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DROP DEAD CULINARY

Cooking advice: Sharpen your knife knowledge

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See other videos and columns by Laura Wilson at http://bit.ly/DropDeadCulinary

Germans, Japanese build top ones; make sure they fit your hand.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012 - 12:01 am

Q. I want to upgrade my knives. What do I need?

A. Knives...how I love them! I could wax poetic about knives for days. Buying a new knife for a chef is like buying a pair of Jimmy Choos for a Real Housewife. Knives are a big investment, but one that will last your lifetime and longer if you care for them properly.

There are several types of knives, but not too many as to totally boggle the mind. The big leaders used to be, and to a large extent still are, the Germans. Because they are great engineers, they excel at developing knives that are sharp, weighted well and forged with the finest steel. (I cannot understand this — since the U.S. has so much iron, why don't we excel at culinary knives? We do make very good hunting knives.) Some of the leading German knife makers are J.A. Henckels and Wusthof. Since I own many Wusthof knives, I will write about them concerning German knives.

Wusthof uses a 40-step process to forge its knives. They are made from one piece of steel, with the steel running all the way through the handle. This part of the knife is called the tang. The company then cuts holes in the tang and enrobes the wood or plastic around it, securing it with rivets. Rivets are used instead of screws because rivets can support the load and angles of your cutting whereas screws cannot. Then they are hand-sharpened. A laser beam then checks the precision, angle and accuracy of the sharp edge of the knife.

If you buy a Wusthof or a Henckels knife, or probably any other German knife, you can rest assured that it has been manufactured properly. Your concern now is what kind of handle do you pick and what kind of knife? There are ceramic handles, which are way too fragile for everyday use. Forget them. There are plastic handles, which lower the cost of a knife significantly. The only problem with plastic is that it might chip and is not as long-lasting nor as durable as wood. Some might say, “Well, you can put the plastic-handled knives in the dishwasher, whereas you could not with wood.” If a salesperson says that to you, call the manager of the store over and have them fired on the spot! A sane person would never, ever, put a high quality knife in the dishwasher! Why? Dishwashing soap is very harsh and will pit the sharp edge of your knife, enough to ruin it over time. You have paid a lot of hard-earned money for that knife and you must take care of it. Wood is the best handle and the most comfortable in your hand.

There are ergonomic handles, regular handles, black handles, white handles. Hold them, pretend to chop, feel them and test the weight to see if you like them. Take your time when making this purchase. I like a 10-inch chef's knife, but a shorter woman might prefer an 8-inch knife. See what you like and be logical (not my personal strong point).

Closing in fast on the German manufacturers, and some might say surpassing them, are the Japanese knife companies. These Japanese knives are beautiful and often have an even thinner edge. They are also made at a less sharp angle, so you really need that Japanese honer and knife sharpener that accompanies them in the knife display to keep your knives at the correct angle. A Japanese knife is angled anywhere between 15 to 18 degrees, whereas a German knife is between 19 and 25 degrees. The Japanese knife makers make some Damascus steel knives, which are exquisitely layered and beautiful. (They also make fake layered knives, but don't stoop to that level. Better to pay for a great regular knife than to own a wannabe.) The Japanese knives are designed to filet fish and do very fine slicing and dicing. I love mine. It helps me make the most slender slices of vegetables and fruits. But I know better than to use my 10-inch Shun chef's knife when cutting a block of chocolate or nuts. For hard things, I get out the sturdy German knives and chop away.

Lastly, the very best blade of all is not stainless steel, but carbon steel. Carbon steel can be polished to a very sharp edge and keeps sharpness longer. Chefs love them. The big drawback, and the reason they are not very popular with households, is that a carbon steel knife is not pretty and will rust. But you just clean it with a little oil and it comes right off. Think of it as you do your cast iron skillet, which has the same problem, but is an awesome skillet. It is worth the effort. Here is a little fact about carbon steel knives: A carbon steel knife was responsible for Julia Child meeting her lifelong friend, Avis Devoto. Avis' husband, a well-known journalist, wrote an article in Harper's about how difficult it was to find an American knife that would keep its sharp edge. Julia read this article while in Paris and sent him her favorite carbon steel knife, along with a little note. The rest is history. Avis was the person behind getting “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” published. You can read all about their wonderful friendship in “As Always, Julia,” a great book by Joan Reardon.

You do not need a matched set of knives; use some of this kind and some of that, depending on your needs.

Please remember to keep your knives in a slotted wood holder in your drawer, or in a wooden block on the counter. Wood has give and is the best thing to cradle them.

Set your family straight on the horrors of the dishwasher before you even take your knives out of their box! Tell little Tommy these knives are absolutely not tools. (I am a little touchy on this because my youngest son took my new Bird's beak knife and tried to unscrew something, breaking the tip.)

Hone them properly and sharpen them only when needed because every time you sharpen them, you take off a tiny amount of steel. The difference between the honer and the sharpener is one you must know.

Some people, incorrectly, I might add, refer to the honer as the sharpening steel. The honer is the steel piece that has a handle on it and ridges on the steel. This device allows you to straighten your knife.

A straight knife is a sharp knife. It also takes off infinitesimal knicks and burrs on the blade. A sharpener is the device that you run your knife through when it begins to become dull.

There are several types of sharpeners, the best one being a whetstone, but using this takes a bit of practice and finesse.

You want to get the honer and sharpener that go with your nationality of knife because they will keep your knives at the proper angle.

Lastly, when you go to purchase a new knife, hold lots of them until you find one that fits your hand, body type, and culinary

Laura Wilson, owner of La Dolce Vita in Roanoke, is a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She answers questions in The News-Sentinel every other Tuesday. Have a question for Laura? Submit it to clarson@news-sentinel.com or call 461-8284. We'll pass on questions to Laura. This column is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of The News-Sentinel.