Which Chef's knife to Buy
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First, if you are looking to pass the knife down to your kids, I would suggest you not base any decisions on that factor. Any knife you buy today (other than a heritage carbon knife, such as one of the old sabatiers - and those are carbon, not the stainless you are seeking) will probably be eclipsed in the future by who-knows what?? technology and the whizzes who make them. Better for them to have future knives which use technology which is beyond our current pale.
About your kitchen. To get the best out of your knife, you will need not just to be able to sharpen it, but to be able to keep it sharp between trips to the stone. And you will need ways to keep it from getting dull. That means, besides knife and stone(s), you will need a honing rod (often referred to as a "sharpening steel") and a quality cutting surface.
Unless you keep the knife permanently in storage and never use it (the fate of "Drawer Queen" knives, which are so pretty that their owners are afraid to take them out of the drawer and actually use them), then the edges will eventually dull. That a reality with ALL knives, Anyone who ever invents a knife which is sharp from Day 1 to eternity without sharpening, is either a fool, a liar or destined to win the Nobel Prize. Take your pick. Until then, the key is to lengthen the time between sharpenings.
If you currently have a sharpening steel actually made from steel, I will directly say - DON'T USE IT ON GOOD JAPANESE KNIVES!!. Honing rods need to be made from a harder substance than the knives that are being honed. For Japanese knives, the reverse is the case - the steel blades in Japanese knives are harder than almost all steel honing rods. Better to get a ceramic rod. My go-to recommendation for a honing rod is the 12 inch ceramic Idahone, for $30 from Chef Knives To Go. The 12 inch length is enough for almost any knife blade length you will encounter. And it should be long, because you won't know in the future if you want to get a bigger knife. The only quibble is that you do need to be careful not to drop the Idahone - since it is ceramic, it can break easily.
The honing rod is not to sharpen your blade - it is to keep the microscopic edge of your knife aligned. During use, knife edges often get pushed over. Running the hone along the edge pushes the parts of the edge back up straight. And the use of the honing rod is to think "violin" - you want to stroke the edge, not bang it.
Your cutting surface is the next part of the "keeping the knife sharp" routine. You want a surface with a Goldilocks quality - not too hard, not too soft. If the surface is too hard (glass or granite, for examples), then the edge of the knife gets dulled much more quickly. If the surface is too soft, then the knife edge can slice more readily into the cutting surface, and create places where nasties can grow - definitely not good. Also, if it is too soft, then the knife edge can get microscopically surrounded by the subsurface of the cutting board - because the edge easily cut a groove in the board. Any twist of the hand can result in enough force to break away part of the knife's edge. That results in "chipping". Definitely not good.
The happy medium appears to be end grain hard woods glued up into boards. University research studies suggest that end grain hardwood boards are the safest for food safety. Microscopic food particles which get into the end grain structure are trapped by the capillary action of the wood fibers and die off from lack of nutrients Be warned that good end grain boards are thick - at least two inches, heavy - weight is measured in pounds, not ounces, and expensive (compared to plastic boards). The wood which is most commonly found is hard maple, though cherry, walnut and other woods are also found. Be sure to carefully check what type or types of wood are used. Maple, for example, is common - but there are different species of maple, and there are different qualities of maple, with hard maple being preferred over soft maple, and northern sources for maple (cold winters) being preferred over maples from southern, sunnier climates (a cold winter results in a smaller and tighter cell structure - and a harder surface). Check the reputation of the company or person making the board. A good site for customer reviews is Amazon. A lot of feedback shows up there - both positive and negative. If you are buying the board in person, carefully check for voids, cracks and knots in the wood - all places where food particles from previous uses of the board can get trapped, and which provide a pathogen growing site. And look at both sides of the board, not just one side.
Edge grain boards are thinner and lighter, but can warp. They also can hold food particulates more readily than end grain boards. Plastic boards are softer, and cannot be refinished. The thinness also makes it a little less easy to use the knife for some types of slicing.
The size you want will of course be dependent on how much space you have in your kitchen - and how much weight you can handle. If you have the space, an 18 inch by 12 inch board will allow you enough space for cutting and moving multiple food items at the same session.
I have a 15 inch square by 2 inch thick Michigan Maple Block brand hard maple end grain board I bought on eBay from Overstock.com. Those boards currently run $56 or $57 from Overstock, and are shipped directly from the Michigan Maple Block factory.
Before using an end grain board for the first time, it needs to be treated. The simplest and cheapest way is to use food-grade mineral oil - plenty of it, enough to saturate the board. I buy mine from a local Safeway, for $3.50 for 1 pint. And that will be enough to both treat the board to begin with and to keep up the conditioning of the boarde for a while.
You will also want a way to quickly and effectively clean an edge grain hardwood board. A metal scraper can remove a significant portion of "junk". I bought one for about $5 at a big-box discount housewares store. Cleaning the board after scraping involves a quick scrub with soap and water (NEVER SOAK A WOOD BOARD IN WATER!!!), followed by a quick misting spray of undiluted vinegar over the surface, to kill pathogens, and setting the board upright to dry.
You probably have noticed by now that I'e spent a great deal of time writing about honing rods and end grain cutting boards, before going into knives. But without setting up a proper set of conditions for a quality Japanese knife, you will be sacrificing many of the conditions which can make the knife work to its maximum effect.
Now about your budget. If you have a good hone and a good cutting surface, then you can spend your full $150 on a knife. If not, then you need to prioritize, or decide whether you want to shell out more money. Buying the Idahone honing rod (but not a cutting board) is $30. That would leave you $120 for a knife. Buying the Michigan Maple Block board described (but not a new honing rod) would be $56 or $57, leaving you with $93 or $94. Buying both the Idahone and the Michigan Maple Block board will set you back $86 to $87, leaving you $63 or $64. So from $63 to $150 is the budget range if $150 is the total budget available.
For $63 or $64, the best you can do is gnash your teeth and wait until you either decide to spend a bit more money or to economize. For $93 or $94, there are several knives available.
First about size and style. The recommended size is a minimum of 8 inches (203 mm) blade length, for a do-all chef's knife. That will be long enough to easily slice a roast. Shorter than that makes for a knife which cannot slice that proverbial roast easily. That pretty much eliminates santoku's, which are almost never found longer than 170 mm (less than 7 inches). That leaves a Japanese knife style called the gyuto, which has evolved into the Japanese knife style approximating the old-fashioned French pattern chef's knife. The recommended length is for a knife at least 210 mm long, and preferably a knife 240 mm or even 270 mm long. I will concentrate here on a length of 240 mm, since it is long enough to handle almost every function, and is comfortable to hold and use.
The usual entry-level recommendations for a stainless steel gyuto are for (1) the Tojiro DP($90 for 240 mm); (2) the Fujiwara FKM ($83 for a 240 mm); and (3) the Richmond Artifex ($90 for a 240 mm) knives. All of these knives are either "stainless" or close to it, and are good, workhorse knives which will perform well for years. All prices are from the Chef Knives To Go website. I own both a Tojiro DP and a Richmond Artifex gyuto, and like both.
Handles on both the Tojiro DP and the Richmond Artifex are not small. I do not know about the handle on the Fujiwara. But the reality is that most chefs use a pinch grip, where knife handle size is mostly irrelevant. All three use POM handle material, which is molded and machined wood and resin materials. These are workhorse knife handles, not display, "Drawer Queen" handles.
Now for a discussion about each knife.
The Tojiro is made with a laminated blade, with the core layer (and cutting edge) being VG-10 steel, hardened to about 60 to 61 Rockwell Hardness rating. That construction, usually referred to as "san mai", has some detractors, who say that the knife does not give sufficient "feel" when cutting through foods. Others do not agree. VG-10 steel is considered as one of the first of the "super steels"to come out of Japan, though other steels have eclipsed it. Fit and finish have improved in the past few years.
The Fujiwara FKM is made with a steel usually referred to as a type of AUS-8 steel hardened to about 58 Rockwell hardness rating. Many cooking schools recommend this knife to their students. The knife is less likely to chip than VG-10, but also require more frequent steeling and sharpening.
The Richmond Artifex is made with AEB-L steel, a Swedish steel originally intended for razors, and hardened to a stated hardness of about 60.5 to 61. This is the only knife fabricated in the United States of the 3 knives, and is made for Chef Knives To Go ("CKTG") by Lamson and Goodnow and is only sold on-line through CKTG. The brand "Richmond", is named after Mark Richmond, who owns and runs CKTG. The knife is made to a price, meaning that there are few frills: the handle has only two rivets and the finish of the knife is not particularly polished. What nice finishing touches there are are aimed at performance (such as rounding the spine, to make pinch gripping much more comfortable). Mark Richmond designed the knife to be a tool - and the value of the knife is in the steel and the design. The 240 mm Richmond Artifex knife comes in both standard height and "extra-tall" height. The regular height has a straighter edge profile along the blade, while the extra-tall comes with a bit more "belly" or curvature. Both are the same price. The primary criticism of the knife (excepting fit & finish) is that the blade could use some thinning to reach better performance.
In that price range, any of those knives would work well for you for years. My personal preference would be for the Richmond Artifex.
Once you get to higher prices ($120 to $150, choices expand - but that can snowball in terms of discussions. So, I will leave it at that.
Hope that helps.
Edited by Galley Swiller - 1/11/14 at 5:13pm
That's a question I wish I could answer for myself, since my budget never seems to reach the point where I can justify spending that much for a new gyuto. Sigh.
But in looking at CKTG 240 mm gyuto's, if I wanted a $150 desert island knife, the knife I might want would be about $35 more than the $150 limit - the MAC MBK-95 Mighty Professional 9-1/2 inch chef's knife. Mind you, it's $185, or $35 over the target price. But it has stirling recommendations and reviews, it's a workhorse tool and it is a top knife. It comes without kullens (the "dimples"), which is really a recommendation.
The other option is to take the extra money from not spending the full $150 and look at a good petty or a good paring knife, as well as a serrated edge bread knife. Yes, the Victorinox fibrox handle paring knife is an excellent bargain at about $7, and added to a serrated Victorinox or Dexter Russell bread knife for about $20 to $30 will neatly complement the gyuto - but the other option is to go a 120 mm Japanese petty, such as the Fujiwara FKM 120 mm petty ($40) or the 150 mm petty ($44) or the Tojiro DP 120 mm petty ($50).
In that paring/petty knife category, I have both a Tojiro DP 80 mm paring knife (bought as a set with the 210 mm Tojiro DP gyuto) and a 3-1/4 inch MAC Professional paring knife (bought used through eBay for $35).
However, that's what I think might suit someone who doesn't have a J-knife already. In truth, for myself, I would likely look to see what knives would complement what I already have. It's easy to say that one knife will do all - but we know that is just not taking into account what "wish knife" is really coveted. First, I would keep both the 210 Tojiro DP and the 240 mm Richmond Artifex Extra Tall gyuto's. Both can do what almost all other knives can do - and they complement each other (the 210 mm is nimble, while the 240 extra tall is both long enough and broad enough to run through bulk like mad).
But my window-drooling list might very well include a western deba and an extra-sharp-and-thin chinese-style slicing cleaver. Both of those violate the desert island scenario. But what the heck. The western deba would look much like the Tojiro DP 210 mm Western Deba ($140). It is much more of a lobster cracker style knife than a proper gyuto, which means that it's a compromise knife. More bulk and thicker than a comparable length gyuto - and more effort put into day-to-day food prep. The alternative to that is getting a custom knife maker to finish an existing 1920's Sabatier carbon steel chef-du-chef blank, and use it as my lobster-splitter.
The cleaver choice might be a Richmond Fanatic Thin Cleaver ($130) in AEB-L steel. That could be fun to play with.
Of course, those two are MY dream=about knives, to complement my existing collection - and they probably would not suit most other people.