Friday Food and Drink Post: Knives Out!

 

This post isn’t an update on the final days of Biden vs. Sanders and the Democrat primary nomination process, one which might be settled on Sunday night (if the proposed meet-up actually happens) in one of those ‘push-up contests’ Joe Biden is so fond of taunting his opponents with. (For some reason, unbidden and unwelcome images of septuagenarian Jack Palance at the 1992 Oscars keep springing to mind.) Nor is it a review of a recent movie, one which I did see, and which I enjoyed. I wasn’t sure about it for the first ten minutes, which jumped around a lot and were talky and a bit confusing, but once it settled down I was quite entertained, and rather charmed by Daniel Craig’s Kentucky Fried Performance as Benoit Blanc, although Craig said he based what passes for his accent on Mississippi historian Shelby Foote’s narration of Ken Burns’s The Civil War.

No. This post is based on last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, in which the lead story in the “Off Duty” section was titled: “Why pay $24,000 For a Kitchen Knife?”

Why indeed? (The full story is behind the paywall, but don’t worry: I’ve got your back.)

The article focuses on the craftsmanship of bladesmith Bob Kramer, whose one-of-a-kind knives regularly auction between $25,000 and $30,000, and one of whose knives, from the estate of the late chef Anthony Bourdain, recently fetched a cool quarter-million. Kramer’s knives demonstrate, the article says, “the elevation of the kitchen knife from primal tool to functional art object,” a move that Peter Hertzmann attributes to the rise of the open kitchen–just as “people displayed their status . . . with carving knives,” now that the lowly kitchen knife is more visible, the purchase of kitchen knives has come to “revolve more around appearance and perceived intrinsic value, rather than function.”

Glory be. The older I get, the more I’m aware that there are some trends in life that have either passed so far above my head, or so far beneath my feet, that I’m blissfully oblivious of them. Demonstrating my “social status” to my dinner guests via the spectacular uniqueness and value of my carving knife, and acquiring outrageously expensive kitchen knives which I can display prominently as some of the very few objets d’art in my humble abode, are just two more to add to the list, I guess.

Once the article has described Kramer’s gorgeous oeuvre, it settles into a run-down of some more affordable (although still pretty pricey) alternatives. There’s a sweet little Silverthorn boning knife with a super-thin and flexible blade (left). It’s very reminiscent of the knives I used to filet fish with in the 1970s, which didn’t start out that way, but which ended up looking pretty much like that after we had worn down both the thickness and width of the blades over the years by sharpening them by hand on a piece of sandstone. They had wooden handles, carbon-steel blades, and could be had at the Fisherman’s Co-Op, next door to the wharf, for about $1.50 (Canadian). The one pictured is a steal at just $185.

Tunnel Mosaic Damascus Chef 200mmOh, here’s a lovely one: An Anger Knives Tunnel Mosaic Chef Knife for $1,850 (right). This one is the creation of self-taught Vermont bladesmith Nick Anger, It is quite beautiful, hand crafted from made-in-house mosaic carbon Damascus, with “razor sharp tip,” and a lovely handle composed of “black-dyed maple, spalted maple, and micarta.” This article from The Take Magazine, is a fascinating overview of Anger, his forge, and his process, and it includes several photos of his beautiful knives.

You can find the Tunnel Mosaic chef knife for sale on this website, but don’t get your hopes up; it’s unavailable at the moment.

Another chef knife; this one a little smaller, the Zwilling Kramer Euroline Damascus Chef (left). This one will lighten your wallet to the tune of $400, and boasts a super-wide blade for the large-knuckled. (I think that’s supposed to stop you bloodying your knuckles on the work surface, rather than being an invitation to hack yourself to bits.) The blade on this one, which is made by skilled Japanese artisans, delivers “scalpel-like sharpness,” in which the blade’s core is protected by a 100-layer chevron Damascus (there’s that word again) pattern, and a “stunning black linen Micarta** handle.

While researching this post, I learned that the term “Damascus steel” nowadays hearkens back to true “Damascus” steel, once the world standard of quality (my ancestors from Sheffield might disagree), and also describes a modern method of production. According to the Damascus Knife Guide:

Modern Damascus steel is made by either forge-welding different types of steel together before twisting and manipulating the metal, or by flattening out and then folding a single type of steel in order to produce layers in the metal. Both these techniques result in the wavy, ‘organic’ pattern that is typical of Damascus steel kitchen knives.

The technique used to make modern Damascus steel is primarily for aesthetic reasons; however, the folding and refolding process does have the benefit of evening out any natural impurities in the metal.

Techniques such as acid etching can also be used to emphasise the unique pattern created by this process.

Ancient Damascus steel is entirely different to modern Damascus steel. The exact knowledge of how to produce ancient Damascus is now lost to history.

A Damascus knife can easily be identified by the wavy pattern that runs throughout the length of the blade. I discovered, when examining my own kitchen knives, that I do have one Damascus knife! It’s a Miyabi 600D Fusion chef knife, and was a gift from my stepson Sam. I also have a set of Henkels, which I bought over time and individually–a large chef knife, a bread knife, a boning knife, a prep knife, and a couple of paring knives. In addition, I have several (really) cheap paring knives, and a serrated utility knife. I sharpen my knives with a steel, sometimes (for old times’ sake) with a stone, and sometimes with this odd-looking thing, (another gift from Sam), which works pretty well.

Would you ever pay $24,000 (or even just $1,850, or $400) for a kitchen knife? What knives have you found best suited to your culinary needs? Do you have a set from one manufacturer, or do you buy the best knife for the purpose? Are kitchen knives a “lifetime commitment” for you, or do you switch brands and try out new ones “as seen on TV!” Have you tried ceramic knives? (I haven’t.) If you have, do they work?

Please share.

**Micarta, according to Wikipedia, is “a brand name for composites of linen, canvas, paper, fiberglass, carbon fiber or other fabric in a thermosetting plastic.” It’s a product that was introduced 1n 1910 by local industrialist George Westinghouse (local if you live near Pittsburgh, as I do), using phenolic resins developed by Leo Baekeland, the Belgian-born chemist who also invented Velox brand photographic paper and Bakelite.

PS: Yes, those are my knives in the photo at the beginning of this post. You can’t see them in the photo, but there’s a pair of kitchen scissors with a pretty interesting story hidden in the block too.

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  1. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Many things in America today are not purchased because of their efficacy and calculated cost/benefit.. If they were, we would not have Dyson vacuums, Tesla cars, countless other branded luxury goods, designer pots and knives…. 

    Just about any $20-$40 knife you buy today will work very well, especially if you are remotely handy with a sharpener. I quite like knives. My great uncle used to make them, using elk horn for the handle. Here is a rifle he made (he made dozens, of not hundreds). Note the handiwork. Lovely stuff. But functionally any AR is much more useful.

    • #1
  2. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    iWe (View Comment):

    Many things in America today are not purchased because of their efficacy and calculated cost/benefit.. If they were, we would not have Dyson vacuums, Tesla cars, countless other branded luxury goods, designer pots and knives….

    Just about any $20-$40 knife you buy today will work very well, especially if you are remotely handy with a sharpener. I quite like knives. My great uncle used to make them, using elk horn for the handle. Here is a rifle he made (he made dozens, of not hundreds). Note the handiwork. Lovely stuff. But functionally any AR is much more useful.

    Wow. That is absolutely beautiful. I am 100% with William Morris on this one: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” What’s important for me (as for your Great Uncle, I suspect) is not what others think, it’s what I think, and what he thought.

    I’m remembering a friend of ours who was quite a show-off, and who had an electric carving knife when such things were quite new. He did, actually, parade his acquisition in front of us when we had dinner at his home, and made a big deal of how open he was to new inventions and technology. We tolerated it, because he was a friend, but he really was a bore about it, because obviously the magic of this thing wasn’t that he liked it so much; it was that he thought he could use it to impress others, just like it says in the WSJ article.

    My mother, who was a bit of quite an imp found, at Spencer Gifts one year, an “electric carving fork.” It did absolutely nothing, although you plugged it in and it looked impressive, but there was no circuitry inside. It was, however, advertised as a “gift for the man who has everything.”

    Naturally, my mother being who she was, she bought one, wrapped it up, and gave it to our friend.

    He was not amused.

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    She: This post isn’t an update on the final days of Biden vs. Sanders and the Democrat primary nomination process, one which might be settled on Sunday night (if the proposed meet-up actually happens) in one of those ‘push-up contests’ Joe Biden is so fond of taunting his opponents with.


    Bottle fight.

    • #3
  4. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Here is one of his many hand-made knives. Elk horn handle.

    • #4
  5. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    We are fond of our Shun knives. We have a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a santoku. Everything else is a mishmash of what we both brought when we merged households after we got married.

    • #5
  6. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    She, I occasionally buy and build things when their looks exceed their utility. But I buy cheap ceramic paring knives and carving knives at Harbor Freight Tools.

    Ceramic knives keep their edge for a long time. When they grow dull, I toss them and buy new ones. I don’t think that’s very conservative of me.

    • #6
  7. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    She, I occasionally buy and build things when their looks exceed their utility. But I buy cheap ceramic paring knives and carving knives at Harbor Freight Tools.

    Ceramic knives keep their edge for a long time. When they grow dull, I toss them and buy new ones. I don’t think that’s very conservative of me.

    If I wanted to sharpen a ceramic knife, could I do so with my regular tools?

    • #7
  8. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    She (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    She, I occasionally buy and build things when their looks exceed their utility. But I buy cheap ceramic paring knives and carving knives at Harbor Freight Tools.

    Ceramic knives keep their edge for a long time. When they grow dull, I toss them and buy new ones. I don’t think that’s very conservative of me.

    If I wanted to sharpen a ceramic knife, could I do so with my regular tools?

    I don’t think so, She, but I don’t know much about these things. 

    • #8
  9. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

     

    If I wanted to sharpen a ceramic knife, could I do so with my regular tools?

    I don’t think so, She, but I don’t know much about these things.

    Ceramic is such a hard material it can only be sharpened by diamond. It is difficult to get an even sharpening result with the diamond sharpener.

    • #9
  10. Al French Moderator
    Al French
    @AlFrench

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    We are fond of our Shun knives. We have a paring knife, a chef’s knife, and a santoku. Everything else is a mishmash of what we both brought when we merged households after we got married.

    I love my Shun knives, and they are beautiful. The corporate parent also owns Kershaw, which has a Portland area factory. Each year they have a factory second sale, which is when I acquired mine.

    • #10
  11. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    iWe (View Comment):

    Many things in America today are not purchased because of their efficacy and calculated cost/benefit.. If they were, we would not have Dyson vacuums, Tesla cars, countless other branded luxury goods, designer pots and knives….

    Just about any $20-$40 knife you buy today will work very well, especially if you are remotely handy with a sharpener. I quite like knives. My great uncle used to make them, using elk horn for the handle. Here is a rifle he made (he made dozens, of not hundreds). 

    Note the handiwork. Lovely stuff. But functionally any AR is much more useful.

    This is why I’m not terribly concerned about the latest neo-Malthusian fad based on automation taking away everyone’s jobs. Machines and computers can only approximate intelligence, they can not create anything novel. Some people will always want things that are unique and will pay a premium for things not mass produced even when perfectly functional goods are widely available and relatively cheap, or even disposable.

    • #11
  12. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    The iPhone munged my GIF.

    • #12
  13. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    One of the few specialty knives I have is a bow-style bread knife I picked up in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, sometime in the late 1990s, at a small booth, from the fellow who made it. Mine is a left-handed model. It’s the best for cutting rustic, hard-crusted breads, and breads with the softest of crumbs. The only limitation is the thickness of the slice, which is limited to the space between the blade and the back of the knife. Here’s mine:

    And here’s a look directly down at the blade, which is the original, and as far as I can tell, is just as sharp as it was twenty-odd years ago. If you love bread, I wholeheartedly endorse this sort of knife.

    For any woodworkers reading this, here’s how to make one. I keep thinking I should try this, but haven’t got round to it yet: https://www.instructables.com/id/Bow-style-bread-knife/

     

    • #13
  14. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I have never, as far as I can remember, bought anything for the effect it would have on other people.

    • #14
  15. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member
    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler
    @Muleskinner

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I have never, as far as I can remember, bought anything for the effect it would have on other people.

    You’ve never came home with flowers and a bottle of wine?

    • #15
  16. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    She (View Comment):

    One of the few specialty knives I have is a bow-style bread knife I picked up in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, sometime in the late 1990s, at a small booth, from the fellow who made it. Mine is a left-handed model. It’s the best for cutting rustic, hard-crusted breads, and breads with the softest of crumbs. The only limitation is the thickness of the slice, which is limited to the space between the blade and the back of the knife. Here’s mine:

    And here’s a look directly down at the blade, which is the original, and as far as I can tell, is just as sharp as it was twenty-odd years ago. If you love bread, I wholeheartedly endorse this sort of knife.

    For any woodworkers reading this, here’s how to make one. I keep thinking I should try this, but haven’t got round to it yet: https://www.instructables.com/id/Bow-style-bread-knife/

     

    My aunt & uncle/godparents gave me one of those for Christmas back in the ’90s. I still have it.

    • #16
  17. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler (View Comment):

    Randy Webster (View Comment):

    I have never, as far as I can remember, bought anything for the effect it would have on other people.

    You’ve never came home with flowers and a bottle of wine?

    Not often enough to tell the truth. But that’s sort of a special case.

    • #17
  18. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    My wife’s people feel strongly about knives so we have Zwilling and/or Henkels. They’re good, I watch for sales, or even get them used. 

     Many people comment on the luxurious brushed steel and stone kitchens of moneyed people who mostly eat out. My idea of being impressive is letting one’s serving staff handle the purchase of knives and such. 

    • #18
  19. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    TBA (View Comment):
     Many people comment on the luxurious brushed steel and stone kitchens of moneyed people who mostly eat out. My idea of being impressive is letting one’s serving staff handle the purchase of knives and such. 

    I’m with you!

    • #19
  20. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    The first “good” knives I ever bought were a couple of Forschners. I ended up giving them to Jenny (my stepdaughter) because, although they were quite nice, they’re a little smaller than the Henkels, which fit my hand better. I like to buy knives at actual stores (an increasingly difficult proposition these days) rather than buying them online, so I can make sure they’re a comfortable fit and weight.

    • #20
  21. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    She (View Comment):

    The first “good” knives I ever bought were a couple of Forschners. I ended up giving them to Jenny (my stepdaughter) because, although they were quite nice, they’re a little smaller than the Henkels, which fit my hand better. I like to buy knives at actual stores (an increasingly difficult proposition these days) rather than buying them online, so I can make sure they’re a comfortable fit and weight.

    Home defense is not something to be taken lightly. 

    • #21
  22. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    I have one Miyabi (now owned by Henkel, FYI) knife – a slicing knife that I got for breads and meats. It is superb. But the rest are far less expensive. My workhorse 8″ chef’s knife I think I got for about $60 at Target about 10 years ago (it’s a Henkel). I use the steel on it regularly, and maybe have to run it through a sharpener once a year. I have a number of smaller paring knives, of differing brands.

    In a way, the awful cheap knives are more interesting because with them they’re actually hazardous.

    • #22
  23. AdamLevy Inactive
    AdamLevy
    @AdamLevy

    my newest knife is a victorinox. I don’t see the logic in spending more than 200 dollars on a knife. I guess if you’re a famous tv chef you need the compensation. We all have our likes, mine are watches. I can cut just as fast with my 80 dollar knife

    • #23
  24. Dr. Strangelove Thatcher
    Dr. Strangelove
    @JohnHendrix

    Would you ever pay $24,000 (or even just $1,850, or $400) for a kitchen knife?

    Yes, I paid $400 for a Shun Fuji Chef’s Knife. Yes, that was self-indulgent. No regrets. 

    • #24
  25. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    I’ve written tangentially about my love for knives. I’ve paid enough for some of my knives that I’ve raised the eyebrows (and ire) of the Lovely and Talented Mrs. Mongo, but I can’t imagine paying $24K for one. Sheesh.

    On Damascus, the citation is a little light on the capabilities of a Damascus blade. If one removes the option for Damascus steel when selecting a knife, then one has two options: relatively soft steel or relatively hard steel.

    Softer steel is flexible, but it is difficult to put a keen edge on it and the knife will loose the edge quickly. Harder steel will keep a keen edge really well, but the hardness of the steel makes the knife more brittle, thus more likely to shatter or shear under duress.

    Damascus steel gives you the best of both worlds. It’ll take a razor’s edge and hold it, but the multiple folds smithed into the blade give it enormous flexibility. (Note: a modern parallel solution is to cryo-quench the blade; bring it down to absolute zero, then on a very exact schedule, bring it back up to ambient temp. This does wonders for the blade. With both Damascus and cryo-quench forging, the key is the rate of cooling. I have no idea why.)

    Historical note: Jim Bowie began his career as a famed knife fighter at the Sandbar Duel in Natchez, Mississippi, which basically devolved into a chop ’em up melee. However, at that time he had not developed the eponymous knife that is still considered a classic knife design. Instead, on his way out to the duel (at which he was a second) he swung through the kitchen and grabbed a meat cleaver off of the counter and tucked it into his belt.

    Bowie actually got the knife that still bears his name today when he ordered a knife from a smith named James Black. Bowie requested a custom knife that resembled the “Arkansas toothpick.” Black asked for a little leeway and designed a knife based loosely on a pirate’s cutlass.

    Historians believe that Black had re-discovered how to make Damascus steel, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. Before he would finalize any sale, he would take the knife he’d smithed and hack on a block of hickory for a solid hour. After that hour, if he couldn’t smoothly shave the hair off his forearm, he would refuse to sell the blade and start over.

    Sorry. Knife geek.

    Here’re some of my Damascus blades:

     

    • #25
  26. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):

    Bowie actually got the knife that still bears his name today when he ordered a knife from a smith named James Black. Bowie requested a custom knife that resembled the “Arkansas toothpick.” Black asked for a little leeway and designed a knife based loosely on a pirate’s cutlass.

    Historians believe that Black had re-discovered how to make Damascus steel, or at least a reasonable facsimile thereof. Before he would finalize any sale, he would take the knife he’d smithed and hack on a block of hickory for a solid hour. After that hour, if he couldn’t smoothly shave the hair off his forearm, he would refuse to sell the blade and start over.

    Damascus is still too hard. Go Toledo. They started making steel around 500 BC. The Romans didn’t discover how good “the Spanish sword” was until Hannibal … umm … showed them. A hard steel heat-welded to softer steel. It holds an edge, but doesn’t break easily. Smiths used to recite prayers while they were cooling the blades. The prayers (in addition to getting in tight with the Almighty) were used for timing the process.

    Sorry. Knife geek.

     

    • #26
  27. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    On sharpening the blade:

    A couple of comments reference sharpening effectiveness/duration.

    To put a truly sharp, sustained edge on a blade, you need to know the initial slope of the blades edge. Industry standards are 17, 20, 25, and 30 degrees. The angle is chosen to best fit the tasks the blade was forged to accomplish. You can buy really good sharpeners that have these angles pre-set for a more than reasonable price. I use a Lansky sharpening system, mostly because that’s what I’ve always used.

    But, any time you sharpen a blade, you’ll leave a (usually microscopic) burl on the edge. Recommend getting and using a good leather strop after each sharpening. In fact, before you sharpen a blade, you might want to strop it up a little and see whether that alone gives you the edge you want. If you don’t want to go all Daddy Warbucks buying a strop, the cardboard back of a legal-sized note pad is a decent field expedient substitution.

    • #27
  28. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):
    Sorry. Knife geek.

    No need to apologize. Absolutely fascinating. Thanks.

    • #28
  29. SkipSul Inactive
    SkipSul
    @skipsul

    I do have one fun knife. This is a parang from Borneo. I got it years ago at an antique store. It is perfect for hacking stuff in the woods out back, or for threatening my daughters’ dates.

     

    And I do have an 11th or 12th century pattern single-handed sword too. Of little use in the kitchen, I’m afraid, but also good for threatening dates.

    • #29
  30. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    She (View Comment):

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):
    Sorry. Knife geek.

    No need to apologize. Absolutely fascinating. Thanks.

    “You cook? But you’re a dude!” 

    “There’s knives and fire.” 

    “OK, I’m in.” 

    • #30