No, it’s not the Sub Zero French Door refrigerator with the custom paneling, the GE Advantium oven or the six-burner Wolf range. It isn’t even the 15 1/2-quart Le Creuset Dutch oven or the All-Clad copper core eight quart stockpot. It’s the most basic and essential tool in the kitchen, and like the katana was the very soul of the samurai, the kitchen knife is the soul of the kitchen.
But with literally hundreds of different kitchen knives on the market, where do you start deciphering which blade is the right one for you? Or more importantly, which blade will make the perfect Christmas gift for your special home cook?
Since I’ve purchased my fair share of kitchen knives over the years, I’ll try to provide some guidance on procuring that perfect soul of the kitchen.
The First Choice
The first basic choice you have to make is whether you desire a stainless blade, high carbon steel or ceramic blade. Stainless steel obviously doesn’t require as much care and retains its appearance for the life of the blade. High carbon steel does require a lot more care as it can rust, so immediate washing and drying after use is necessary, and it will darken over time, often in various shades. However, the major benefit of high carbon steel is that the blades are easier to sharpen, often with a sharper edge than stainless steel. Commercially available ceramic blades have a hardness approaching that of diamonds, but paradoxically are very brittle. Ceramic blades aren’t meant to cut very hard foods (i.e., frozen) and if you drop them on a hard surface, they probably will break. I have two Kyocera ceramic knives, including their ultra-hard Kyotop blade, but both knives have developed chips in both the cutting edge and spine despite meticulous care, so I wouldn’t recommend these blades
The other choice is whether you desire a dual beveled cutting edge or a single beveled edge. A single beveled edge holds its edge a little longer and is a lot sharper (like a wood plane, which can shave off paper thin slices of wood) but they are specific for right and left hand use, and though I’ve never had to sharpen my single beveled sashimi slicer, they appear to be a little trickier to sharpen.
My general recommendation for basic home use is a stainless steel dual beveled blade. The other options tend to be used more by professional than home chefs.
The All Purpose Blade
There actually are two all-purpose knives on the market, but since they both function similarly, selecting one over the other is basically a matter of aesthetics. The first is your basic chef’s knife, which is slightly rounded on both the top or spine of the blade, as well as the cutting edge and usually have a cutting edge between five to nine inches in length.
The other option is the Japanese Santoku (three virtues), which also has a slightly rounded cutting edge but a more severe curvature at the tip end of the spine. However, both the chef’s and Santoku blades are adept at slicing, dicing and mincing. I personally favor the Santoku blades, but it’s mainly due to aesthetics, as I feel they simply look better.
As the name implies, these blades are simply meant for slicing, whether it’s roast beef, pork, poultry or sashimi. Therefore, these are long narrow blades usually in the nine to 14-inch range. As I mentioned, I have a single beveled slicer that I use exclusively for sashimi since raw fish requires a single blade stroke — no “sawing” allowed — though I also have a dual beveled slicer used for roasted meats and poultry. Therefore, if your home cook already has a chef’s knife or Santoku but no slicer, this would be the perfect gift option.
Along with an all-purpose blade and a slicer, a serrated blade is the next knife that’s needed in all kitchens, whether it’s simply a bread knife, a tomato knife or the newer, new fangled, serrated blades on the market. I’m guilty of all charges as I have a bread knife, which is a single beveled long, thin blade with a scalloped cutting edge, a tomato knife, which is a thin, medium length blade with a micro reversed scalloped cutting edge and two other multi-purpose serrated blades.
The first multi-purpose serrated blade was created by Shun Cutlery, and is shaped like a rounded spatula, with a reversed scalloped cutting edge. Its primary use is for sandwiches, with the scalloped edge making it easier to slice through tomatoes, along with slicing bread and the finished sandwich and the rounded form allowing you to spread jams, jellies, mayonnaise or other sandwich spreads. Therefore, if your significant other makes a lot of sandwiches, you might want to consider the Shun utility knife.
Shun also makes a Dual-Density serrated blade with dual serrations — small reversed scalloped serrations are incorporated into a larger reversed scalloped edge. So if you’re considering a bread knife, the Dual Density blade slices any type of bread, but also can be used to “saw” through frozen foods.
The Nakiri or vegetable knife is a dual beveled thin flat blade with a rectangular shape that’s primarily used just for slicing and chopping vegetables. While a chef’s knife or Santoku can usually accomplish the same, a Nakiri can also handle most slicing, dicing and mincing chores. In fact, I went through four years of graduate school in the Bay Area with just a carbon steel Nakiri that I purchased at Cost Plus for $12.99 that I still have in use today. And although I still usually reach for my Santoku for basic kitchen prep work, I’ll reach for the Nakiri if I’m chopping a lot of vegetables.
Lastly, every kitchen needs a paring knife or small knife with a three-to-four-inch blade. Whether you’re simply removing the tomato core or slicing around the seed pith of a bell pepper, sometimes a short blade makes the job a lot easier and safer — imagine trying to remove a tomato core with the tip of an eight-inch chef’s knife. You would probably also remove some finger tips in the process. The key in purchasing a paring knife isn’t in the details of the knife itself, but in the purchase itself. Most manufacturers bundle knife sets and they often include a paring knife at little or no extra cost to the consumer. So look out for these deals … especially during the holidays.
Any One Manufacturer?
If all you’re looking for is a blade that does the job, look no further than the Global line of kitchen knives. Very sharp and a breeze to sharpen, they make easy work of any kitchen prepping task. However, if you also want a beautiful blade, the multiple Shun lines of kitchen cutlery offer the Damascus appearance, where the metal is folded several times creating a wavy pattern also seen at the edge of a katana. They aren’t as sharp as Global knives and they take more time to sharpen, but they are beautiful kitchen knives.
So, Which Soul Do I Reach For?
I believe I finally found the perfect balance between form and function, the Shun Dual Core line, which only includes three different blades, the Kiritsuke for all-purpose use, the Honesuki for boning and the utility blade for all-purpose use on smaller food items. They combine the sharp edge like the Global line, but their polished high carbon, high chromium Damascus steel is also like a piece of kitchen artwork. So my Kiritsuke is usually the first blade that hits my cutting board …
The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the University of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.