Friday, July 11, 2008

What Kind of Knives Do You Use?

Note: much of this information has been published previously on

When I do public demonstrations, the attendees want to know what kind of knife that I use, meaning what brand I use. I almost always reply “one that fits my hand.” There are much more important selection criteria than brand, and here are three very important ones, none of which have much to do with price.

The single most important thing about a knife that you are going to be spending long hours with is fit. The handle must fit comfortably in your hand and you must be able to use it without banging your knuckles on the cutting surface. There is only one way to determine if a knife is comfortable and that is to try one. Try all your friends’ knives and then go to a shop where you can hold many brands in your hand.

Second most important to me is balance, especially in a chefs knife. There needs to be enough weight in the handle to counterbalance the blade, letting the knife rock easily back and forth when mincing.

Third, and something that all the test reports neglect, is ease of sharpening. If a knife is too hard to be readily sharpened, it is useless.

Here's what's on my magnetic knife bar and a little bit about each. Each knife or implement in the photo is labelled with a letter. You'll need to click the small image to the right to open the large photo.

A—First up is my 20-millimeter Econome melon baller from France. I bought this about 20 years ago in New York from Carolynn Bridge at Bridge Kitchenware, the kitchenware mecca for chefs, in their 52nd St. store. Carolynn suggested that if one melon baller was all I wanted, I should use the 20mm one. She was right. I see that son Steven still offers them in sizes from 10 to 28 millimeters. My primary use for the melon baller is hollowing out tomatoes and making cups from squash and cucumbers. It takes some patience to keep the round edge sharp.

B—This is an inexpensive Dexter-Russell 12-inch slicer with a Granton edge, meaning that little air pockets called kullens have been ground into the blade to help food release from the blade. I use this knife for slicing things paper thin, mainly gravlax and hams. This is a very recent acquisition, about two years ago, and is not something you'd need at home. The edge needs babying.

C—This 7-inch flexible boning knife from Henckels is the oldest knife I still use currently. I bought this about 26 years ago and we use it every day here at the restaurant when breaking down meat. Because the blade must be flexible, the steel has to be softer and as a result, this knife takes a great edge very quickly, unlike the rest of the rigid Henckels knives, which are so hard that they are an absolute nightmare to sharpen. I love this knife.

D—Here's my workhorse 8" Wüsthof chefs knife that I bought about 15 years ago to replace a piece of Henckels junk that I had owned since I was 18. This is the extra heavy, extra deep knife that Fred Bridge worked with Wüsthof to develop. I love this knife and my hand knows just how to work it. Truthfully, I rarely use it any longer (for reasons I'll get into below), except for breaking down large fish, rabbits, and chickens. When I was growing up, a lot of chefs thought it was not macho to use an 8" chefs knife. To be a chef's chef, you had to use a 10" knife. What baloney! In a cramped kitchen, what use is a broadsword?

E—Another knife in daily use is my 15-year old 8" Wüsthof slicing knife. It comes in very handy for a lot of tasks, but mainly I use it for skinning and portioning fish and portioning meats. This is the knife I use to cut tenderloins into filets mignons, for example.

F—Cheap and extraordinarily useful, this offset handle F. Dick serrated bread knife is the best value knife I own. It does everything from slicing tomatoes to rough chopping. I probably use this knife more than all the others put together. This one is about three years old and is getting to the end of its life. Time to get a new one and give this one to one of the newbie line cooks.

G—Here's a little 3.5" F. Dick paring knife. Everyone should own one for those pesky little tasks such as hulling strawberries or fluting lemons. I buy cheap ones as they tend to disappear because of their small size. Pesky tasks aside, I never use a paring knife.

H—I break down a lot of fish and nothing is better at pulling the pin bones out of filets than a pair of needlenose pliers. For wet work, you do not want to go to your local hardware store to purchase cheap pliers that will rust. These are expensive stainless steel ones from Messermeister.

I—One of two steels that I use at work, this one is a very light, very fine one from Dexter-Russell that I use daily to keep my blades aligned.

J—Up next is my santoku from Shun, a knife that is pretty new to me and one that has all but replaced my chefs knife in daily use. I bought it about three years ago, looking for a lighter weight knife that could motor through standard prep tasks. When buying the knife, over the course of an hour, I tried about ten similar knives and my selection quickly narrowed the Shun or the Wüsthof. I chose the Shun because the blade has more rocker (more curve) near the tip, letting me use it more like a chefs knife when I want to. I think if I were to do it again, I might choose the lighter and straighter Wüsthof: that little rocker up front on the Shun means that for certain things, I have to chop a bit further back on the heel of the knife than I want to. I am really happy to have a santoku in my arsenal: I use it constantly.

K—Also hanging in my office is my Matfer offset handle icing spatula that is useful for all kinds of applications from serving desserts to spreading batters to turning scallops to lifting tuiles off baking sheets. Matfer is expensive, but it will last my entire life.

L—Finally, you can just see the handle of my Wüsthof diamond-coated heavy steel. I use this steel when I really need to tweak a blade, rather than just touch it up. You must be careful in using such an aggressive steel.

That's my arsenal. As you can see, my hardware comes from a lot of different manufacturers. If I had to recommend one brand, it would be Wüsthof: they make great steel. But don't get hung up on brand.

Over the past 30 years, I've used all kinds of knives from Masamoto sashimi knives, to classic mild steel Sabatiers, to the really slick Global knives, to the ceramic Kyocera knives. And I can summarize this experience with the old maxim: it's not the arrow; it's the archer. That is, practice will make you better with a knife, a better knife will not.

1 comment:

  1. Shockingly, my friend bought some inexpensive farberware stainless steel knives at a local big box retailer.He bought a santuko style and a butcher knife style (both were $ 9.99 each)
    I was amazed to learn that 3 years later he is still using them in his restaurant and tells me they are just as good as the expensive ones he has bought in the past.