Friday, December 11, 2009

Knives

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Sorry about the brief hiatus.  No excuses.  I’ve just been a little lazy recently.  I thought it’d be a good time to talk about my knives now since I put them to really good use this past weekend. On Monday, I helped cook dinner at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter. We made chicken pot pie, green beans, salad, and caramelized apples with cranberries. I was responsible for sourcing everything and preparing enough chicken pot pie filling for 50 people ahead of time.

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Determined from the get go to make the filling from scratch (even down to the stock, which added a robust chickeniness you can’t find in a can), I had to do a fair amount of mise en place: cutting up 5 pounds of carrots, 3 pounds of celery, 6 pounds of onions, and breaking down 40 pounds of chicken. I was also planning on stemming, blanching, and shocking 12 pounds of green beans, but I simply ran out of time.  With that much mise en place to do, it turned out to be a great opportunity to practice my basic knife skills.

You’ll notice, from left to right in the top picture, that I have an 8” chef’s, 7” santoku, 10” serrated bread knife, 2 paring knives, and a 7” nakiri.  My first three knife purchases were the 8” chef’s, the Victorinox paring knife, and the Victorinox serrated bread knife.  Many people consider these three types of knives to be the three knives you really need if you were to only own the essentials.

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The 8” Shun Classic chef’s knife pictured above was my first “real” knife.  I first heard of Shun knives reading through Alton Brown’s book on kitchen gear.  The combination of a Western style blade, Japanese edge/steel/handle intrigued me.  Before I learned of Shun knives, I was already a fan of the Japanese-style D-shaped handles.  My grandma’s Chinese clever had a similar handle that I really enjoyed.  I’ve had this knife for about a year now, and it’s served me well.

The sharpness of the blade straight out of the factory was something I was not accustomed to.  Things became almost effortless, and turned the drudgery of mise en place into a really good time.  Rarely did I have tears from cutting onions anymore because the blade was so sharp.  Also, having a dull knife is one of the most dangerous things in the kitchen.  Not having to ever force my knife through everything made me feel safer and more confident to really start blazing through my mise.

I find the balance agreeable, but the spine can irritate my index finger after cutting for a few minutes.  I use the standard pinch grip, and the spine’s 90 degree edge can start rubbing me the wrong way, literally.  But after a solid year as my primary workhorse, I need to get it sharpened as the edge is noticeably duller compared to the recent 7” Shun Classic santoku.  I’ve heard that Northwest Cutlery is a good place to get knives sharpened, but I haven’t had a chance to head over there yet.  I did contemplate getting a sharpening stone and learning to sharpen my knives myself, but I’m too afraid of ruining things beyond repair.

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I made my second knife purchased crudely based on Amazon.com reviews.  I was looking for a cheap, but good, paring knife to offset the cost of my recently purchased Shun.  The Victorinox paring knife fit that need and it did not disappoint.  The edge was really sharp, and I liked the textured handle.  Overall it’s worked out great as my primary paring knife.  It wasn’t later that I found out that Victorinox had legitimate credibility for making great kitchen knives, as Cook’s Illustrated uses their cheap yet amazing awesome chef’s knives in their test kitchen and uses it as their measuring bar for all other chef’s knives.

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To round complete my set of essential knives with a serrated knife, I again wanted to find something cheap.  I found myself again choosing a Victorinox knife.  Their paring knife impressed me so much that I didn’t give buying this knife a second thought.  It cut through tomatoes with easy, and even though my Shun was sharp enough to cut easily through tomatoes as well, the serrated blade made it easier.IMG_4418

With my set of essential knives complete, I looked into buying the Shun honing steel.  I’d been honing my 8” chef’s with some random honing steel, but I was always so paranoid that my angle wasn’t correct or ideal.  This would cause me to hone it a lot less than I should have.  To remedy this, I bought the very convenient Shun honing steel.  As you can see, it has a nice guide on the side: just line the blade up flush to the guide and you have the perfect angle that Shun themselves recommends you hone your knives at.  It’s worked great until I recently got my magnetic knife strip.  While testing out the strip, I made the grave mistake of putting the steel on the strip for a bit too long.  This resulted in the guide/guard becoming magnetized.  I’ve tried every trick in the book to try and demagnetize it besides running a current through it with no results.  Because of this, the blade will stick to the guide and create all sorts of problems when running the blade down the honing steel.  As a result, I’ve resorted to eyeballing it now, but I’ve been using this honing still with the same edge for so long that I can do it fairly confidently without the guide.

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I found my next purchase, the santoku, at T.J. Maxx for relatively cheap compared to online retailers so I had to snag it up.  I was taken by surprised that they had quite a few Shun knives, even the 8” chef’s, at a nice discount.  I actually prefer the balance of the santoku over the chef’s.  It’s slightly offset towards the handle, which gives me the perception that I have more control over the knife.  In reality, I do have more control over the knife though because it’s a shorter blade.  Honestly, I haven’t used the santoku too much because I really want to keep the edge as close to factory sharpness for as long as I can.  It may sound crazy or weird since I can always get it sharpened, but oh well.

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Having been impressed by the Shun knives I previously bought, I also picked up the Shun paring knife at T.J. Maxx.  Again, I was able to get a really sweet deal.  I’m not very adept at wielding a paring knife, and the fact that the Shun paring knife’s heel juts out a little makes me timid to use it to its fullest potential.  I’m always afraid of cutting myself with the heel when I hold it with a choke grip.  It doesn’t help that my choke grip probably isn’t proper because it feels so unnatural and awkward to me. 

However, I can say that the Shun paring knife is noticeably sharper than the Victorinox paring knife.  I often slice tomatoes, and when I do I like to cutting the stem out first with a paring knife.  With the Shun, I can simply leave the knife in place and rotate the tomato around the knife and out pops the stem.  However, with the Victorinox, I have to make some actual physical motions with the knife to get it to cut.  Still, I fall back to the Victorinox as my main paring knife.

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My most recent knife purchase was the Kiwi nakiri (Japanese-style vegetable knife).  I first discovered Kiwi knives sometime in the late 90s.  My mom bought a few kiwi steak knives from an Asian market and they were super sharp.  I didn’t really think about Kiwi knives until recently when I saw a Kiwi brand nakiri at my local Vietnamese market.  I’d been wanting a nakiri for a while.  Between a nakiri and gyuto, I knew one of those would be my next knife purchase.  I knew their steak knives were really sharp, so I did a bit of research and found that practically every professional and home cook in Thailand, Kiwi’s country of origin, uses Kiwi knives.  An entire country couldn’t be wrong, right?  Also, at about $5, it’s not like I was making a huge commitment.

I decided to go for it, and for the past several months it’s been my primary knife.  Not only is the edge sharpness comparable to the Shuns’, the fact that it cost only $5 means I don’t have to worry about babying it.  The wide blade also is grate for scooping food, and the extreme lightness of the blade makes it less stressful to use over really long mise en place sessions like last weekend.

However, the lightness of the blade is one of its downfalls.  At times when maneuvering the blade through something thick, the blade feels so flimsy and bends.  Another thing I don’t like so much, and this is really something inherent to all nakiris, is the lack of a pointy tip.  It’s a little hard to make precision slices with it because of this.  Finally, the handle is not the best with my hands and the pinch grip that I use.  I don’t find it as comfortable as the Shuns, but it’s not necessarily uncomfortable.  However, even with these faults, I still love using it as my primary knife.

Now that I have a nakiri, I’m really looking forward to buying a gyuto (translation: cow sword).  Cook’s Illustrated recently did a roundup review of gyutos, so I’ll probably use their findings as a launch pad for finding the right gyuto for me.  One thing that I’m hoping for is that the gyuto will be different enough from my Shun 8” chef’s since in many senses they are similar.  Guytos combine Western style blades with Japanese steel and edges.  Sounds a lot like Shun’s chef’s knives, no?  So then is the Shun chef’s knife considered a gyuto?  I’m not sure.

If I had to make any recommendations, I would not hesitate to recommend Kiwi knives because they are so cheap and so sharp.  They come in many styles, so you' should be able to find one that fits your needs.  I would recommend the Shuns with reservations, even though I really like them.  The spine’s edge irks me at times, and when you can get a Kiwi knife for $5 that has comparable sharpness, why spend the big bucks?

4 comments:

  1. I've been looking to invest in some knives. I'll have to keep an eye out for these. Do you still recommend a magnetic strip?

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  2. I like a magnetic strip because it saves counter space. As long as you put them on and take them off correctly, there shouldn't be a problem with dulling the knives. But if you want to be extra sure you can get this magnetic strip made of wood: http://ruhlman.theopenskyproject.com/mag-blok.html

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  3. I am glad we share the bond of Shun knives.

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  4. Guess who else has a Shun knife? The Bumblebee Man himself: good ole JP.

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