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French and German Chef's Knives - Profiles in Cutting

post #1 of 16
Thread Starter 

"Profile" is a term which gets used a lot when talking about knives. The words "French" and "German" are often bandied about when discussing Chef's knives/gyutos.

 

What and why?

 

One of your primary interactions with a chef's knife is determined by the shape of the edge (as viewed from that angle).  If you don't fight the knife, will go a long way towards controlling how you use the knife and how it feels in your hand as you work.  If you do fight the knife and try to work it in a way which doesn't suit it, that will determine how it feels as well.

 

The better your grip and knife skills, the more sensitive you're going to be the knife. 

 

The good Sabatiers -- Including but not limited to everything form Thiers-Issard, K-Sabatier, and  Mexceur Et Cie -- have a an almost uniquely good blade profile.  Not just in the sense that I love it, but nearly everyone else does as well.  Profile isn't everything and I'm not suggesting you run out and buy a bunch of Sabs. 

 

Chef's knife profiles come in two basic flavors.  French and German.  German profiles have more arc (aka "belly") throughout the length of the edge, while French blades are flatter -- at least from the very back (heel) until the rise toward the tip.  People often confuse the "width" or "height" of knife (distance from heel to spine, at the handle) with belly and profile.  They think a wide knife has a lot of belly, or is German, or both.  Belly is arc.  "French" and "German" refer to how much and how the arc is distributed.   

 

Here's a Wusthof Ikon, a German made and distinctly -- though not extreme -- German profile chef's knife:

Ikon Chefs.jpeg

 

 Even though it's 9" long and fairly streamlined as Wusthofs go, it's still got plenty of belly.

 

Here's another German, this time an 8" Henckels Pro S: 

Zwillings Chef.jpg

Like the Ikon, it also has quite a bit of belly and yet is also on the straighter side of the envelope as German knives go.  In fact, KY Heirloomer, who knows his onions said it actually was "French." 

 

Note:  The point isn't who's right and wrong.  "French" and "German" are relative terms, at least as far as knives go.  KY and I agree that a Henckels Pro S Chef's knife feels a lot more French than a Wusthof Classic (not shown), and we should because it does.

 

Compare the German made knives to a couple of Sabatiers chef's: 

IMG00083.jpg

(Pardon me for using this photograph again.  It's hard to find pictures which do a fair job of showing the profile; at least this does that.

 

Top to bottom, the knives are:

  • 10" K-Sabatier Chef's
  • 10" K-Sabatier trenchelard Slicer.  
  • 7" T-I "Nogent" Sabatier Chef's
  • 6" T-I "Nogent" Sabatier Slicer / Petty

 

Look at the two chef's knives.  A profile doesn't get any more French than the 10" K-Sab.  Note that even though the 7" Nogent is shorter than the two Germans pictured above -- its curves are accentuated by being compressed into a shorter package -- it still appears flatter than either the Ikon or the Pro S.

 

And, as long as that particular picture is up, note that the difference between a slicer and a chef's knife is "profile."  That is, they're all knives, have similar handles, same alloy, etc., but the distinction is shape. Not just different in width, either.  But even though the slicers are straighter than the chef's knives, a French chef's knife is almost as straight as a slicer 

 

It's also worth pointing out that the 6" knife is sold as a slicer by The Best Things, but the shape is not only trenchelard (French, spear-point, style slicer, just like the 10" K-Sab), but couteau office (the French name for a common paring knife).  It's being sold as a slicer instead of a parer because of its length.  I actually use it as a "petty," which is a sort of parer / boning / utility; a knife of many slashes.  A petty is a true office, and the modern trend as THE short knife in a pro's abbreviated kit.

 

One of the things which makes Japanese gyutos so attractive to good cutters is that most of them have a more or less French profile. Some very good cutters prefer German profiled chef's knives; but the French profile is more agile, more adapatable to "push cutting," and requires less handle pumping (usually called "rocking).  The French profile punishes bad technique and rewards good technique more than the German. 

 

But... let's keep our senses of perspective and humor.  A German knife won't turn a good cutter into a bad one, and a French knife won't do the opposite.  Both profiles suit the classic, European and American styles of food and knife skills.  It comes down to taste and training. 

 

Bottom Line:

Go French with a gyuto. 

 

BDL

 

PS.  This is posted on Cook Food Good as well.  Collective Commons Reservation of Rights and all that.  If you want to share it for a non-profit purpose by re-posting, linking, or passing it out to your students, attribute it to me, Boar D. Laze.  If you want to change it or sell it... Sorry.  No. 


Edited by boar_d_laze - 9/15/10 at 11:30am
post #2 of 16

In fact, KY Heirloomer, who knows his onions said it actually was "French."

 

Actually, I believe I said "more French than German....."

 

But, as you note, it's kind of relative. On a continuum, we'd have to say the Wusthuff has a pure German profile, with a lot of rocker, the Sabs are pure French, with virtually no rocker, and the Henckel Zwilling somewhere between the two.

 

Of course, none of them has any rocker at all if you use the pregnant-belly shape of a skinning knife as your base line. But that takes us away from the culinary world.

 

but the French profile is more agile, more adapatable to "push cutting," and requires less handle pumping (usually called "rocking). 

 

While I agree with this, I have to wonder how much of it is subjective? Like you, I was raised up with a French profile knife. First time I picked up a Wussie I wondered why it was rolling all over the board. But friends who learned on Tridents wonder why you need to lift a French profile knife so much higher.

 

I think, too, part of it is how you learned to use a knife. Although we universally call it "chopping," there actually are two possible movements. If you learned to actually slice the food (i.e., as the blade comes down it is also pushed forward or backward through the food) then the French profile makes sense to you. If you learned to chop by merely bringing the blade straight down (like a guilotine (sp)), you find the German profile more effective. And, of course, for the classic cutting moves---block, plank, stick, cube---the French profile really shines.

 

What I like about the Zwilling Pro S series is that it's one of those rareties---a compromise that actually works.

 

Something about the Zwillings that bears repeating: You once mentioned how new knives can benefit by having the edges of the spine slightly broken. This is especially beneficial with the Zwillings because their spines are so square and true you can almost cut yourself when using a pinch grip. Certainly there is enough edge there to raise blisters if you don't round it off somewhat.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #3 of 16
Thread Starter 

KY,

 

Not that your post needs comment, but it's always a joy to talk with you.  So, let's start with the obvious.

 

Yes to pretty much everything you wrote. 

 

One small thing is that when using a French knife in the Frenchy classical sort of way -- a style I'm calling "guillotine and glide"  --  the knife tip will leave the board more often with a French profile than with a German, but the handle won't be lifted as high.  Obviously, this is going to  require a whole "guillotine and glide" thread. 

 

A few things, had me wondering.  

 

If you learned to chop by merely bringing the blade straight down (like a guilotine (sp)), you find the German profile more effective. And, of course, for the classic cutting moves---block, plank, stick, cube---the French profile really shines.

 

Starting with the last thing first -- I'm totally in line with the luminescence of the French profile for those tasks, but think it's more a matter of taste than a big difference in inherent superiority.  Heaven knows zillions of classic cuts are made daily with zillions of Messers, Henckels, Lamsons, Wusthofs, and Dicks. 

 

But it's the "straight down" thing, by which I believe you're referring to "push cutting," that got me looking askance.  Push cutting usually goes better with straight blades like the Japanese deba, kirisuke and nakiri, or the straight razor Paul Sorvino used to cut garlic in Goodfellas.  That's one of the great things about a 10" French knife, the whole back half is something of a nakiri.  You can push cut without making "accordions" (i.e., the back end of whatever you're cutting doesn't quite cut through without rocking the knife and things stay connected  instead of ending up in discrete pieces). 

 

BDL

post #4 of 16

but think it's more a matter of taste than a big difference in inherent superiority.

 

That's what I was trying to say. In this case, though, taste follows early training. I believe most of us prefer a particular profile because that's what we learned on, and you never forget your first love.

 

"guillotine and glide"

 

Perfect phraseology.

 

What I was trying to describe is just that. With the French profile there is more of a tendency for the blade to move both straight downward, through the food, and laterally in a slicing motion. This is facilitated by the fact the tip is often lifted above the board.

 

With the German profile, and the tip more or less locked to the board, the blade is rolling down through the food, with little if any lateral movement. So the tendency is to have the guillotine but not the glide.

 

Picture this. You have something to be cut. If you're using a French profile the likelihood is that the tip is off the board, but still pointing downwards. As you bring the blade into the food you are using a slicing motion---usually pushing forward, but sometimes cutting on the back-draw as well. With a German profile the tip is contacting the board and you roll the knife backwards into the food. There is slicing movement only in the sense that the rounded edge is actually longer than the horizontal measurement. That is, you get more cutting movement in the same space. But, in effect, you are merely pressing the blade down through the food. Essentially, guillotine but no glide.

 

The key to this, of course, is to understand that we're talking about tendencies rather than pure movements.

 

Is one profile inherently more efficient than the other? Depondent sayeth not.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #5 of 16

I don't care what nationality the knife is, as long as it is sharp.

Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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Chef EdB
Over 50 years in food service business 35 as Ex Chef. Specializing in Volume upscale Catering both on and off premise .(former Exec. Chef in the largest on premise caterer in US  with 17 Million Dollars per year annual volume). 
      Well versed in all facets of Continental Cuisine...

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post #6 of 16
Thread Starter 

KY,

 

Yes. Exactly.  I posted a thread on Guillotine and Glide as I do it.  See what you think.  Then share.

 

Hmm.  Think then share.  Interesting sequence. 

 

BDL

post #7 of 16

BDL,

 

As always, you have posted some great information.  Seeing the two types in the same post makes it very clear what the difference is.  Can you explain push cuts and handle pumping?  Please go to 9:10 into this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Qzz8R_J1c and it's our buddy Alton Brown showing his method of "chopping".  Is that "handle pumping"?  His method would seem to prefer a German edge far over a French edge -- or profile or whatever. 

 

As I'm trying to learn good knife skills, I want to do it the best way.  If you disagree with Alton (and lots do), do you have a suggestion on where to look for a better method? 

 

Thoughts?

post #8 of 16
Thread Starter 

Push Cutting:

Push cutting means lifting the knife straight up, and pushing it down.  Obviously, it can only be done with either a flat blade, like a nakiri or usuba, or with the flat portion of a blade which has one. 

 

Uh oh:

Well that was easy.  Now it gets a little complicated because AB didn't explain everything because:  Who could?  Who has the time?  Who would sit still to listen to it all?

 

AB called the part of the knife behind the tip and in front of the heel, the "belly."  Knife terms are pretty elastic and can have a lot of meanings depending on whom you're speaking to.  When I say "belly" I refer to the curved part of th knife.  According to this definition, which is pretty much standard in the general (as opposed to kitchen) knife world,  a knife with a straight edge, no matter how wide, has no belly.

 

AB's Demo and Knife Geometry:

To a some extent -- often a very large extent -- the geomtry of the knife will impose a style on your own cutting. 

AB used a knife with a high tip and a long flat section.  The lead in to the point (belly, if you like), had plenty of arc.  The arc allowed AB to keep his knife point on the board, while he lifted the handle high enough to move the celery underneath. 

 

The height of what you're cutting, and the amount of arc are two of the three and a half factors which determine whether you can keep your knife's point on the board or have to lift it.  The other one and a half are the length of the blade itself and far back you're going on it to do the actual cutting.  

 

Handle Pumping:

Knives with a lot of arc, especially shorter knives with a lot of arc, and more especially knives used by cutters who keep their knuckles down so they can hit the board, encourage the cutter to position her food so that the handle is past the end of the board.  The cutter can then rock her knife down past horizontal.  Returning the knife to the "ready position" for the next cut, the cutter will lift the handle very high to keep the tip on the board, and to squeeze the food under the short length of the knife.  High lift + Low finish = (what I call) "Pumping."

 

AB didn't have to pump.  Even though he kept his tip on the board, his piles were low and small enough that he never had to bring the knife up.  His pinch grip protected his knuckles from the board; that meant he he could keep the handle over the board; he used a long-enough knife with a long-enough straight edge; which taken together meant the knife stopped its rotation at the straight part of the blade.  He didn't have to lift the handle high enough then low enough for us to compare his action to pumping.  QED.  No pumping.

 

Some people would call tip on the board "rock chopping," others mean something else by the term.  Many good knife technicians using "classic" European technique strive to keep as much contact with the board as possible; others don't mind lifting the knife.  German profiles allow longer contact with the board.  French knives require more lifting, but are lighter and more agile so that's not much of a drawback.  They also tend to "push cut" better. 

 

AB has a deal with Shun, and used a 10" Shun Elite for the demo:

Shun Elite.gif
 

 

As you can see, it has a very high tip, a fair bit of belly, but has a relatively long straight run for the last half of the knife.  It's more German than French, and the high tip is pure Kershaw.

 

AB chopped all both of his ingredients (celery AND basil, what a guy) with the straight part of the knife.  Had he used bigger handfulls -- say a couple of celery stalks worth at a time, he would have been forced to either lift the tip or really raise the handle.  If the latter, we could nail him for pumping.  If the former, he'd've been better off with a French profile.

 

When it comes to profiles, I prefer French uber alles, but it's no big deal.  No bonus points.  No moral superiority.  My feeling is that better technicians prefer the French for all its uber coolness, but that could be because my knife crowd self-selects for Japanese made knives which are overwhelmingly French profiled.   Which came first, the couteau or the gyuto

 

Grading AB's Technique:

Let's give him an 87/100.   

 

We don't want to make too big a deal out of this.  We don't demand two no. 1 pans of mirepoix every half hour from ourselves, and we shouldn't ask it of him either.  He's not the prep guy at a restaurant.  He's a home-cook teaching other home-cooks to be good home cooks.  

 

The important thing is be good enough so that you can cut things the way you want them cut without it taking forever.  It doesn't help to get swallowed up in technique and expensive knives any more than it helps to run away from it and pretend you can make great food with nothing but a steak knife. People often compromise in terms of cutting things as they ought to be cut because they don't know any better, don't have the technique to do it, and don't have sharp knives.  Those three things are highly inter-related.

 

AB might not be the world's greatest knife artist but he certainly cuts well enough to do what he wants.  In this, "Be like Alton" is a good goal

 

BDL

post #9 of 16

No disagreement with your analysis, BDL. But......

 

Maybe it's the photo? Or maybe my eyes? But to me, that Shun is virtually all bellied. The angle of the arc is less as you move towards the rear, but at no point do I see a straight edge, other than maybe an inch or two at the very rear.

 

Draw a line parallel to the spine, and see how that fits.

They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
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post #10 of 16
Thread Starter 

KY,

 

Yes.  Should have used "straightish" I guess. 

 

BDL

post #11 of 16

BDL,

 

Am I crazy (okay, yes), or does the Forschner not really have an edge bevel  I can't find it, or if I am finding it, it seems less than 10 degrees (closer to 5 if I'm really guessing).  Or is it my job to create a bevel?

post #12 of 16
Thread Starter 

Hi Gobbly,

 

Forschners are supposed to ship with a 20* edge bevel.  Forschner does a notoriously good shop on both factory sharpening and QC.  Still, stuff happens.  It's possible that your knife was put in the box unsharpened.

 

It's a good idea for someone who can do his own sharpening to consider the edge geometry as his job on every knife he owns. 

 

Forschners can hold a 15* edge bevel just fine.  Taking it to 15* rather than 20* will mean some but not too much extra steeling between sharpenings.  Everything else beng equal, the more acute the edge angle the more prone the edge is to collapse.  "Collapsing" means rolling over and out of true.  For whatever reasons, Forschners resist collapse a little better than nearly all of their "German steel" bretheren.

 

I'm not saying something a little tighter doesn't feel better, but 15* is good enough for nearly every task outside of a sushi-ya; certainly good enough for any of the classic cuts.  15* is about as good as you can get from Euro stainless, if you want a more acute angle, you'll need to look for a different knife.

 

Forschners are hardened to around 55RCH, and aren't made from a particularly strong alloy to begin with.  No way can a Forschner hold a 10* or more acute edge angle without collapsing the first time it hits the board hard.  On the other hand, Forschner's stamped lines -- Rosewood and Fibrox -- are thin enough that aren't particularly prone to wedging and both feel and act sharper than thicker knives made from the same or comparable alloys. 

 

One of the good things about the alloy is that it's very tough -- which means it won't chip easily.

 

Hope this helps,

BDL

post #13 of 16

Forschners are comparatively thin metal stock. This is one of the reasons they perform so well as their general geometry wedges in the cut much less than many other knives. Because of this thin stock, and the taper across the chord, the ground edge of a Forschner is commonly difficult to feel on a stone. It can feel a lot like a "zero edge" or scandi-grind even though it really isn't. There just isn't a lot to it in most cases, particularly new knives. If you have the muscle memory to hold a fairly consistent angle, it will sharpen up just fine freehand.

Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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Palace of the Brine -- "I hear the droning in the shrine of the sea monkeys." Saltair
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post #14 of 16
Thread Starter 

Phatch nailed it.

 

Just FYI, a "scandi-grind" is another name for "convex bevels."  Here are drawings (lifted from Chad Ward's excellent Knife Maintenance article at e-gullet), representing the most common edge geometries:

 

sharpen102.jpg

 

If you have any feeling for the mathematics of shapes leftover from school, you can see that the tangential angle at any given point on either side of the convex edge becomes increasingly obtuse as the point approaches the intersection of the sides.

 

Compared to "V" or "double bevel" edges, convex edges can be difficult to see at all; easy to mistake as more or less acute than they actually are; and, difficult to "click-in."  You seem to have stepped in every one of them, too.

 

The advantage of a good convex edge is it's durability/sharpness ratio.  If you've ever owned a Swiss Army Knife (and who hasn't), you're familiar with how long the factory edge lasts. 

 

The disadvantage is that it's difficult to create and even more diffiuclt to maintain without restricting sharpening to stropping perversions like the "mouse pad" trick.  It's a good edge, but not worth the trouble for most home sharpeners.  Again, if you're familiar in the ways of Swiss Army knives you know they come back down to earth when they finally do dull and you start sharpening it yourself.

 

If you pursue the subject, you'll find a lot of people claiming to sharpen convex bevels on regular bench stones.  Probably some can.  Of those edges I've actually seen, many are dubbed (jargon for "rounded over") and most of the rest are sharpened very unevenly.  It's not an easy thing to do with a long knife,  I've tried many times, and it's been hit or miss -- mostly miss -- unless I use tricks like putting the stone on something soft.  And then the PITA Quotient isn't worth it.

 

On the other hand, it's not only easy to do using a belt grinder, it's more or less automatic.  And that takes us back to the factory edge.  Making a virtue of necessity is something marketers do very well.  "We do it this way because it's fast, cheap, doesn't take much training, and works pretty darn well," doesn't have quite the ring of, "We do It this way because it's the Most Colossal, Most Stupendous, Most Bestest Ever!!!"  So, they tend to go with "B."

 

Perhaps I should add that a double-bevel edge with a "micro" primary bevel (the "primary" is the bevel which ends at the actual cutting edge), takes most of a convex edge's advantage and is relatively easy to sharpen.  Also, that you tend to get some convexity going by finishing with almost any strop.  But golly gee whiz.  Learn to sharpen a regular V with flat bevels before going all roccoco.  
 

BDL


Edited by boar_d_laze - 9/18/10 at 8:52am
post #15 of 16

The knife is sharp, it's just that the bevel is not "obvious".  If it's indeed a convex edge, that explains why I can't find it. Thanks for the info, as always.

post #16 of 16
Thanks for the post, descriptive and informative. Two number one pans in a half hour....
*wonders to self how large a number one pan is*
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