Friday, December 11, 2009

A cut above.

Of all of the literally thousands of kitchen tools and gadgets a cook can have, a good knife (or set of knives) is the most important. Oddly, it's the one to which most home cooks give the least thought, and the one on which they spend the least amount of money.

I began collecting knives over 30 years ago. As a wedding gift, I was given a mixed bag of German and French stainless steel knives: an eight-inch Wusthof chef's knife, a six-inch Henckel utility knife, a 10-inch Sabatier carving knife, and a four-inch Sabatier paring knife. I still have two of these, the six-inch Henckel and the four-inch Sabatier (the eight-inch chef's knife took one fall too many and the blade snapped, and god only knows what happened to the 10-inch Sabatier) and I still use them, though only rarely.

I have, of course, heard from "the experts" that the best blades are high-carbon steel, and that stainless blades are great for beginners, but that no serious cook would be caught dead using one. (This last bit is patently untrue. Most restaurant kitchens are equipped with the cheapest stainless steel knives that management can get away with for the simple reason that good knives tend to either get damaged or go walkies.) And while it's true that high-carbon is easier to sharpen, keeps an edge longer, and hones better than stainless, a good-quality stainless knife – that's maintained properly – will provide years of service.

Over the years I've added to my early collection with mixed results. My best buy is a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 100+-year-old French chef's knife that I got at a church rummage sale for $1.00. It's an amazing knife that sharpens easily, hones beautifully (more on the distinction between sharpening and honing in another blog), and is easy to maintain. My second-best buy was a mixed lot of knives that I got at an auction for $12.00 that contained a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 80+-year-old German chef's knife that, while tarnished, is as sharp as a razor, and a 10-inch, high-carbon steel, 80+-year-old butcher's knife (a thin, flexible, curved blade that's designed for tight work around bones). These three knives are the workhorses of my kitchen. I reach for them for everything from halving acorn squash to slicing tomatoes to carving chicken. With these knives in my arsenal, I knew I'd never need another knife again.

Well, so much for what I thought I knew.

I was recently given the opportunity to try a knife made by New West KnifeWorks, a small knife smithing company located in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The knife is "The 9" from New West's Phoenix collection, and it's a real beauty. It's a 9-inch, forge-welded, Damascus steel chef's knife that features a granton grind. (Huh?)

OK, let me break that down into language that's easier to understand. Forge welding is a process by which layers of metal are heated and then welded together. This can be done using the same metal or different metals, which are heated, folded over one another, and then pounded. This is the process by which samurai swords are made, and it's no coincidence that these blades are made in Seki, Japan, which has an almost 800-year history of sword making (Seki is sometimes called "Sword City" and is often likened to Solingen, Germany, home of Henckel and Wusthof).

Damascus steel refers originally to steel made in and around Damascus, Syria, but today simply means a process by which a pattern is left clearly visible on the blade (again, think samurai swords). While this is primarily cosmetic, it is a byproduct of the forge welding process, and attests to the strength of the blades. Yeah, but what the hell is a granton grind? You know those knives with scallops in the middle of the blade? Those are granton grinds. They're designed to reduce friction when slicing through wet, sticky things like roasts and russet potatoes while at the same time allowing you to make paper-thin slices of just about anything.

The chemistry of the New West knives is different, though, than that of many others. In the case of Phoenix blades – and I'll only talk about them, since I haven't used the Fusionwood line of blades – they're A-8 Japanese high-carbon, stainless tool steel that's clad in 410 Stainless Damascus Steel (HRC 58-59). All of that means they're a very hard steel that's used in making tools such as saw blades, drill bits, chisels, and other cutting tools, that's been wrapped in steel that's got a high-carbon, low-chromium content. The tool steel is durable and strong, and the 410 steel is minimally tarnish resistant and holds an edge better than high-chromium content blades. The result is a thin, somewhat flexible blade that will stay sharp and will easily take an edge.

The shape of the blade is a sort of a hybrid between the classic German and French designs (German: more of a curve toward the tip of the blade – good for chopping by using a rocking motion. French: more triangular toward the tip of the blade – good for using a slicing motion) with just enough of a curve to make chopping possible, but enough of the triangular shape to make slicing its true function.

So there, in a nutshell, is the technical stuff, but how's this puppy perform? In a word: beautifully. I've used the New West "The 9" exclusively over the past two weeks, and it does everything it's supposed to do. I carved a roast chicken with it and its flexibility allowed me to carve right next to the bone. I sliced tomatoes with it and its sharpness and thinness gave me nice, clean cuts, with no torn skin. I sliced raw tuna with it and ended up with sushi-like pieces. I sliced onions with it and got beautiful, paper-thin, translucent slices. I diced onion with it and got perfect 1/16-inch dice.

Normally before and after I use a knife, I use a steel on it (contrary to popular belief, this does not sharpen the knife, it just maintains the edge; I could get ├╝ber geeky here and explain the differences between sharpening and steeling, but enough science for one entry – you'll just have to trust me on this), but in order to make this a full test, I didn't steel the Phoenix blade for a couple of days, and I must say that I'm impressed with its ability to keep an edge. After slicing, chopping, carving, and dicing, I sliced another tomato (my benchmark), and the blade pierced the skin nearly as cleanly as it did after steeling. And when I accidentally brushed my finger against the edge of the knife as it was sitting there on my board, the resulting wound was clean, deep, and paper-cut thin.

When I did steel the blade, it took the edge beautifully, returning to its razor-sharp original state. While this, like all knives, will need to be sharpened, it won't require as much maintenance as a high-carbon steel knife does. Kudos, New West Knifeworks.

As for fit and finish, the Phoenix "The 9" is a full-tang blade that comes with a choice of handles: either wood or a Corian-like material. I chose the latter, as I felt it was more balanced. For me, the wooden handle was too light, making the knife blade heavy. This seems to be true of the Fusionwood line of knives, as well, all of which have wooden handles. The blade and handle are designed so that there's enough clearance between hand and board when chopping. Included with the knife is a custom leather case that will protect the blade much better than any cheap-ass wooden block ever could, adding value to the Phoenix "The 9" and making it even more of a pleasure to handle and to use.

But what price quality? This knife will set you back $199.00, which may seem like a lot, but considering the quality of this knife, you'll probably own it for the rest of your life (and your grandchildren will probably fight over it). Compared to a $175.00, 10-inch Henckel, it's a real bargain.

You can find the full line online at newwestknifeworks.com, or, until Christmas, you can go to the Bryant Park Holiday Crafts Fair to see them live and in person. And no matter where you go to buy this or any New West knife, tell them that Chris, the guy with the blog, sent you.

2 comments:

  1. Cool post, Chris.

    I confess to never owning any decent knives. Thanks for the primer, though.

    I'll set aside a few bucks and see if I can pickup a nice knife next year.

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  2. Thanks, Larry. As I said, a good knife is the most important tool in your kitchen.

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