On The Cutting Edge
Top-drawer knives indispensable tools for home kitchen

By Betsy Thaggard

An obsession grips most chefs and culinary professionals. It's dearer to their hearts than the secret ingredient of a favorite recipe. It's stronger than spinach and sharper than Don Rickles' wit. And nobody can touch it without special permission.

It's knives. Chefs' knives, slicers, parers, cleavers. Henckels, Wusthof, Gerber, Sabatier. Chop, carve, slice 'n' dice.

OK, we may exaggerate on the awe-inspiring reverence accorded cutlery. But ask around: The Mansion's Dean Fearing readily admits to having a love affair with his Henckels Four-Stars. "I may let someone borrow them," he says, "if I'm sure they won't go chop something on a stainless steel counter top."

Victor Gielesse of Actuelle defended his title at the American Seafood Challenge with his rosewood-handled Henckels set. Cafe Royal's Peter Schaffrath still uses the Henckels he bought during his apprentice days -- 20 years ago.

As popular as it is, costly Henckels isn't the only brand out there. A number of quality American and European lines exist at various prices, and it seems like the knives have 1,000 styles, so how does one choose? Carbon steel, stainless or a combination? Forged or stamped blade? Wood handle or plastic? German, American or Ginzu II?

Such decisions are serious business for the chefs-in-training at El Centro College's Food and Hospitality Services Institute. Their requisite basic set (8- to 20-inch chefs, boning, and paring knives and a steel) must be hardy but affordable. While chef/instructor Jim Goering won't endorse a particular brand, he offers these guidelines to his students and anyone else seeking a knife to remember:

"Pick it up and see how it feels in your hand. Is it balanced? Is it a full tang? If it's riveted, does it have three rivets or only two? What type of handle, wood or polyurethane? What will it be used for? Look for non-stain carbon steel, since a true carbon steel can rust and may stain some food like apples and avocados, and a true stainless is so hard it's difficult to sharpen when it becomes dull. The bolster, around where the blade meets the handle, should have extra metal to give the knife balance and support."

Most of the people we talked with from area gourmet shops and cutlery stores mentioned virtually the same elements in their "most important" lists. We enlisted their help in untangling the Mystery of the Perfect Blade.

Obviously, there's some kind of magic in those German knives. "The steel from the Solingen area of West Germany, where Wusthof, Henckels and Hoffritz are made, is quality steel, Goering notes. "The Germans have been making knives for longer than the United States has been a country."

Carl Monk, general manager of Shofner's World of Knives in Prestonwood Center, concurs. "Germans make the best: attention to detail, workmanship, their factories are set up to forge knives. Forged blades are much better for holding an edge. In the United States, because of our environmental practices, we don't have forges like they do. (Smokestacks and waste make forging a dirty business.) American brands, such as Gerber and Chicago Cutlery, are stamped from cold-rolled steel, which may or may not be superior to hand forging. More on that in a minute.

Monk notes: "The knife is the most-used tool in the house, but only about 2 percent of the population has knives the quality of Henckels or Wusthof," mostly because of the price. German-made knives are generally the most expensive and growing dearer because of the weakened U.S. dollar in Europe. (At World of Knives, for example, prices for German blades rose 15 percent in January 1987, increasing the cost of a Henckels 8-inch chefs knife from $59 to $69.) Other countries make forged, no-stain carbon steel knives, to be sure. The Swiss produce Forschner, a brand popular with meat cutters and butchers, as well as consumers in the know. "I have more Forschner at home than anything else," says Bob Tuttle of Knife Gallery in Town East Mall. "I think it's much easier to maintain and sharpen and holds a much better edge than most cutlery on the market." El Centro's Goering also has several in his home collection. He considers it to be in the same class as Henckels.

The Italian line Montana, recently introduced to Dallas by Shofner's World of Knives, is considered a contender, too. Shofner's general manager Carl Monk says, "It's a forged knife comparable to anything the Germans make. It just doesn't have the name yet."

Sushi chefs swear by their ultra-sharp, soft-carbon Japanese knives, and those trained in preparing Chinese cuisine find Chinese-style cleavers indispensable, but let's face it: Most of us in these parts grew up with knives based on French styles and as Goering says. "You always go back to what you learned with and are comfortable using." We'll stick to European and American knives in this article.

The original gourmet knife, the French Sabatier, has lost some of its glamour of late. Originally produced for royalty, it was considered the benchmark of carbon steel knives as recently as a generation ago. In the late 1970s, explains Kathy Stutesman of the Culinary Shoppe, "the people manufacturing the Sabatier knives lost their exclusive name with the French government, and Sabatier became a generic term. Lots of manufacturers took the name; now, you see 'Sabatier' knives in gadget catalogs, and they're just little stainless knives. I'm sure the original carbon steel Sabatiers still exist, but they're probably all rusted by now!" Many shops have stopped recommending Sabatier altogether because, while some quality knives are still manufactured, the profusion of low-grade impostors has soiled the family name. The word around town is: If you're determined to own a new Sabatier, be very careful what you buy and where you buy it.

But let's wave our own flag for a minute. As mentioned earlier, the dollar's overseas devaluation has taken its toll on import prices; this country's trade imbalance gives consumers yet another reason to buy American. There's quite a selection of price and quality in domestic kitchen knives.

Check-rated as the superior line for quality and price by Consumer Reports (November 1983), the Gerber Balance Plus line of Portland, Oregon, is highly regarded, even by retailers who don't carry it. The blade is stamped, not forged, from cold-rolled steel, which the manufacturer claims produces a superior blade without the weak spots that hand-forging can cause.

"Of the Americans, Gerber is the top of the line, the best you can buy," says Monk. Balance Plus is the only line carried by Neiman-Marcus' Epicure Shop.

Terribly popular but not so highly regarded is Chicago Cutlery, distributed from Minneapolis. Most cutlery retailers carry the line; few recommend it without reservation. Consumer Reports, on the other hand, rated Chicago's two top lines just below Gerber, awarding the Walnut line a "best buy" for price and quality.

The main complaint is the soft, natural wood handle. Everyone knows (and many ignore) the fact that no knife should be washed in the dishwasher or left to soak in the sink. In time, wood handles dry and split from dishwasher heat and waterlogging, and Chicago Cutlery's handles are apparently the worst culprits, judging by customer complaints. No one we interviewed, however, bad-mouthed Chicago's blades.

Tommer, carried by the Culinary Shoppe, looks, acts and is priced like Chicago Cutlery, but has a sturdier handle. The company was started by a former Chicago Cutlery executive.

The line no serious cook wants to buy, no matter how cool the late-night television commercials look, in Ginzu II. (Consumer Reports rated all but the paring knife rock bottom, but why shouldn't we mention them? A zillion knives for $20 is a tempting offer.) One advantage: Probably no one will warn you to keep Ginzus out of the dishwasher, except maybe to protect your dishes.

Like other members of the stainless steel knife faction, a shiny Ginzu II starts out razor sharp but, after a few swipes at chicken bones, tin cans and real food, turns as dull as last week's news. That's the problem with stainless steel, according to Goering: "Usually they're hollowground and have to be reground by special methods. You should always look for flat-ground."

Speaking of sharpening, no set of knives is complete without a comparable steel sharpener. From its first outing in the kitchen, the knife's edge should be run over the steel at a 20-degree angle, a few times with ever; use, to line up the feather edge if a steel won't bring out the edge, it's time to give the professionals a shot. (Frequency of professional honing and sharpening depends on use.) And those who can't deal with the clashing metals of knife against steel might consider investing in a home sharpening machine.

In closing, we'd like to remind you: No matter what the price there's nothing like a good, sharp knife to add pleasure to you chopping list. Buy what feel most comfortable to use and pay for. Keep those knives out of the dishwasher, use them only or wood or hard plastic cutting boards, and don't forget to steel away now and then. And above all, have a knives day.

This article originally ran in the Dallas Times Herald. A long time ago (disclaimer, disclaimer).

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