Food April 2007

Never a Dull Moment

What to look for when buying knives

The fashionable knife of the past few years is the Japanese style called santoku, the closest analogue to an all-purpose chef’s knife—which can slice and chop and has sufficient heft to cut through, say, a duck or a winter squash. Santokus have a high blade and a snub-nosed end, which many people assume is safer than a sharp point (and which can prevent you from trying to pry open a can or bottle or pierce a coconut—tasks that can bend or snap a knife). Many santokus feature what are generically known as “Granton grooves,” rounded indentations that run the length near the edge and have a certain high-tech flair but serve little purpose beyond what the Granton knife company, of Sheffield, designed them for: to keep long, thin, flexible carving knives gliding through turkey, pork, and other cooked meats. Santoku blades are also usually a bit shorter than eight inches, the ideal length for a chef’s knife. Yet partly because the TV tsunami Rachael Ray is crazy about them, most manufacturers now produce santokus. Many cooks, including me, don’t find them as useful as the chef’s knife they supposedly replace, because the blade usually isn’t long enough or substantial enough to go through an acorn squash—the test that every chef’s knife should pass, according to Owen Mack, of the Boston store Kitchen Arts.

On many Japanese knives, and many of Simha’s, the handle lacks the wide collar, or “bolster,” typically found on German knives. But I like a knife that lets me hold my hand farther from the food, the better to use the weight of my arm for leverage when cutting. I also like a high blade, because it keeps my knuckles from hitting the cutting board.

The Simha knife I was immediately drawn to turned out to be my favorite. It has that neat-looking handle but with a slightly smaller diameter (which I find more comfortable) than on the larger models, and with finger grips at just the right distance from the blade edge. The blade is ovoid, like a sandwich spreader, with a rounded edge (the “belly”). Knives of this shape, I learned, are generically called drop-point skinners and are used in hunting for both skinning and evisceration. (If that sounds gory, check out online knife-enthusiast “fantasy knife” forums.)

The three knives I find essential are a flexible but strong paring knife, which can cost just a few dollars, or Simha’s drop-point as an alternative (which I decided I must have, though it costs $150); an eight-inch chef’s knife; and a serrated knife. Serrated knives of practically any length are usually my favorites, because they so seldom need sharpening and they immediately grip slippery food. For years I’ve used an offset seven-inch serrated knife (the handle is set higher than the blade) as my chef’s knife. So I had high hopes for a six-inch serrated knife from Shun, one of the most widely available Japanese brands (the blade has that pretty moiré pattern, though I was told it is applied). But it cut with nothing like the precision or firmness I was after. And I disliked the rounded, D-profile handle, which is touted to be surer in the hand: I found it wimpy and too thin, and the asymmetrical handle offered no better a grip.

I admired the blade of a Japanese Brieto knife, the brand David Marks favors, but was suspicious of its Granton-like grooves and found the belly too curved (another style that has come into fashion) to produce the fast, clean slices I like.

Then I fell in love. Just right was an eight-and-a-half-inch chef’s knife from MAC, a Japanese brand recommended by stellar American chefs including Thomas Keller and Charlie Trotter. The handle, which was rectangular (rather than round, as on most German knives), felt perfect. The straight-edged thin blade, with no silly grooves, sliced so fast that I felt I was following its own confident strokes. The MAC fell between that expensive but brittle sushi knife my friend brought me and my favorite sturdy German knives. This was my Goldilocks knife. Try a few (see “Cool Cuts,” left), and you’re bound to find your own.

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Corby Kummer is an Atlantic senior editor. More

Corby Kummer's work in The Atlantic has established him as one of the most widely read, authoritative, and creative food writers in the United States. The San Francisco Examiner pronounced him "a dean among food writers in America." Julia Child once said, "I think he's a very good food writer. He really does his homework. As a reporter and a writer he takes his work very seriously." Kummer's 1990 Atlantic series about coffee was heralded by foodies and the general public alike. The response to his recommendations about coffees and coffee-makers was typical--suppliers scrambled to meet the demand. As Giorgio Deluca, co-founder of New York's epicurean grocery Dean & Deluca, says: "I can tell when Corby's pieces hit; the phone doesn't stop ringing." His book, The Joy of Coffee, based on his Atlantic series, was heralded by The New York Times as "the most definitive and engagingly written book on the subject to date." In nominating his work for a National Magazine Award (for which he became a finalist), the editors wrote: "Kummer treats food as if its preparation were something of a life sport: an activity to be pursued regularly and healthfully by knowledgeable people who demand quality." Kummer's book The Pleasures of Slow Food celebrates local artisans who raise and prepare the foods of their regions with the love and expertise that come only with generations of practice. Kummer was restaurant critic of New York Magazine in 1995 and 1996 and since 1997 has served as restaurant critic for Boston Magazine. He is also a frequent food commentator on television and radio. He was educated at Yale, immediately after which he came to The Atlantic. He is the recipient of five James Beard Journalism Awards, including the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award.

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