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.