Faced with a fresh tomato, I’ve always pulled out the hand-me-down Chicago Cutlery chef’s knife that I’ve used without hesitation for the past 10 years. So trusted was this friend, I failed to notice that its slice had gradually devolved from a once-perfect glide into messy surgery: first, puncturing the tomato’s skin with the knife’s tip, and then hacking the fruit’s flesh apart. With the summer harvest ahead of me, I realized it was time for an update. In this age of ultra-luxe kitchens with stoves and refrigerators that require mortgages of their own, the knife is sometimes overlooked, yet it’s the most important item in a cook’s arsenal.
Honing the Basics
The first stop on my blade quest was Portland Cutlery Company (536 SW Broadway), a venerable business that had been selling modern knives for cooking and hunting (as well as antique swords) for a hundred years before it closed its doors in January. Salesman Tom Moore explained a few universal truths about knife construction: (1) Most quality knives have forged blades made from steel with varying degrees of carbon content. (2) Traditional carbon steel blades require meticulous attention: a drop of water left on the blade—or worse, a few drops of acid from slicing a lemon—can cause the steel to discolor. (3) Stainless steel chef’s knives are versatile and require less maintenance; what is sacrificed in razor-sharp performance is made up for in convenience. (4) High-carbon stainless steel will keep a sharper edge and is resistant to discoloration and staining.
I eagerly voted for convenience. So Moore moved on to the nuances, explaining that along with maintenance, shape, weight, and feel there are other crucial elements to consider when choosing a knife. These vary depending on the blade’s style and source. Japanese knives are traditionally constructed by layering softer stainless steel over harder high-carbon steel, resulting in a slightly flexible, lightweight but durable knife. These are ideal for cutting the fruits, vegetables, and fish that make up most Japanese cuisine. German knives tend to be longer, are forged from a single piece of high-carbon or stainless steel, and feel heavier in the hand.
Moore brought out several examples of each kind. The first was from Shun, a line of Japanese-style knives by kai. Their cleaverlike Classic Santoku knife, with its flat blade, felt perfect for chopping a zucchini into uniform coins. Next, Moore showed me a German-style chef’s knife from Messermeister. Its considerable heft felt as if it would effortlessly slice through a mound of woody herbs.
Armed with this rudimentary knowledge, I continued to Sur La Table, where gleaming racks of Japanese- and German-style blades surrounded by high-end copper pots and culinary gadgetry had a more covetous effect on me. Within the store’s more extensive selection of Shun knives, I focused on a model designed by award-winning knife-maker Ken Onion. This high-end offering was designed with a careful eye toward ergonomics and balance. Resting in my hand, its perfect fit evoked a gleaming sports car, revving and ready for action.
Next up was a Santoku knife from Global ;a modern pick with a seamless one-piece construction. Not only was it sharp, it was quite easy to imagine it strewn elegantly next to a stainless stove while stylish guests sipped wine.
Fresh off the alluring Japanese knives, we moved on to some time-tested German classics: Wüsthof and Henckels. Both brands are well made and substantial, but the Wüsthof felt more balanced and suggested a little less fatigue during marathon chopping sessions.
I decided it was time for a chef’s opinion. Chris Israel and his partners opened the doors of Zefiro restaurant in the early ’90s, and Israel has since become one of Portland’s most accomplished chefs. His ability to be extravagant when necessary, and frugal otherwise, seemed like a valuable perspective in my hunt. “In a busy kitchen, knives take a beating,” he said, adding that keeping a knife maintained is fundamentally important. Elegance is nice, but for everyday use, Israel stands by his plastic-handled, high-carbon stainless steel Forschner knife. A solid workhorse of a tool, it performs extremely well, is easy to maintain, and will hold an edge through the toughest of culinary calisthenics.
Battle of the Blades
With so many opinions, I decided a side-by-side “cut-off” would be the best way to determine the right knife for my needs. In the running were the Shun Ken Onion, the Wüsthof Classic, and the Forschner. I ran them through a string of everyday cooking hurdles: each would have to julienne a zucchini, chiffonade basil, and dice a tomato—a veritable steeplechase that would reveal each knife’s distinctive qualities.
The Shun felt like a custom-made tool; my fingers snugly gripped the handle and my forefinger rested easily on top of the bolster. In the chiffonade and julienne tests, its consistency and precision led to delusions of culinary grandeur. But when I sliced into a tomato, my gleeful smile faded as the blade failed to glide through its flesh as well as I had predicted.
Though the Shun certainly made my old Chicago Cutlery look like a caveman’s tool, it wasn’t until I handled the Wüsthof that its shortcomings came into crisp focus. To my great satisfaction, the knife’s extra heft effortlessly guided the sturdy blade through the tomato’s soft flesh. My grip was more traditional—familiar, yet a bit contorted, which made the chiffonade and julienne tests slightly less consistent than they were with the Shun. But the tomato test made quite an impression.
The Forschner made an excellent dark-horse showing, performing all of the tasks with surprising efficiency. But its noticeably thin blade, plastic handle, and light weight all served as reminders of its lower price point. And while julienning the zucchini, I began to envision a callus forming on my index finger.
The final decision was vexing. With every fantasy of owning a sleek, gorgeous tool came a dose of practical utility. And every daydream of lightning-fast precision chopping was followed by memories of dirty dishes left indulgently to soak in the kitchen sink. So in the end I settled on the Wüsthof. Much as I like to fantasize about elaborate culinary experiences in an immaculate Food Network kitchen, alas, I am set in my ways: efficiency and utility are what really satisfy me from day to day.
More on the Knives
GLOBAL 7-INCH HOLLOWGROUND SANTOKU
This is an excellent Japanese style knife. A Santoku blade is similar to that of a cleaver and lends itself to slicing, dicing, and mincing. Global’s seamless construction gives the knife a more contemporary look. $95 at Sur La Table (surlatable.com)
SHUN KEN ONION 8-INCH CHEF’S KNIFE
This undulating Japanese knife is specifically designed to fit the culinary hand. Its unusual, ergonomic shape gives nice heft and balance and creates an excellent rocking action for chopping, but it’s not ideal for small finesse work. $200 at Sur La Table
WÜSTHOF CLASSIC 8-inch CHEF’S KNIFE
Classic workhorses loved by chefs everywhere, Wüsthofs are very well made and have incredibly sharp high-carbon steel blades. The versatile blade’s considerable heft gives the knife a comfortable, balanced feel. $100 at In Good Taste (231 NW 11th Ave, ingoodtastestore.com)
SABATIER 8-INCH CHEF’S KNIFE
What about France? Sabatier (sabatier.com) makes excellent knives that have a more triangular shape than German chef’s knives. This design improves precision but can make chopping more awkward. The carbon steel blade will hold a sharp edge longer than most knives, but it will discolor more easily. $80 at greatfrenchknives.com
KYOCERA 6-INCH CERAMIC CHEF’S KNIFE
Ceramic knives do not require regular sharpening and are best for slicing delicate ingredients with great precision—but they can chip on meat bones or if jarred. This is an ideal second knife: it’s always sharp, but lacks the proper balance for substantial tasks. $90 at Sur La Table