By: WORDS DIONNE ANG
As a basic tool, the knife plays an intrinsic part of our social evolution. Since those early days when sharp pieces of flint started a quest for the ultimate cutting edge, knife-making has become a craft in which homage is paid to alchemy and tradition. About three thousand years ago, knife-makers made their first major advance in materials. Iron, the most basic material of steel, was fortified by a drop of carbon. And carbon steel emerged. To this day, carbon steel blades hold the sharpest edges. Newer materials may boast improved resistance to corrosion and wear, but when it comes to sharpness, nothing else is in the ballpark.
The art of knife making is interwoven with the art of forging swords. Carbon steel weaponry found their way into kitchens after AD 500. Then, these treasured blades were carried to the table as a personal knife for eating, as well as a form of insurance, against the odd drunken brawl. IT was only in the 16th century that there emerged a separation between knives as cutlery, and knives as weapons.
The art of making a blade has changed significantly over the years. Today, knives are either forged or stamped. Forging is the age-old process of manually molding and pounding the hot steel into shape. A hallmark of this technique is the knob of metal called a bolster, lying between the wide end of the blade and the handle. This is characteristic of many German and European knives.
Stamped knives are a more contemporary technique of laser cutting a knife from heat treated sheets of steel billet. The main advantage of stamping is the creation of relatively light tool. This is by far the most popular method of large scale knife production. Both techniques yield good quality knives, though the long-standing houses proudly adhere to the practice of forging.
Which type to select is down to personal preference and comfort level.
Of course, when it comes to sharpness, this is a question of aforementioned alloy, and thereafter angle at which the blade is honed. Each manufacturer has a unique blend of metals including Chromium, Manganese and Cobalt and the exact proportion and honed angles are well-guarded trade secrets.
European style knives are most recognized in the market, especially the German manufacturers such as Wusthof and Zwilling J.A. Henckels. Historically, German blades were made to be hard and heavy enough to penetrate a suit of armor without breaking. The legacy of this is seen in the modern German knife. The tip of the blade is usually beveled (with straight angles) to help it withstand force of the thrust. Pivotal balance for the user is maintained by the carefully adjustments on the length of the blade ending embedded the handle (called the "tang").
Japanese knives by contrast, were historically designed as longer blades aimed at beheading opponents. These blades had to be very sharp and flexible. A major Japanese manufacturer, Global Knives based in Yoshikin, Niigata, still had craft their knives according to these Samurai sword making principles. The tip of the knife is pointed in a sharp "V" with no beveled straight edges. This extends the sharp cutting edge of the tip upwards by at least a quarter of an inch. Another signature of this maker is the design where the entire knife, from sharp tip to handle end is made from one seamless piece of steel, without joining. The lack of joints in this kitchen knife helps avoid trapping of blood, dirt or residues. Another unique Japanese style is used when it comes to maintaining the knife's balance. The hollow handle is filled with measurements of sand to achieve the right weight and pivotal balance.
Bob Kramer works mainly on carbon steel blades and produces highly intricate aesthetic blades in the Damascus (see sidebar Know Your Steel) tradition. He takes inspiration from the materials itself and for the handles, sources wood with texture, colour and grain to complement the blade.
Bob uses carbon steel for its superior sharpness; and the Damascus style for the complex creation process, "It tends to represent more of my soul... it allows me to tap into my creativity to produce an art piece that is also a high performance tool for the kitchen." To achieve the desired patterns on a Damascus blade, material wastage in its fabrication may be as high as 70 percent.
Look inside the Kramers' kitchen and you will find knives of every sort -- from handmade to high production, Japanese to German. That varied use is part of Bob's research and he has studied the Japanese and European blade-making traditions. "I've paid close attention to what's been done historically and have chosen the designs and patterns that I feel most successfully answer the question of good design and performance," he explains, "I don't know that I will ever completely master the forms but my goal is to make each knife as perfect as I can."
Peter Rollinson, Head Chef at The Prime Society takes only 20 minutes to carve up a 14 kilogram bone-in rump into individual portions. To do so with minimal wastage and precision is a testament to his skill; and the help of a very sharp knife. In fact, sharpness is the sole requisite for Rollinson. "Ensure that it is sharp and that you're comfortable using it. Then look after it" he says.
Rollingson's first knife as an apprentice was from Global, a knife he still owns and uses, thanks to proper cleaning and sharpening. For home kitchens, Rollinson maintains that even a generic $2 knife would do the job. Put another way, it's not what you have but how you use it.
"A good knife is comfortable in the hand, is sharp, and stays sharp. It also has to have a good balance in weight so that it does not cause unnecessary strain to your wrist and arms," adds Edmund Toh, Executive Chef at Resorts World Sentosa and Vice-President of the Singapore Chefs' Association.
Most cooking professionals, says Toh, actually use knives you and I can buy at the shops. His very first knife as an apprentice in 1981 was a Victorinox chef's knife -- a knife he still uses daily.
Virtually every German brand of knife and cutlery (think Wusthof, Zwilling J.A. Henckels) is made in the city of Solingen. This is why the name Solingen may often be seen inscribed on the blade. A traditional German knife has a thick, heavy blade with a prominent bolster. A style derived from the sword-making traditions of the middle ages -- where blades had to be heavy enough to thrust through armour.
Other countries with strong knife-making traditions include France, known for its traditional forged carbon steel blades. The oldest French names are Sabatier and Laguiole. In Italy, kitchen blades are niche and artisanal, made by individual craftsmen scattered throughout small towns like Maniago or Scarperia, and dedicated to making a single type of knife.
The United States is a haven for small, boutique knife manufacturers where artisans produce on commission and make typically knives in the Japanese or German traditions. -- a knife he still uses daily.
CARBON STEEL -
Iron plus carbon equals carbon steel and this combination produces the sharps blades. Carbon steel is characterized by a greyish-blue patina, the result of natural oxidation. The patina protects the blade from acidic ingredients and rust (if kept dry). In the age of stainless steel, carbon steel is regaining a following. They are difficult to find in mainstream retail. Look out for blade makers crafting in the Japanese or French style, as these are more likely to employ carbon steel blades.
STAINLESS STEEL -
In 1913, British Chemist Harry Brearley had a brainwave of adding chromium to steel thereby creating stainless steel. The main characteristics of stainless are its non-reactivity to acid and its resistance to rust.
DAMASCUS STEEL -
This most distinctive alloy has a "Watery" ripple pattern that penetrates the entire blade, not just the surface. It is created by layering different metals and folding or twisting the heated materials for effect, toughness and sharpness. Some users maintain the rippled surface creates more "bite" in the cutting process. The exact techniques emerged in the Middle East centuries ago although the specific technique was lost for almost two hundred years. Modern day artisans rely on study and experimentation to discover the techniques.
STEEL CLAD KNIVES -
While Japan produces the most technologically advance steel today, some Japanese blade manufacturers still employ the age-old sword-making technique of kasumi - forging two different types of steel into one blade. A modern variation of this technique called metal cladding or honwarikomi is practiced. This technique involves sandwiching one layer of carbon steel between two layers of stainless steel. The net effect is a blade that cuts like carbon steel and has the corrosion-resilience of stainless steel.