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Help me choose my first Chef's knife

post #1 of 19
Thread Starter 
Hello all!

I've spent hours reading countless threads on knives and my head is dizzy. All I wanted was to buy a knife!! :lol:

I am not a pro, don't intend to become one, but I am very passionate about cooking. I recently learned proper knife techniques and would like to get a very good knife so I can become faster, more accurate and get better at those knife techniques. Right now I would like to get a very good all-purpose 10" chef's knife. I want to chop oninons, shallots, veggies, prep meat, etc...

I've never sharpen a knife either, but I would like to learn. Still, I know I won't have a huge amount of time to sharpen my knives, so if one knife is faster to sharpen, or can hold an edge longer, it would be an advantage.

I am not too sure what the differences between "high carbon" and "stainless steel" mean for knives: I keep reading high carbon knives require more maintenance but I'm not sure what exactly? Just keeping it dry and clean after each use? And if that's the inconvenient of a high carbon knife, what are the advantages?

I went to "Sur la table" and tried three knifes: a Global, a Shun and a Wusthof. They were all in the $130 range, 10" chef's knives. I think I preferred the Shun, but obviously it's hard to tell in a minute of fake-air-cutting. $130 sounds like a good price range for me, but I don't mind spending a little more if it's going to make a real difference.

After much reading here, I'm still not sure whether or not the models I've considered are right for me, but here's what I have:
Togiharu Inox Steel Gyutou
Inox Sabatier-K
Carbon Sabatier-K

I really like the shape of the blade on the Sabatier, but I'm not really a huge fan of the bolster, which is why I'm considering the Togiharu - at the same time I guess I could get used to that bolster pretty quickly and I would probably be fine with it.

Also, any idea on a beginner water stone and honing steel for my knife?

Thanks! Can't wait to read the replies!

PS: How do I know if those (or other) knives have a symetrical V-shaped edge or an asymetrical "70:30" edge? I assume a V-shaped edge would be easier to maintain for a beginner?
post #2 of 19
The bolster on the sabatier may prove problematic in some years from now with sharpening. As the blade wears, you can develop some odd curves dealing with that bolster. I hate that style of bolster.

In your price range, I'd go with the togahiru
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
post #3 of 19
I started with some old Wustof knives and have begun replacing them with Shuns. It is important how the handle fits your hand/wrist angles. The Shuns fit me well but I have friends who used them in my kitchen and said they were uncomfortable. If possible take your choices and see which shops locally stock them and try to hold them in 'use' position resting lightly on a cutting boad (if you can get the shop to allow it) for a few minutes to see if they are comfortable for you. An uncomfortable knife is second only to a dull knife for danger when cutting in my opinion because you will grip it wrong trying to make it fit you.
post #4 of 19
Fries -

there's a lot of questions in them there post.

some obvious ones:

carbon steel has the reputation for being harder and holding a better edge. it stains. if you like pretty, it's a when you're finished cutting wipe/clean it maintenance issue. if a stained darkened knife doesn't bother you, it's not an issue.

stainless steel - due to the alloys used - is softer. trade-off is: no staining. my stainless knives are just as shiny as when I bought them 30 yrs ago.

symmetric/asymmetric sharpening/cutting edge profile - refers to where the really pointy part is. symmetric the cutting edge is dead center on the blade. asymmetric it is set to one side (or the other - these typically come in left hand / right hand models)

for an all around knife I would recommend only a symmetric edge. for specialty purposes - or even amateur special - like me - an asymmetric can be useful. just of late I got a santuko asymmetric. it is my weapon of choice for specific tasks; the differences/advantages are perceptible.

sharpening: get over the fear. it's so easy, cavemen did it. get your kid's protractor, draw the angles out on stiff card board, cut out as a guide. Sears has sharpening stones. a pinch of attention, two dashes of 'I care' - and you got it. no magic involved.

for the home cook / kitchen the whole 'edge lasts longer better wider' thing is blown completely out of proportion, methinks. I have the Wuesthof Classic series; I use that (egads! nasty) grooved steel daily, touch up the edges twice a year on a stone. no problem.

if I'm slicing up a cabbage it's half a cabbage for cole slaw. I'm not in a restaurant prep situation slicing up fifteen boxes of cabbage - so the 'they're too heavy' and 'won't hold an edge past fifteen hundred cabbages' just does not apply - to me.
post #5 of 19
Thread Starter 
Thanks phatch, I have to say I never thought of that issue. One point for the Togiharu.

Thanks for chiming in. Since the Shun were pretty comfortable, I'm looking for the same kind of handle, hoping those knives will give me the same kind of feel. As much as I'd love to find a knife store that has those models in stock and try them out, time is an issue! But at least I know a little better what I like and what I don't like in a knife after my short trip to "Sur la table".

Dilbert, thanks for all the info. I'm in the same situation: I slice about 1/2 a cabbage a day, not 15 an hour. Still would be nice to get a knife that "falls down" an onion - or almost - rather than one that flattens the whole onion without cutting through it when I apply pressure (my current made-in-china chef's knife). :lol:

Thanks for the feedback so far guys, keep it coming!
post #6 of 19
I know the feeling. First principle: calm down. In your price range, any knife that isn't actually a rip-off (and those are few) will be a good knife.
If you think sharpening sounds like fun, buy a good-quality Japanese knife. The steel is harder and arguably purer than almost all mainstream Western knives' steel, and will both take and hold a better edge. However, you will not be able to "steel" your knife, i.e. use one of those honing rods -- these are only advisable with softer knives. That means that when your knife does dull, you will need to use stones.

A home cook with passable cutting skills -- and even mediocre sharpening skills -- should not need to sharpen more than once every 2 months. But you will soon find that it is an absorbing hobby, and you start to get nuts about trying to get the sharpest edge in the universe. Be warned: it is an addiction!
High carbon steel will rust and stain if not properly treated. Stainless, which simply means that it's steel with an admixture of chromium and often other things like vanadium or molybdenum, won't unless you make an effort at it.

With carbon, every time you finish cutting something, you should wipe your knife with a damp towel. Really, you ought to do that regardless of the knife in order not to cross-contaminate flavors, but with carbon it can be important for preventing stains, pitting, and rust. Whenever you finish cutting for a little while -- like more than 15 minutes or so -- you must immediately wipe the knife thoroughly clean with a damp towel (or rinse or scour the knife) and then dry it very thoroughly with a dry cloth. This is essential: carbon steel can rust remarkably quickly. Although this same process is certainly ideal for stainless knives, it's not at all necessary: don't wash them in the dishwasher or anything, but such knives can wait until after dinner for cleaning. Carbon cannot.

The cleaning and drying process is quick and quickly becomes habitual. I have mostly carbon knives and love them. But it is mildly inconvenient, especially at first. And if you ever share your kitchen (and thus knives) with someone who might not have good habits, a carbon knife can get damaged very rapidly.

Initially, carbon knives also tend to stain certain foods, most notably members of the onion family, which can turn black after being cut. Quite quickly the blades develop a blue-gray patina, however, at which point they won't react with food any more.

The advantage of carbon is that within a given price range, in general, carbon knives tend to be made of better, purer steel, and are often harder as well. This means that they take a sharper edge, sharpen smoothly and quickly, and retain their edge better. But this is not an absolute rule: there are fabulous stainless steels that will beat most carbon hollow. And then there are carbon steels (no, they're not all the same either) that are truly spectacular in various ways. But now you're starting to talk about big bucks. In the $100-$150 range, for a 10" chef's knife, the steel will generally be better on a carbon knife, but a non-ripoff stainless knife will be excellent as well.

I would advise against carbon steel at this point in your knife career, as it were. Some time later, pick up a carbon petty knife, or perhaps a single-beveled Japanese knife like a deba or yanagiba or something, and see how you like it.
1. If you like the shape of the Sabatier, ditch the Wusthof (and Henckels as well) from your list. That shape is the French profile, which you also find on most Japanese gyuto.

2. If you are looking at Japanese, Global and Shun are overpriced but available in shops. If you are willing to buy online, the Togiharu is certainly superior.

3. The Sabatiers and Wusthof will be heavier than the Japanese knives. If you thought maybe you liked one of the Japanese knives in the store, I'd say go with the lighter Japanese style.

4. As someone already noted, the bolster gets in the way of sharpening. On a tall blade like a chef's knife, you are not likely to ding your finger on the heel of the blade, so it's really not necessary for safety (whereas on a paring knife, the first several times you use an un-bolstered blade you WILL ding your finger). On the whole, I think you are right to avoid it.

Result: I say get Togiharu if you can stand to buy a knife online. I know people -- serious knife crazies -- who think that knife is the single best entry-priced stainless gyuto on the market today.
If buying Japanese, don't buy a honing steel, and don't use one either.

For a beginner water stone, I'd go with either a King 1000 stone or a King or Norton combination 1000/6000 stone. The combination is fun if you want to play with polishing, but it's totally unnecessary. The King 1000 is the single most popular stone in Japan, for good reason: easy, fast, durable, and cheap. If you put a good 1k edge on your knife, it will be sharper than anything you have ever likely handled, and it will have enough subtle "toothiness" to cut just about anything easily.

You will eventually need a coarse stone, but you won't initially. When you do, get something around 220 grit and don't get green carbide -- it wears much too quickly, so although it's cheap you quickly end up having to buy a new one and there go the savings. You might look into so-called oil-stones for this kind of coarse work -- use them dry or put water on them, not oil -- as they basically don't wear at all and can be quite inexpensive from your local hardware store.
Don't worry about it. This is almost entirely a non-issue, and should have not the slightest impact on your choice of a knife. Asymmetry is not going to make the knife steer noticeably when dealing with a really thin blade like the Togiharu has, and thick knives like Wusthofs don't come asymmetrical.

When it's time to sharpen, which may be immediately, that's when you'll find out the edge angles. Put one face on the stone and lift the spine slowly, looking very closely at the edge. At a certain point, that edge will just barely bite into the stone. That's the angle this bevel is sharpened at. Do the same on the other side. Either it's the same angle or it's not. Either way, sharpen at the angle you find, raise a burr, and so on. It's not a big deal.

If you decide you want to play with asymmetry and don't have it, or decide you hate it and have it, you can always re-profile the knife with your coarse stone. If you buy the Togiharu, it'll probably take about half an hour, maybe an hour at most if you're being hyper-careful. After re-profiling, you just sharpen normally on the higher-grit stone(s) and you're in business again, symmetry changed. Nothing is permanent.

Note that when you buy your knife, you'll first need to determine whether it's sharp enough for you. Try cutting a very ripe tomato and a rock-hard fresh onion. If the tomato squishes and/or the onion makes you cry a lot, it's not sharp enough. Not many knives really come sharp enough, often deliberately.
post #7 of 19
Thread Starter 
Thanks Chris! That's a knifeload of information, really appreciated.

OK so it seems like the Togiharu is the right choice for me. Now I have a couple more questions!

OK so no steel... does that mean I should use something else, like a strop, or simply use the knife for a couple of months without maintenance, then use the stone?

So the Togiharu is asymmetrical, correct? My concern was more regarding the sharpening: isn't it more difficult (especially for a beginner) to sharpen an asymmetrical knife than a symmetrical one? You make it sound like it isn't any more difficult....

I'm just about ready to order the Togiharu and a King 1000 grit stone!
post #8 of 19
No maintenance, then use the stone. But I think it's important to understand why.

The steel in these Japanese knives is very hard, which means that the edge will not deform under pressure the way softer (e.g most western) steel does. Imagine that the Japanese knife is made of glass and the Western knife of lead. When you cut with the glass edge, either nothing happens to the glass or it chips because it's so hard; when you cut with the lead edge, it squishes a bit because it's so soft. When a soft edge deforms, you run the edge of the knife along a very hard honing rod, and this bends the edge back into line. But bending a hard edge with a honing rod can actually weaken it slightly. That is, the honing rod will bend the lead laterally back into edge-shape, but if you bend the glass laterally it may chip. Do you see?

Thus when a soft knife is dull, it means either (a) the edge is deformed, or (b) the edge is gone. You assume (a) and run the knife on a steel, but eventually the steeling doesn't do anything, at which point you're looking at (b), so you grind the knife and start over. A hard knife is dull when the edge is gone, period, because it doesn't deform. So you don't need to maintain a hard edge all that often, but when you do you have to grind it on a stone.
I didn't say the Togiharu is asymmetrical, or I didn't mean to. I don't actually remember. But it is a trivial issue from the point of view of cutting and sharpening with a knife this thin.

On the sharpening, think of it this way. Your hands have to learn two angles, which is the only hard part about learning to sharpen -- learning to keep a given angle steady while you grind. Take it slow, pay attention, and it's no big deal. Now you need two angles for a double-beveled knife, front and back. Either way, even if those are the same angle, your hand position is not the same, so you have to learn them separately anyway. If the angles are different, you just learn it that way. By the time you are ready to buy a second gyuto, or play with fancy stones, or whatever -- remember, it's an addiction! -- you will have a good sense of those angles and be able to manipulate them at whim, producing symmetrical edges, thin edges, fat edges, whatever. At this point, starting out, you just use the bevels already on the knife, whatever they might be, and you're good to go.
Good choice!

See you in six months in one of the forums for knife crazies. :crazy:
post #9 of 19
Thread Starter 
Awesome, Chris, you didn't "just" answer my questions, you also explained WHY, which is such a big deal for me (I always have to understand everything).

I can't wait to get the knife!

Thanks so much for your time and patience.
post #10 of 19
Thread Starter 
But... wait! I got more questions! :lol:

Before I buy the knife.. what can I do exactly with that knife? I mean, obviously I can slice and chop veggies - what about harder things: Can I fabricate chicken cuts from a whole chicken? Can I cut through cartilage? What about bone - probably not? What about Lobster, say if I want to slice the tail in medaillons (shell and all) - can I slice through a lobster shell?

If the Togiharu doesn't do any of those - what about the Sabatier? I suppose it can as I keep seeing pictures of french chef knifes being used for all those examples in my cooking books.

If the Togiharu doesn't do those tasks, what do you guys with Japanese knifes do - do you have another knife for those "tougher" tasks?
post #11 of 19
These knives are really not so delicate as all that. A few things I'd do with a Wusthof or whatever that I don't do with my Masamoto:

1. When crushing garlic cloves to get them out of the shell, I press on the flat of the knife instead of whacking.

2. I do not shear through most chicken bones, e.g. cut off the nubs at the ends of drumsticks. Ribcages are fine so long as you don't wedge the knife in and wiggle it back and forth -- just shear right down and it's fine. Cartilage is no problem. In short, I don't use it for most bone-in butchering, but I'd only do that using a Wusthof with poultry: for any other kind of meat I'd use a different knife anyway.

In general, if there's something you think maybe you shouldn't do with this knife, it's not something you really ought to do with any chef's knife, though you can probably get away with it with a heavier, thicker-bladed knife. You should have something else around to do really heavy labor, the stuff that doesn't come up often. If you've got a big Wusthof or something around, use that. If you've got a Chinese cleaver, use that. And so on. What you want is a big, heavy, durable thing to use brutally. If bone-in butchering is something you do a lot, you might want a proper French-style boning knife (desosseur) or something like that. But 99% of what those knives can do, a Japanese-style chef's knife (gyuto) can do too.
post #12 of 19
Thread Starter 
Thanks again Chris.

What about something like splitting a whole lobster down the middle, or slicing its tail in medaillons?

I currently have an 8" "el cheapo" chef's knife that I plan on using to practice sharpening. Maybe that one will be my beater knife that I can use to hack through bones (which I don't do often enough to justify another purchase right now).

But it's definitely good to hear that I can cut a chicken (that's one thing I do very often) with a gyuto.

I had in mind a 10" knife but realize now that most japanese knives seem to come in 240 or 270mm. Any advice between the two sizes? I'm 6' tall and I'm not afraid of a bigger knife. It's been frustrating with the 8" knife to realize I couldn't get it up high enough for rock-chopping, so I'm not sure whether or not the 9"2 would be enough?
post #13 of 19
I haven't tried it -- lobster is very, very difficult to get, and very expensive, here in Japan. Seems like you ought to be able to do it, if you're careful. As I say, these knives are a lot more durable than you think they are.
Good plan.
270mm is a big knife, don't worry.

Rock-chopping is something you want to do a little gently with this knife, by the way. If you press hard, that thin, very sharp edge actually embeds itself slightly in the board and it can chip when you twist it between strokes. Once you get the hang of being a little gentle about it, you'll find that it's very fast and smooth.
post #14 of 19
Thread Starter 
Great. Again, thanks for the comments!
post #15 of 19
MMmmm, You shouldn't--actually don't need to-"hack through" bones. Find the joint with the soft cartlidge(sp?) and cut through. Chomping through a piece of chicken and spitting out bone fragments isn't all that nice, cut through the joint and you don't have this problem.

For stuff like cutting cabbage, I prefer a strong knife with a thick spine--no hocus-pocus with cutting angles or metal ingredients-- it's just that a thick spine is easier for me to push down with my other hand when I'm chopping through cabbage or squash.

So as you're learning all about knives remember the basics:

1) A knife with a shallow blade angle (bevel), say 25 degrees, is "strong like bull" but not all that sharp. I mean it's sharp, but with such an angle it acts more like a wedge or axe than a knife. This is not neccesarily a bad thing for dense foods like vegetables, but not all that nice for delidate stuff like meats.

2) Don't get too hung up on metal hardness (Rockwell hardness). True, the harder the metal, the better it keeps it's edge, but also the more brittle or fragile it is. If you've ever dropped a file on a cement floor, you know that it will shatter. Soft metal bends easier, but can be brought back into shape with a steel, and it also takes less time and effort to get a new edge on it when you use abrasives. So it's 6 of one, and a half-dozen of the other. The more you read and learn about metals, the more you find out that there will always be trade-offs and compromises in each type of alloy.

3) Expensive does not neccesarily mean good. A $300 knife will not give you excellent results--it will give you clean cuts, but it is YOUR eye-hand coordination that will give you the nice looking stuff. In other words, practice makes perfect.

4) When you sharpen--and here I mean using abrasives to establish a new edge--the rule of thumb is that the finer the abrasive you use, the better and longer lasting the edge is. Some go down as far as 8000-1200 grit range, which will give a mirror polish.
...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
...."This whole reality thing is really not what I expected it would be"......
post #16 of 19
FWIW I only have one forged German knife anymore- it's an 8" Wusthof. The only thing I ever use if for is splitting lobsters. I'd have given that knife away already if I had a Western Deba...I want to get one but it's hard to justify the price right now vs how much I'd use it.

You've been offered a lot of good information and advice but some of it is overly complicated for the level you're at. So I'll make a simple recommendation: buy a Tojiro gyuto. My preference is for the 240mm (about 9.4 inches) but many like the 210mm (roughly 8.25 inches). They're sharp OOTB, they hold a very good edge and are pretty thin. I think even with the recent price increase they're a good deal (Korin has them on sale this month, too).
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
"Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." - Aristotle
post #17 of 19
Yes, right, for most purposes you don't need to hack through bones. But sometimes you do. For example, sometimes you want to cut the backbone out of a chicken in order to flatten it and grill it, e.g. poulet grille au diable. You can do that with a poultry shears, but why buy one of those just to do this one thing once in a while? Use a heavy knife and cut through all the ribs just to one side, then the other, of the backbone. Another is when you do some kinds of roasting, you want to take the nub off the drumstick. Use the heel of a heavy knife and whack straight down through in one clean, hard stroke, and the nub will come off clean. But I wouldn't do either of those things with a thin gyuto -- I'd be afraid it would chip.
Yes, but an edge that polished is so smooth that it easily skids over tough surfaces. For example, a knife polished that way doesn't cut tomatoes as easily as one sharpened at around 1000. Not to say you can't do it, of course, but technique matters more.
post #18 of 19
Thread Starter 
Thanks foodpump. I don't need to hack through bones when cutting up a chicken, but sometimes I do, for example when stuffing boneless chicken legs I like to keep the end nub of the leg bone - so I have to cut off the rest of the bone.

Thanks for all the other information, I keep learning!

That's already what I'm realizing now. I can't ask of ONE knife to do it all. That's fine, it will give me an excuse to come back here in a few months and ask about my second knife, and so on and so forth. :roll:
post #19 of 19
Thread Starter 
OK I ordered the 240mm Togiharu Inox Gyuto and a 1000 King stone! I'm all set! Thanks for all the help guys, really appreciate your time.
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