Sharp as a Knife

It's been a long journey since I decided I needed a new chef's knife, did all the knife research, and eventually bought the knife. Looks like it was about a year and a half.

Of course, I didn't just purchase a knife. Oh, no. I was going on a life quest to become Serious about my knives. To do the knife thing properly. And, in order to be prepared for my new knife-owning lifestyle, I had to be prepared to sharpen my knives myself. Not with a sharpener. With whetstones.

Oh, it was to be glorious. I would see my knives getting dull, and say, "Now is the time where I, with my serious knife lifestyle, will make the knives razor-sharp. Well, knife-sharp. And I will know that nothing is beyond my power."

A year and a half later, and no knives had been sharpened. The collection of whetstones sat in a cupboard in the kitchen like so many lace doilies, waiting for a day that might never come.

Well, that day finally came.

Shun Classic Chef's Knife with whetstones

The In-Laws were visiting last week, and Melanie's mother owns a Shun paring knife (one of the Alton's Angle ones), and apparently at some point after October of 2008 I offered to sharpen it if it ever became dull. Of course, it might have been Melanie who, thinking I was silly for paying all that money for whetstones I probably would never use, offered my sharpening services. Time dulls memory, and it's hard to know which story is more likely.

In any case, the knife was dull, and she brought it for sharpening. The time for delays was over.

Most of my trepidation with sharpening wasn't about the knives or even the sharpening process itself. If I did a poor job of it, as long as I didn't keep at it for too long, the worst that would happen is that I would have to take the knives to a local shop to have them sharpened. Not a big deal.

As with most projects that never get started, my problem was with the little details, like where to do the sharpening. Some of the videos I had seen show people outside at a table set up with all of their whetstones in a row and a bottle of water that they can pour over the whetstones when they are in danger of drying out. Well, if I did something like that, then I'd want the weather to be nice, and I'd need a table outside, and possibly to have the hose set up to provide moisture, and so on. That set up never happened, so knives slowly started to dull.

When push came to shove, I lubricated the whetstones with the kitchen faucet, then placed them on the island where I could sit down and sharpen them. If they looked a bit parched, I went back over to the sink. It was not a great hardship. If I were sharpening 100 knives, it would be a great hardship. For 10 knives, it was pretty simple.

With the logistics out of the way, I could finally sharpen. I'm not really planning on discussing technique, because I've had one sharpening session based on information I pulled off of conflicting sources from the internet. My knives are sharp, but I can't say that what I did was the best way to do it. Suffice it to say that, at the end of the day, previously dull knives could now cut a piece of paper in twain if such were my wont.

Instead, I will give you a video from the No Reservations Twitter feed that promises knife instruction. It's somewhat appropriate, as Anthony Bourdain is largely to blame for me deciding I needed this lifestyle change, so hopefully this video will help any others who have been similarly urged into sharpening knives. The technique demonstrated in this video is not how I did it, but I may give this technique a go next time.

Am I a better person for this experience? It's such a philosophical question. From a personal perspective, I now have a more direct connection with my kitchen tools that didn't exist before. If the apocalypse comes, I can still have sharp knives without needing any electricity or help from a third party. These are good things. From a social perspective, point at ten people on the street: will they be able to sharpen their own knives? Chances are maybe one of them can, so that must make me better than, what, 90% of all people on the street.




Hardcore cooking - Knives. Part 3: The purchases

In the first part of this series, I told about my general difficulties with insisting that I be a proper cook even if I'm not a proper chef. Also that I am looking for a new knife. In the second part, I discussed the various research that I performed, and gave a few tricks for doing your own research on similar topics.
So, after all that work, did I get a good knife? Did I decide to outsource the sharpening? Am I mad? Yes, I am quite mad. For the knife, I purchased an excellent knife.
That is the Shun Classic 10-Inch Chef's Knife, and it is lovely. It's not as lovely as the Ken Onion knife I originally wanted, but the Classic had a couple of advantages. First, it was slightly cheaper. Second, although the Onion looked very comfortable, I was concerned that, as with the global knives, they wouldn't stand up to long-term usage the way a knife with a more traditional grip would. Of course, during all of my research, I was thinking about MAC knives and all sorts of other crazy Japanese brands. Why didn't I go with those? The short answer is: availability. There was no way for me to try those knives out, so I'd have know way of knowing how well they fit my hand. I could have extended the search for several months, locating retailers who had samples to try and compare, but in my heart I knew I loved the Shun, so there was really no reason not to get it. Maybe one day I will open the search up again, but I am quite happy for the foreseeable future. 80085_1_n.jpgFor the sharpening, well… I couldn't let my manhood go uncontested. Therefore, I have purchased a Standard Knife Sharpening Set from Epicurean Edge. Not a machine, which while acceptable if you get the proper brand and model is not nearly manly enough. No, I have a set of stones with 4 levels of grit. This will allow me to ensure that not only will my knives never be dull, but that I can remove any sort of damage from the edge. Mind you, I've been told that I will be maintaining every knife in our collection now, not just my Chef's Knife. Which is fair, I think, though I may be paring down the selection before too much time passes. After all, I don't even use most of those knives now.

Hardcore cooking – Knives. Part 2: The Research

In Part 1 of this story, I described how my conscience is Anthony Bourdain and that I needed to spend far too much effort finding a knife. In Part 2, I will detail that effort.
First, I had to consider what I already knew about knives. I've been trained, briefly, on holding a knife with a pinch grip, where the back of the blade is between the thumb and forefinger of the knife hand, and the other three fingers hold the handle. I knew that comfort is one of the most important things to consider. And I knew that some knives are harder to sharpen than others, while some knives hold their edge better that others. I also knew how and why to steel a knife. So, all told, not that much. Thus I turned to Google to answer my questions. I started by looking for phrases like "only chef's knife I'll ever need" or "best chef's knife in the world", but those were predictably useless search phrases. Still, have to start somewhere. Eventually, I made my way to some forums related to cooking, specifically the ChefTalk Cooking Forums. This was a handy place to go, because there's a section on cooking equipment reviews. From ChefTalk, I saw a recommendation to visit (and this is where it gets dangerous) knife enthusiast forums. Places such as Knife Forums. The great thing about Knife Forums dot com is that there's a well-developed community of generally nice people who are enthusiastic about their hobby and willing to help anyone who might be interested in sharing it. If that doesn't sound dangerous, then I may have to explain. One of the great and terrible things about the internet is that, although you can still be a freak, you will never be a lonely freak. Across the world, or even just the countries where people speak the same language you do, there will be a hefty number of people who share your interest. If those people are polite and have a nice community to form around, then good feelings abound whenever they are there. Life cannot be spent entirely on the internet, though, so when one ventures into the real world, the percentage of people who share or at least tolerant of your interest dwindles rapidly. Often, your spouse is one of those people on the other side of that percentage, especially if your hobby is expensive. The major side effect of this is that, consciously or no, you will feel better about yourself if you bring more people into your realm of interest. Understand: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this process, as long as nobody's getting hurt. It's not dangerous because it's wrong. No, it's dangerous because I can obsess about things, and I can latch on to these interests with ease, delving into it until I am, if not an expert, at least able to sound like one to someone with passing familiarity on the subject. That's why I have my own food web site. The especially dangerous thing is that knife collecting and maintenance, as with any hobby, can be extremely expensive. Once you know how to speak the language and where to find the right places to buy and how to differentiate between a great knife and a near-perfect knife, you are in serious danger of a spousal talking-to. Here's a tip for knowing when you're in dangerous territory: look for the acronym SWMBO. The faster you find it, the more alluring and expensive the hobby. Why? SWMBO means "She Who Must Be Obeyed," and if a man speaks of the SWMBO, that means he either treads the line of overspending on the joint credit cards or that he has crossed it. The more it appears, the more you know this hobby has its murky waters. It took me less than 10 minutes of casual browsing before I found a "SWMBO," and that told me I was in the right place. Here are the highlights of what I discovered:
  • Global's used to be very trendy, but many people found that the ergonomic handles caused some repetitive stress injuries over time;
  • Shun's are currently topping the trendy list, which means that they are expensive, but still they are good knives;
  • For a really good price/performance ratio on a chef-quality knife, MAC is the way to go;
  • The Wustoff Le Cordon Bleu is awfully good for a European knife;
  • In general, Japanese knives can hold a better edge than European knives, because Japanese knives use better steel;
  • When you get into it, the Japanese don't corner the market on good steel, but you're going to have to learn some specialized terminology, which I was not quite willing to do;
  • Really good knives can cost well over $1000, and I should just ignore all of those posts because that way lie dragons;
  • Sharpening a knife is really not very hard, and besides, and a Real Man should sharpen his own knives.*
Dammit. I mean, what should I expect from a knife forum, right? Of course they are going to recommend sharpening your own knives, and they will think less of you if you don't. I mean, they won't say they'll think less of you, but you'll feel it over the WiFi connection. So that kicked off a number of avenues of research on sharpening, much of which is fraught with conflicting advice from people who seem to know a lot more than I do, which means that, for the beginner, you can probably follow any of it and be fine for several years. The basics of the advice are:
You know what? This is foolish. I am not a knife sharpening expert. However, here is a lovely and detailed post that will give you all of the information you need on sharpening knives. There are other posts on various forums, and plenty of videos from experts and expert-adjacents, but that should get you through. On the next and what should be the final part of this series on Knives, I will tell all about what I decided to purchase, as well as any final thoughts I may have on the process. *- Or Real Man analogue, if you're feeling like the language was sexist and that I wasn't accounting for the fact that women can also be bullied into taking the hard route because they lack Fortitude. If that is your preference, feel free to post in the comments an analogous phrase to Real Man that fits you better.

Hardcore cooking – Knives. Part 1: The Conundrum

I have a dreadful secret: the voice of my conscience is Anthony Bourdain. Well, maybe not me entire conscience. That would probably be bad for my health and my marriage. Strictly speaking, it's my cooking and cooking persona conscience that gets the Bourdain treatment. If I'm thinking of chopping up some vegetables in the food processor, I hear, "Julia Child, for example, raised people's expectations of food. When Rachael tells you that it's perfectly O.K. to buy prechopped onion from the supermarket... I mean, how hard is it to chop an onion? The takeaway is, I could cook, but [instead] I'll finish this bag of Cheetos and that gallon of Diet Pepsi before dying of diabetes." Were Anthony Bourdain to come over to my home during a particularly boring episode of No Reservations, and he watched me cook and ate my food, I would like for him to say to the camera that, while not a professional chef, I at least took it seriously. I would probably have Julia Child's voice in my mind, but I've seen a lot more Bourdain recently than Child, but the idea is the same: even if I'm not in a professional kitchen, I try to take cooking seriously. I study, I learn, I practice, and I try not to take the easy way out if I can avoid it. Sure, there's some occasional pain, and sometimes I'm slower than I might be, but it's all for the greater good. And I'm sure the food tastes better. Sometimes the fight between convenience and being hardcore is a close struggle, filled with compromise and bitter recriminations. (That sounds appropriately dramatic.) Such was the case with the choice of what to do about a new chef's knife. Before starting the research, I was pretty sure that I wanted the Ken Onion Chef's Knife. It's beautiful, from a reputable company, and beautiful. It's also very pretty. [amtap amazon:asin=B0007IR2MO] Still, it's pretty expensive, and you don't just want to jump into something like this without preparation. That would be…not serious. So I did some research. Then some more research. Followed by research. Then I realized that the question was bigger than I had realized. Research research research. Ask around. Google. Agonizing. Then, finally, purchase. Well, purchases. The basic idea was that I wanted The Chef's Knife. I own several chef's knives, and while I tend to favor some over other, I generally treat them as interchangeable pieces based upon, ahem, which one happens to be clean at the time. I'd decided it was time to settle down with The Chef's Knife, whom I could love and care for properly. So all I'd have to do is pick one and… wait, did I say "care for properly"? Gahhh. Knife maintenance is an issue that separates the Serious Cook for the enthusiastic amateur. Anthony Bourdain? Sharpens his own knives. At least, he did in culinary school and before, so I'm going to presume that he kept it up. Alton Brown does not, and recommends having a professional do the work. Hmmm. So what to do? Those of you familiar with three paragraphs ago may guess that the answer was "research," and so it was. How hard is it to sharpen a random knife, really? How expensive are the proper tools? For the knife I end up getting, will it be easier or more difficult than average? Am I a crazy person for even considering it? Now you know the difficult road that lay ahead of me. Next time, I'll summarize the research, and give a bunch of links to useful resources.