New to the knife world, with some questions
- RealMenJulienne Jul 8, 2011 12:12 PM
Hello, I'm new to this board but I've done a lot of reading in the past few days researching chef's knives for a wedding present (I ended up buying them a Victorinox 8"). It seems like the common theme from all my reading is that you don't need to spend big bucks on a knife, as long as you have a regular sharpening strategy. Speaking as a guy who does 95% of his cooking with a no-name $5 Chinese cleaver sharpened on a $4 coarse stone, I am wondering how far you can take this philosophy. Since they all get dull and require sharpening eventually, what's the difference between a cheap Farberware, a midrange Victorinox, and a pricey Wusthof? Is it just edge-holding ability you are buying?
Also, I have no idea if I am sharpening my cleaver correctly, or if it is sharp 'enough' by hobbyist standards. I've never even approached shaving sharp, but after 10 minutes of work on both edges I can split a piece of copy paper with a draw cut. Is this good enough?
"I'm new to this board "
"Is it just edge-holding ability you are buying?"
Many aspects really, but edge holding ability is a very noticible one, as you said. Easy of sharpening is also an important factor. I do want to clarify that that there is the "edge forming ability" which is lowest/sharpest edge angle a steel can support, and "edge retention ability" which is the ability to maintain the edge. The edge retention ability is really a mix of three things: hardness, toughness and wear resistance.
"I've never even approached shaving sharp, but after 10 minutes of work on both edges I can split a piece of copy paper with a draw cut. Is this good enough?"
I think it is entirely up to you as in what is sharp enough. What is sharp enough for me may not be sharp enough for you. For me, I like to keep my knives sharp enough, so that they can at least do two things: (1) able to shave hair from my arm, (2) push cut a paper (not slice). Push cut a paper is cutting a paper with a pure up and down motion. It is like slicing a paper, but you don't pull nor push the knife, just pure up and down.
Actually, the ginsu comment exactly illustrates why the hair shaving method is such a good test. You can get a ginshu knife to cut some foods, however horrible they may be at the tasks, but you cannot get a ginshu to shave hair. This is why I think paper push cutting test and hair shaving test are so easy for communication. Afterall, that is the very formal definition of razor sharp knife, right? :) It is also why it is wrong to call a ginsu knife as razor sharp -- it is nowhere close having the sharpness of a razor.
Is it good enough for you? Nobody else can decide for you.
I don't feel that it's strictly a matter of keeping the edge sharp - there is indeed a difference in the styles and in the actual make-up of the steel itself (including how thick it is, how much it weighs and how it's finished) that affects the way a knife slices through meat, vegetables, etc. To see for yourself, and to see if indeed you ought to be happy with the sharpness you are using, get something to compare it to. If you know a friend that has a well maintained high quality knife, borrow it. Maybe you can mail order a knife that you know comes with a good edge with the understanding that you can return it if not satisfied. Dice an onion, slice carrots, cube meat... just do the things you normally do, but do it side by side with the cleaver and the new knife.
All the tests you read about (shaving arm hair, slicing loose newspaper, even cutting the thumbnail) are useless compared to actually using the blade in the way you're going to use it.
My personal conclusion was that the VG-10 blade was so much lighter and easier to use than the equivalent style US 440A. The German Solingen steel Victorinox was closer to the Japanese blade in weight and thickness because it was stamped - but it was not as strong, and it definitely didn't stay sharp as long as the VG-10 (OTOH, it was easier to sharpen). The first time I sliced an onion and felt the knife just splitting it apart with almost no effort, I fell in love with the sharpness and thinness - also, absolutely no spraying of onion juices - no crying.
There are a lot of details. Understanding the difference between tearing and cutting is important. Many folks use cheap serrated knives and think that because they slice tomatoes ok, they are sharp. In fact, the angled edges are just grabbing the surface better than a dull straight edge would, but then you're just tearing the flesh - causing cellular damage and squirting juices all over. While not as exaggerated, using a flat blade that has not been honed or finished on a fine stone does basically the same thing. It's possible to use a stone and not put the sharpest of edges on, but improve the "grabbing" capability.
Ultimately, it's all about how comfortable and productive you are using the blade. You just owe it to yourself to at least try the more expensive options before deciding that you don't need it.
As a relative newcomer to both quality knives and knife sharpening with waterstones, I'd say that using a really sharp knife is one of those pleasures that you don't really appreciate until you've experienced it. And having experienced it, it's impossible to go back.
It's amazing (and fun) to be able to slice and chop soft, ripe tomatoes without making a mess, to cut transparent, paper-thin slices of garlic, to finely chop onions without crying, to feel almost no resistance when you slice up a head of cabbage for coleslaw, to lop the ends off an onion while holding it over the sink, and (one of my favorites) to hold a stalk of celery over a pot and cut slices off the end in the air so they just drop into the soup.
I think this degree of sharpness is made possible by three basic characteristics of the knife: 1) the use of high-quality steel, 2) a more acute sharpening angle (made possible by the high-quality steel), and 3) a thinner blade (ditto). You mention only Western brands in your post, but I've found that these three characteristics are more typical of Western-style Japanese knives, many of which are made of VG-10 stainless steel and sharpened to 16 degrees (rather than the usual 20 degrees for Western knives).
I'd suggest you try a Japanese knife and see how you like it. Sure, some of them may be super-expensive, but many are quite reasonably priced. If you sharpen it up on a 1000-grit waterstone and strop it a bit on an old belt with some chromium oxide rubbed on it, you should be able to push-cut paper easily. Sure, push-cutting paper is kind of meaningless, since we are really interested in the performance of the knife when cutting food. But I've found it to be a quick and easy test, especially during sharpening. When my blade can push-cut paper every centimeter along its length from tip to heel, I know it's ready to go.
The experts here at Chowhound have been really friendly and helpful since I first started getting into knives and sharpening a couple of years ago. I'm sure that you will get a lot of interesting and informative responses to your post. Have fun!
re: tanuki soup
Good to hear from you. I think you hit a lot of good points. Sometime ago, JuniorBalloon asked the question: "Why would I need a new knife?" and his thread turned out to be an outline of his journey for finding the enjoyment of a high quality knife. This is not to say everyone need a high quality knife, but in his case, he did find the pleasure in doing so. I asked him how would the “new him” answer the “old him” regarding the justification of obtaining a high quality knife. He answered his own original question:
‘Look jb, you have to figure that out for yourself. We can tell you about all the different mfg's, the steel they use and why they hold a better edge, but in the end you'll have to figure out if that's enough to say you "Need" a new knife. A good quality knife will cut with less effort, they are more precise and easier to handle, but if you haven't used one you may not have a point of reference. Utlimately both will put dinner on the table, but I can say from personal experience it is more fun to use the good knife.
I think he articulated in a very impressive and insightful manner.
I also agree with you that there are many good knives at reasonable prices. A $80 Tojiro DP gyuto probably can go toe-to-toe with many $120-150 Chef’s knives. The $5-10 Kiwi knives can beat any $20 Henckels International knives…etc. As for pushing cutting paper test, it is a good gauge. Surely it is not the only method for gauging a knife, but it is a very easy meter for communicating with another person. When someone says “my knife is sharp enough for me to cut a tomatoes”, it can be very unspecific because any functional knife should at least able to do just that. You and I know a very sharp knife can cut a tomato much cleaner and smoother than an semi-sharp knife, but they both cut nonetheless, so it can be very difficult to get the point across by writing. What does "cutting smoothly" or "cutting with precision" really mean? Whereas the paper push cutting can really set apart a very sharp knife from others. A very sharp knife can push cut a thin paper. You can either do it or not. There is little room for interpretation.
re: tanuki soup
"Sure, push-cutting paper is kind of meaningless, since we are really interested in the performance of the knife when cutting food.But I've found it to be a quick and easy test, especially during sharpening. When my blade can push-cut paper every centimeter along its length from tip to heel, I know it's ready to go. "
Push cutting thin paper cleanly, easily, and without much sound is also predictive of your knife's ability to do this:
Unfortunately, it's not predictive of the knife-user's ability to do so.
But yeah, basically what Tanuki said - it's a handy test to see how your sharpening is progressing. It translates to cutting food - some foods and some cuts more than others - but isn't the be-all, end-all test of knife sharpness.
A) There is more difference between a cheap knife and an expensive one than just edge retention. An expensive knife may indeed have better retention - it also may have improved geometry making the knife feel 'sharper' when it isn't; it may take a better edge or be easier to sharpen; it may be more beautifully crafted, more attractive or unique. Problem is, not all of these attributes necessarily apply at the same time. For example, a Wusthof Classic is more expensive than a Forschner, but IMO the Forschner actually has better geometry for what it is.
There are comparatively cheap knives that work quite well - dropping 3 figures on a knife is seldom an act of necessity. That said, I'm quite happy that I've tried out and invested in some nicer knives. And once you've used an extremely sharp knife, it's hard to go back. Just because it's enjoyable.
B) 'Sharp' is often a verrrry subjective term. In a sense, 'sharp' really just means 'sharp enough for me.' This is why plenty of people claim their knife is sharp while guests to their kitchen find they can barely cut an onion.
But I think there is a more objective - and pertinent - scale of sharpness. It goes:
Level 1 - So dull as to be useless for most tasks (think a butter knife)
2 - Sharp enough to cut, but too dull to use proper technique for most cuts. Using a serrated blade as your main knife also falls in this category.
3 - Sharp enough to use or learn good cutting technique for most cuts - may still have trouble with quick up-down chops on soft food
4 - Very sharp
The most important thing, IMO, is to get to level 3. That's what makes the biggest difference to your cooking and your efficiency - using good technique and having a knife sharp enough to do that. It seems from your post that your knife is up to the job .
My additional descriptions :P
Level 1: Dull knives which can barely cut anything without tearing. Cannot slice paper.
Level 2: Sharp enough to cut but need excessive energy to cut and usually tear meats. These knives are barely sharp enough to slice printer papers but often just tear the papers instead. They are not sharp enough to shave hair or to push cut paper.
Level 3: Usually sharp enough to slice paper smoothly but not enough to push-cut papers. May occasionally able to shave one or two strands of hair, but not enough to shave cleanly -- cannot really call these knives razor sharp.
Level 4: Sharp enough to push cut printer papers and often thinner paper like newspaper. Sharp enough to shave hair very cleanly -- a more honest definition of a razor sharp knife.
That Saltdog youtube video has a knife which fully satisfies level 4 sharpness. Most people's knives are between level 2 and level 3.
Thanks guys, this was a really good primer for understanding what makes a expensive knife cost more. The clarification between edge holding, edge building, and edge retention especially made a lot of sense.