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What’s all the Buzz About Kitchen Knives?

Josh Donald has written an excellent tutorial on kitchen knives. Their lure, their history, their designs, their popularity, their steel types, their preferred uses and sharpening. Whew … that’s a lot in one small book but he pulls it off quite well–well enough to read it you’re into fine kitchen knives. First off, kitchen knifes come in two flavors: Western and Japanese. They are very different. Josh traces the origins and life of these knives from early times to the present day. In the process you’ll learn about steel, forges, forge welding, stamping while meeting notable artisans who make these knives in factories in Europe and in knifesmith shops in Japan.

I bought my first Japanese knifes in Japan long before Josh got into it. I used them along with Western knives at home but not in school or on the job where German-made Wusthof ruled. Gradually, Japanese knives replaced all but my Wusthof 9 inch chef knife and my boning knife. Quite a few articles on this blog have since been posted about Japanese knives.

The essential attributes of kitchen knives are utility, precision and lightness. The hallmark of Western knives is utility. While a nine inch German made chef knife can take on chicken and leeks, there is a separate Japanese knife for each. “Even though,” Josh writes, “each knife is meant to do less, many argue that specialization makes Japanese knives better at what they do.” I buy that! For example, try deboning a chicken with a Japanese chef’s knife and you’ll find it difficult to get all the meat off the bones and will likely nick the knife’s edge in the process.

So, what’s the buzz: Josh captures it all quite nicely: “It’s all about the cutting feel. Those of us who’ve come to love Japanese knives like what they can do, but its the way they feel that hooks most of us–the elegant careful way they shake hands with whatever you’re cutting . . . In a Japanese kitchen, cutting is cooking not just something that comes before it.”

Western knives, with softer steel, need sharpening often. Japanese knives, with harder steel tend to stay sharp if not misused, which is quite easy to do. It follows that Western and Japanese knives are sharpened differently. Josh devotes thirty detailed pages to the art (and it is an art) of sharpening Japanese knives. Its well presented with useful photos–a usable how-to tutorial. The book closes with a few recipes, each with a featured knife and knife work. In all, the book is a contribution to the literature. Worth your time . . .

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