With the recent wave of cooking shows, gigantic online recipe databases, and a general fascination with the art of molecular gastronomy, Americans are moving toward the kitchen in droves. Excellent cuisine is the topic of conversation around the water cooler, with coworkers swapping risotto secrets and wine pairings via office email. Amateur Chefs are giving up lucrative law practices to open their own restaurants and live ‘the dream.’ When preparing these culinary delights, however, Chefs must master technology and time to produce masterpieces in short order. Convection ovens, liquid nitrogen cookers, and nine horsepower blenders top the list of truly modern, high-end cooking gear. One basic tool that is easy to take for granted is the ubiquitous kitchen knife.
Arguably, the standard of the industry for cooking knives has always been a Japanese blade made of a hand forged metallic sandwich of hard, high carbon and ductile low carbon steel. These blades have been legendary for hundreds of years for their ninja cutting abilities and toughness. They make the heavy knife work inherent in preparing multicourse meals far less taxing on the Chef and drastically decrease prep time. Easily honed to shaving sharpness, the actual grain structure of the metal in these knives makes them require less effort to cut with exact precision. In a paradox, this economy of cutting force produces a safer, more controllable knife.
To all but the most aesthete Chefs, however, the drawbacks to these excellent blades far outweigh their total coolness. A one-off, handmade Japanese knife can cost upwards of two hundred dollars. Seen more as an investment than a tool, these knives require special care. For instance, many of these knives have blades that must be scoured and oiled after use to prevent corrosion. To Master Chefs, this is merely a part of the systematic nature of their art. To the home cook, these knives are viewed as an unnecessary extravagance.
As an alternative to carbon steel blades, stainless steel knives have been heavily marketed to American kitchens. Stainless steel doesn’t rust, so these knives can go in the dishwasher with little thought to corrosion. Most of the knives are sharp enough to perform adequately, and merely require a quick touch up with a butcher’s steel to keep an edge. This is why many of the knife sets available at department stores have a steel included with the set.
Due to the very hard nature of stainless steel, rolling a shaving of sharp material off the edge is the fastest way to produce what passes for a cutting edge on a stainless knife. Many Americans simply don’t sharpen knives: when knives dull, they are replaced with a new set, donated, or end up in the kitchen junk drawer. When the factory edge goes, so does the knife. Whether amateur or professional, Chefs favor performance over value; most would never choose a stainless steel knife even though they are inexpensive at around twenty-five to fifty dollars for a seven-inch Chef’s knife.
Ceramic knives push the value and performance of a Chef’s knife to the extreme. Made of a sintered biscuit of Silicon a Zirconium, these knives have harder edges than any steel knife. In typical kitchen cutting duties, the blade of a ceramic knife may only need to be touched up once a year. With so little wear from sharpening, it will continue to deliver a keen, easy cut for many years.
These knives are so tough that they are used in a utility capacity by home insulators to cut thick batts of fiberglass, which would quickly dull a steel cutting tool. Simply put, the edge of a ceramic knife is much more resistant to abrasion than the edge of a steel knife. What is most impressive about these knives is the level of cutting power they deliver for the price. A ceramic Chef’s knife can be purchased at the price point of a stainless steel knife and still have the cutting performance close to expensive carbon steel. Also, the ceramic knife is inherently rust free, easy to clean, and will require only the very slightest touch of a diamond stone to stay very sharp.