchen knives! The images you see are books I've reviewed and would highly recommend - your weekend reads!

My thoughts on sharpening your kitchen cutlery - intermingled with my thoughts on "types" of chef's cutlery:

There are a great many people willing to offer advice on sharpening your knives - some of it really good, some bordering on insanity. In my opinion, the question to be answered is: Do you just want your knives to be sharp, or will you derive more satisfaction from making them sharp yourself regardless of "cost effectiveness"?

Before answering the question - read the article you'll find here.  This is a pretty long read but very informative with good references and they describe a number of sharpening systems. Whether you decide to do it yourself or send out for professional sharpening - This is as good a "knowledge" article as I've seen and I assure you I've read at least 20 different tomes on the subject.

If the answer to the original question is that you "just want them to be sharp": I heartily recommend that you use a professional sharpening service. The cost of good sharpening equipment is fairly significant and you can have your knives done professionally quite a number of times for what you might spend on the paraphernalia needed. There are many local professional sharpening services around the country that can do quality work; you just need to look around for them and give them a knife you're not in love with to try the first time so that you can check out their results. If you're inclined to be willing to send your knife away for sharpening I can recommend a few that are available for contact on the internet that are known to produce good results:

-For Western (read that "German") chef's cutlery (think Wusthof, Henckels, F. Dick, Messermeister), one might consider Northwestern Cutlery in Chicago. The folks at Northwestern are knowledgeable and helpful...and if you're ever near 810 Lake Street they have variety of excellent cutlery brands, sharpening tools and kitchen gadgets.

I specified "German" here due to the fact that the fine old French Sabatier brand has been perverted into oblivion because it isn't limited to one manufacturer and I don't feel they can be trusted today - and most home chefs will never even know that the excellent Swedish Fallkniven brand exists. There are lot's of private labelled knives made in China today and sold as Cuisinart, KitchenAid, Rachel Ray, Emeril, Wolfgang Puck and "you name it" - my view is pretty much "you get what you pay for"! IF you're inclined to be hard on your cutlery and want forgiving steel - GO GERMAN.

-For true Japanese chef's cutlery (think Shun, or any of the myriad high quality true Japanese brands), try Japanese Knife Sharpening Service or Korin Trading Company - I believe Korin will also sharpen German knives, but best to check with them on that subject. Korin is also a great source for some of the truly fine Japanese brands of cutlery that use steel the German makers can't even forge!

And now I digress into truly personal opinion: If you're willing to go to the extreme for sharp cutlery - JAPANESE is the answer whether you buy stainless or carbon steel! If you're REALLY into SHARP - by all means consider the best in carbon (yes, CARBON!) steel Japanese cutlery. Stainless is easy maintenance and high quality stainless is VERY, VERY good, but single-bevel edged carbon steel as practiced by the Japanese is capable of sharpness most folks won't even understand. To use the single-bevel concept you have to order your knife according to whether you use it right or left-handed. I suggest reading the material on Korin's website to get a feel for the subject as well as for what they describe as "Japanese" and "Western" style blade shapes by the Japanese manufacturers.

If, one the other hand, you'd like to sharpen your own knives - pick one of the methods described in the eGullet article and have at it!

I personally indulge in freehand sharpening with good Japanese waterstones, Japanese ceramic stones by Spyderco, and, on occasion, stropping with a homemade strop and polishing compound. You can spend well in excess of $100 on the stones necessary to get to that hairsplitting edge - but if you happen to be batty for a razor sharp knife it is quite rewarding. Reasonable Japanese waterstones and the Spyderco stones (and often knowledgeable advice) can be found at Woodcraft stores located around the United States. Woodcraft's forte is woodworking tools and equipment but you must understand that woodworkers also need to sharpen hand tools to a razor edge. Good beginner grade Japanese waterstones can also be obtained from Lee Valley Tools.

Whichever way you decide to get to cutlery with a truly sharp edge - there's no excuse for a dull knife and little more useful in the kitchen than a sharp one!

(Thanks Dad!)

Ok, I'm back... So here's my quick and dirty guide. If you are totally new to sharpening your own knives, or want a really convenient system, consider a hand held sharpening model. Like this:

This is a two-stage model. You'll pull your knife through, bolster (handle) to tip, straight up and down, through the coarse section when you have a really dull or dinged blade, then through the fine section. Most of the time you'll only need the fine section if you keep your knives sharpened. This is a great beginning staple.

If you want to try the next step up, consider a steel or whetstone (or combo thereof). Like this:

While your purchase should some with instructions it may not. In that case consider some of the above books to review, or the link at the beginning of the article. This short video is an excellent primer as well:

There are a myriad of other techniques and many cooking schools (for home cooks) offer beginning knife skills classes. While it may seem more tempting to learn to cook Coq au Vin as opposed to knife skills when faced with the choice, the knife skills class is invaluable and will be significantly worth the effort.

Happy cooking and cutting in the kitchen this weekend!


k said...

Your dad sounds like a smart man!! I had NO idea about anything related to sharpening knives. (mine are from ikea...yikes) and I def didn't know that you could even mail them away!

Anonymous said...

This was great! I have a Japanese knife that I love, love, and SOMEONE did something stupid with it, like, I don't know, deboning an 18-wheeler or something.... Anyway, I'm crushed and have attempted to have it professionally sharpened, but that was a disaster. I went and bought another Japanese knife other day, and I hate it. Hate. It. I need someone to go back to Japan and get me another chef's knife-pronto!

Brandi said...

I will admit, I typically just bring my knifes to someone to sharpen, but I may try to do it myself next time. I didn't know so much knowledge went into it. And I agree, sharp knifes are a must in any kitchen.

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