Looking sharp

How to buy the only knife you really need

By
October 21, 2008

Recently, a couple of guys with a bunch of sharp knives cleaned out my wallet. It was a mugging of a culinary rather than criminal nature. I’ve emerged poorer but unscathed, and I’m here to tell you that you can buy a great basic knife and keep it in good shape without spending too much money.

It all started a few months ago in the kitchen at Seattle’s Union restaurant. “Hey, check out my new knife,” said chef Ethan Stowell.

knife chopping rosemary
A chef’s knife can handle pretty much any kitchen task, including mincing herbs.

“What’d you get?” I asked. “Wüsthof? Global?”

He shook his head like I’d asked if his cool new car was an Olds or a Plymouth. “It’s a Blazen.”

Blazen? How could Stowell’s cool new knife be a brand I’d never heard of?

He handed me the knife, which was surprisingly short and light. Don’t professional chefs use enormous hunks of German steel? This blade was engraved with Japanese kanji.

“Here, try it,” said Stowell. He put a shallot down on the cutting board and handed me the Blazen. It went through the shallot so smoothly, I wasn’t sure at first that I’d actually cut it. (Good thing I was keeping an eye on my fingers.) Suddenly my Henckels seemed like a big dumb hunk of lead.

Bargain shopping

Walk into nearly any kitchen store in America and you’ll find four brands of knives: Wüsthof, Henckels, Global, and Shun. The salesperson will try to convince you to spend up to $120 on a knife.

Don’t get me wrong; all of these brands offer good products, and I don’t think $120 is too much to spend on a tool you’ll use every day and will last decades. I mean, how much did you pay for your computer?

But you don’t need to spend that much to get an excellent knife, and if you’re ready to spend more than $100, you can get a fantastic piece that will last decades and make you feel like you could beat a Cuisinart in a human-versus-machine contest.

japanese knife
Japanese script on Amster-Burton’s Togiharu gyuto knife.

First, let’s talk about the Forschner Victorinox chef’s knife, made in Germany. As Helen Rennie put it in a Front Burner column last year, “If you are more of a Honda than a Ferrari cook, I suggest you get an eight-inch Forschner, which retails for about $25.”

A few years ago, I bought a Forschner to use as my “vacation knife” and found, to my surprise, that not only did I like it just as well as my $120 Henckels, but it was better out of the box; because the spine of the knife was smoothed, it didn’t create a painful callus. I guess I’m a Honda cook.

The Forschner is a miracle. It’s not pretty, and not everybody likes the handle, but it’s sharp, heavy-duty, and fun to use. To extend the car metaphor, it’s as if you discovered a boxy but reliable new car selling for $1,200. Before buying any other knife, try the Forschner, which is available at restaurant-supply stores, some kitchen stores, and on Amazon. If you like it, you’re all set; if you don’t, you’re only out $25.

Luxury shopping

As a certified gearhead, however, I wasn’t content with just my Germans. After playing around in the kitchen with Stowell’s Blazen, I wanted a Japanese knife.

To be clear, the Japanese knives I’m going to talk about are not the traditional knives used by sushi chefs; those are single-bevel knives, sharpened on only one side. I’m talking about Western-influenced knives that would be comfortable in the hand of any American home cook.

Stowell bought his Blazen at a store in Kirkland, Washington, called Epicurean Edge, which carries over a dozen brands I’d never heard of. Yoshikane. Kumagoro. Asai. Sakon. Some are handmade and some are industrially machined. They range in price from $50 to over $1,000. Some are fantastically beautiful, with polished wooden handles and damascus-patterned blades that look like a readout from a seismograph with artistic tendencies.

“Across the board, Japanese knives have better-quality steel than German,” said Daniel O’Malley, the owner of Epicurean Edge. They also tend to be designed with a different philosophy: a light, thin, extremely sharp blade that glides through food, rather than the German model of a galumphing heavy blade that elbows its way to the cutting board.

“The knife does the work for you” is the aphorism you hear about German knives. But O’Malley (who does sell Wüsthof at his shop) scoffs at this: “I believe fairly strongly that most people, when they try a thin, light knife, will find that’s not true.”

I didn’t buy a Japanese knife. I bought two. One is an expensive santoku (Ryusen Damascus brand, $140). The other is the cheapest chef’s knife (Togiharu brand, $55) sold by Korin, a leading mail-order Japanese knife shop.

The santoku is better-looking and a little sharper, but I find myself reaching for the chef’s knife (gyuto in Japanese) more often: it’s astonishingly light for its size, and I like the extra length.

To me, a Japanese chef’s knife offers all of the benefits of the santoku (sharpness and light weight) with more reach. That’s just one cook’s opinion, though: I know two professional chefs who own plenty of different knives but love their santokus.

Having now spent quality time with four different chef’s knives, my favorite is the nimble 8-inch Togiharu gyuto. But if you forced me to go back to the Forschner, I wouldn’t mind too much.

In case all of this information has led you to start comparing knife features the way some people (um, me) agonize over digital cameras, I’ll give the last word to my brother Jake Amster, who works in a kitchen store.

“They’re just knives,” he said. “They all cut stuff. You spend more than 10 bucks, it’s going to be OK.”

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.

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1. by mamaliga on Oct 21, 2008 at 8:59 AM PDT

Matt,

Great post! I love seeing and meeting Toyota (in my case) chefs! Heh.

Another property I cherish dearly in knoves is how long they can keep their sharpness. After all if a Toyota needs to go all the time for new tires, I might be looking for a new ... you know. :-)

Love your blog!
Cheers!
Gabi @ Mamaliga.com

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Oct 21, 2008 at 7:09 PM PDT

The knives that will stay sharp longest are Japanese knives made of hard steel. The most readily available in that category is Shun. For half the price, the Tojiro DP (from korin.com) functions just as well but definitely doesn’t look as cool.

3. by Hank Sawtelle on Oct 21, 2008 at 8:00 PM PDT

I just bought a Togiharu gyuto at Korin’s Manhattan store and I love it. While you are at it, might as well get a wetstone and learn how to use it to get the most out of those decades. Chad Ward’s book has the best description I’ve found. I think Korin also sells a video.

4. by helenrennie on Oct 22, 2008 at 10:49 AM PDT

Hi Matthew,

Great write up on buying a knife. You got me intrigued about Togiharu knives. The website said that it can be converted to be a left-handed knife for $25. I am actually a righty, but I am curious what makes it right vs. left handed. Is this knife not symmetrical? I am also curious if it has the same issue with a sharp corner on the handle where your index finger is supposed to go like Henckels does. That’s one of the reasons I really don’t like Henckels knives. They give me a callus, like you mentioned.

One more question. I’ve never done a side by side comparison of chef’s vs. santoku knives. Did you notice any difference in how much the slices (or dice) climbs up the knife with santoku? Do those little hollows really work?

Thanks :)
-Helen

5. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Oct 22, 2008 at 1:12 PM PDT

Hey, Helen, thanks for the comment. I’ll do my best to answer.

1. The Togiharus are sharpened asymmetrically. I have no idea how much you’d really notice the difference, though, as I’m a righty.

2. The Togiharu does have a fairly sharp spine. This is really easy to fix yourself with sandpaper (600 grit is about right), and I did so, but before I got around to doing so, I actually found it didn’t bother me on the Togiharu the way it did with the Henckels. It’s a lighter and sharper knife and you can hold it with a much lighter grip.

3. My santoku (which I have now sold; I found I just wasn’t reaching for it) didn’t have the scalloped edges. I don’t think they do much. Things like onions are large enough to stick to the upper part of the knife, and really small things like minced garlic will always stick to any knife.

If you want to get deeper into this question of stuff sticking to knives I have some thoughts, but this comment is getting too long already.

Definitely give the Togiharu a try; I was a little unsure about it at first but now I’m just loving it.

6. by helenrennie on Oct 22, 2008 at 2:08 PM PDT

Thanks Matthew! If you have any ideas about stuff sticking to knives, but don’t think they belong here, would you mind e-mailing me? Or it might make a good follow up story :)

7. by batever on Oct 30, 2008 at 4:04 PM PDT

Nice article. At some point, I would like to own a western-style Japanese knife as well.

I’d like to point out that, for most people, they might already have the only knives they ever need. Most knives that aren’t absolute junk (Ginsu knives or such, if properly sharp, will do anything you want in the kitchen.
The fact is, sharpening knives requires theoretical knowledge, experience, and skill, even if you use a simple sharpening system like the SpYderco one. And there is a lot of conflicting information, so you need to do your research and study the subject before you can begin to understand it. That’s one reason people can be tempted to buy a new knife--because the new one is sharper than the one in their kitchen. But in fact, it is easily possible to sharpen your existing knives to a degree that is unmatched by many high end knives as they come in the box.

8. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Oct 30, 2008 at 4:26 PM PDT

Agreed, batever, although I’m not sure I’d agree as far as Ginsu knives. For people who don’t have access to a good knife sharpener in their area and who are just not interested in learning to sharpen their own knives, my advice is to buy a new Forschner every year or two.

I’ve just started down the sharpening road, and the most important thing I’ve learned so far is: learning to sharpen a great edge is tricky, but learning to sharpen a good edge is easy. And “good” is good enough for me and almost anyone else.

9. by batever on Nov 1, 2008 at 7:21 PM PDT

Oops! I meant to put in a closing parenthesis: “anything that’s not actual junk (Ginsu knives or such), if properly sharp, will do anything you want in the kitchen!”

And, yes, I agree that going from a good edge to a great edge is a quantum leap that takes quite a bit more skill and knowledge, and probably a little more equipment, such as a jig to help you keep a steadier angle when working on the stone.

10. by JOKAH on Dec 7, 2008 at 7:24 PM PST

I HAVE AN OLD GUSTAV EMIL ERN KNIFE THAT I WOULD NOT TRADE FOR ANYTHING. I CAN’T SEEM TO FIND THEM IN THE STATES, THOUGH. ANY HELP?

11. by nwduffer on Dec 11, 2008 at 7:59 AM PST

Thank you for this article. Knife shopping has seemed a bit overwhelming; but I passed this article along to my husband and he bought me this knife for our recent anniversary-it should arrive in the mail anytime!

12. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Dec 11, 2008 at 8:46 AM PST

nwduffer, if you mean the Togiharu, I think you’re going to love it.

Jokah, I’m afraid I have no idea. Sorry!

13. by Kenshi on Jun 10, 2009 at 4:09 AM PDT

Thanks for the article!

Just a bit curious as how you knew the kanji on the blade were Japanese and not Chinese? (Kanji, by definition, are “Chinese characters”)

14. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jun 10, 2009 at 6:59 AM PDT

Kenshi, it depends what you mean. This knife was designed and made in Japan, so the kanji are meant to be interpreted as Japanese, but obviously they’re also (and originally) part of the Chinese alphabet.

Any idea what it says? I’m sure the word “Togiharu” is part, if not all, of it.

15. by Hank Sawtelle on Jun 10, 2009 at 8:06 AM PDT

I don’t know if this helps but I own two togiharus - one stainless like mamster’s (with the same inscription) and one carbon steel. Here’s a (lame phone) picture of both of them. I can take a better picture later if you want.

16. by Kenshi on Jun 10, 2009 at 10:10 AM PDT

Oh, I am ashamed to say I was just nit-picking ;p because when your friend passed you the knife I am guessing you didn’t know if it was made in Japan or China.

Yes, the words are pronounced Togi Ha Ru (respectively, for the 3 characters). Unfortunately, it is not a brand which I have seen around, but there are many good small makers which I dont know.

Thank you!

17. by Kenshi on Jun 10, 2009 at 10:15 AM PDT

Dear Hank,

The knife on the upper one does not say Togihara, it seems to say Suishin (pronounced like sway-shin 酔心, drunken heart??) and they have a site in English!

http://www.suisin.co.jp/English/

18. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Jun 10, 2009 at 10:24 AM PDT

Oh, sorry, Kenshi, I was confusing the kanji in the picture with the kanji I was talking about. But yes, I’m also sure that was Japanese, because that knife was also made in Japan. (At least, I had no reason to doubt Stowell’s claim that it was, and later confirmed it.)

Kenshi, Suisin is a big Japanese knife manufacturer that makes a wide variety of cutlery in different styles. Togiharu is Korin.com’s house brand, probably made for them by a variety of OEMs (of which Suisin is apparently one!).

19. by Hank Sawtelle on Jun 10, 2009 at 7:57 PM PDT

You know what - now that I read Kenshi’s post I believe it was advertised as a Suisin; I totally spaced. I did buy them both at korin. I friggin’ love that place. I also bought a carbon-steel usuba (veg knife) there. Please help me to stop.

All this reminds me that my carbon steel blades need sharpening, so I need to drag out the wetstone. The Togiharu stainless edge is still pretty nice though. Amazing knife, that one.

20. by Kenshi on Jun 10, 2009 at 8:29 PM PDT

Hey guys.

Thanks for telling me about Korin. Living in Japan, I haven’t had any reason to know much about it but looking at the site I realise I can spend hours browsing!

Hank I had a look at Suisin prices in Japan as well. YOU NEED TO STOP!!!!

21. by batever on Sep 24, 2009 at 12:45 AM PDT

Matthew, if you want to know how to sharpen your knives with eas and utter confidence, plus deep understanding of what you are actually trying to accomplish in creating an edge check out Murray Carter’s Beginning Knife Sharpening and Advanced Knife Sharpening DVDs.

I have struggle with sharpening my entire life, but no more after studying his videos. And he teaches you not only how to use Japanese waterstones, but improvised methods like the backs of plates, cinder blocks, cardboard, and newspaper as sharpening media.

It’s no longer hit and miss for me when I go to sharpen a blade, I know exactly what to do and how far away I am from a finished edge at every step.

So I highly recommend his videos.

22. by batever on Sep 24, 2009 at 12:49 AM PDT

one final addition: The Carter videos teach you how to reliably achieve a beyond shaving sharp edge every time, without the use of jigs, simply freehand.

Can you tell I highly recommend them? He really knows his stuff and he spent 17 years in Japan as a village bladesmith.

23. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Sep 24, 2009 at 6:50 AM PDT

Hi, batever, I ended up learning from the Korin video and an expert friend. Now I’m fairly decent at it.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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