Knives … how I love them! I could wax poetic about knives for days. Buying a new knife for a chef is tantamount to choosing a new cloud for heaven. Quality knives are a big investment—one that will outlast your lifetime if you care for them properly.
There are several types of knives. The big players are the Germans and Asians. Let’s consider the differences and benefits of each.
Germans are great engineers, exceling at knives that are sharp, well weighted, and forged with the finest steel. Some of the leaders of German knives are J.A. Henckels, Zwilling, and Wusthof. When buying a German knife, rest assured that it has been manufactured properly. They are made for cutting through any kind of food you lay before them.
Closing in fast on the German manufacturers in popularity are the Asian, and most notably Japanese knife companies. Japanese knives are beautiful and contain less chromium and more carbon. This makes them stronger but more brittle. The company I represent is Shun—in my eyes the very best Japanese knife company. I also sell Niwaki scissors. While Niwaki sells knives, they are not stainless and people tend toward stainless.
Asian knives are lighter in weight than German knives because of less chromium, helping with manipulating the knife and your hand when doing fine work. They are also made at a different angle. A Japanese knife is angled anywhere between 15 to 17 degrees, where a German knife is between 20 and 25 degrees. Asian knives are designed for precision in slicing anything from filet fish to vegetables. You can cut very thin vegetables or finely zip the skin off any fish without a worry. Food presentation is very important in Asia and is considered an art form called katsuramuki.
Stainless Steel vs Carbon Steel Knives
Let’s discuss the difference between the manufacturing processes used for each type of knife. Steel hardness is measured on the Rockwell scale. The higher the rating, the stronger the steel. Yet harder steel is prone to chipping because it is more brittle. Most people like stainless steel knives now. Stainless steel contains chromium, which lowers the Rockwell rating, but this additive prevents rust, keeps the knives shiny, and retards corrosion. German knives rank in the mid 50s on the Rockwell scale, and so they are very strong and can really stand up to whatever you lay in front of them. Nuts, chops, hard skins like pineapple? No problem for the German knives. But they are not quite as strong as Asian knives.
The Rockwell scale for Asian knives hovers around 60. The high carbon content makes them susceptible to damage from acidic foods like citrus and tomatoes, so wash them as soon as you can or wipe them off.
Lastly, the very best blade of all has no stainless steel, but is all carbon steel. Carbon steel can be honed to a very sharp edge and will hold this edge longer. Chefs love them. The big drawback, and the reason they are not very popular with the home cook, is that a carbon steel knife is not pretty and will rust. But clean it with a little oil and it comes right off.
Knife Care Tips
You don’t need a matched set of knives; use some of this kind and some of that, depending on your needs. Take care of your knives and they will reward you with a lifetime of cooking pleasure.
Please remember to keep your knives in a slotted wood holder in your drawer, or in a wooden block. If you travel with your knives, use knife guards and/or a carrying case. Wood is the best thing to cradle them. Use a proper cutting surface, such as wood or plastic. Never cut on granite or those old glass cutting boards.
Never, ever, put a high quality knife in the dishwasher. Dishwasher soap is very harsh and will pit your knife, enough to ruin it beyond professional sharpening. Hone them properly and sharpen them only when needed because every time you sharpen them, you take off a tiny amount of steel. You must purchase the honer and sharpener that go with your nationality of knife because they will keep you at the proper angle.
When you go to buy a new knife, hold lots of them until you find one that fits your hand, body type, and culinary plans. Wood is the best handle and the most comfortable in your hand. See what you like, fits your body frame, and be logical about your needs for the first few knives you buy.
Laura Wilson is a classically trained chef who holds a Diplome de Patissiere from Le Cordon Bleu, Paris. She has continued her culinary education by completing professional courses at L’Ecole Ritz Escoffier Paris in Meat and Foul, L’Ecole Ritz Escoffier in Chocolate, The French Pastry School in Chocolate Sculptures, and The Culinary Institute of America in Cuisine. She has also taken day courses on three continents. Laura has trained under MOF chefs Nicolas Bernarde and Nicolas Jordan. She has assisted and cooked alongside famed chefs Rick Bayless, Marcus Samuelsson, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Marjorie Taylor.
Chef Laura is the proprietor of The Fearless Cook, a gourmet cooking school and boutique located in Covington Plaza, Fort Wayne, Indiana.