Any good knife should be sharp when new, so functionality, after the initial ‘out of the box’ sharpness, is the capacity to hold the sharpness (ONE), the ease with it can be kept sharp (TWO), the ergonomics for prolonged use without causing stress (THREE) and finally the aesthetic (FOUR). Of course, there are so many other considerations that may be more important to you.
For most professionals and passionate cooks, generally the order of preference is ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR whilst for most domestic users it tends to be FOUR, ONE, TWO, THREE. I think this is because the former group sees the knife as a fundamental tool to achieve their goal to create great food, whereas the second group wants a tool that not only functions well but also reflects their persona and lifestyle.
In this blog I am going to explain my view on these subjective issues when deciding on the best knife.
Initial sharpness – ‘Out of the box’
Any reasonable quality brand new knife should be sharp. Most Japanese knives, which tend to be thinner than ones from elsewhere, are sharper and cut through the food without ‘wedging’.
The most common edge angle of Japanese knives is <15 degrees on each side – so 30 degrees overall (many are asymmetrically ground, which is a conversation for another time) in comparison to >18 degrees (36 degrees overall) of most Western-made knives. So, any edge sharpened to a specific angle is equally sharp, but the level to which that edge angle is polished is what makes one feel sharper than another and the effect it has on the cells of the food being cut. A polished edge cuts with less resistance and slices through the cells whilst a rougher edge not only feels less sharp but will tear the cells releasing more of the oils and lessening the flavor.
The more polished the edge the more work required, so the higher the price. If budget is taken out of the equation, then there is a real difference in the feel of initial sharpness (a handmade, hand-polished edge by a master sharpener could command a score of 9 compared to 6 of a machine sharpened one with the same edge angle). So, I have given the score for this parameter by the price point.
Capacity to hold the sharpness
Fundamentally, the harder the blade the longer it will stay sharp. The level of hardness is dictated by the amount of Carbon and other hardening elements, the method of manufacture and thickness of the blade of mono steel knives and thickness of the core steel of multi-layer blades. I have explained these subjects in my previous blogs. Again. I have scored the knives by price point.
Ease of sharpening
In my view, this is one of the most important qualities.
If you cannot easily maintain the desired sharpness over the several years (or even decades) of its life yourself or have easy access to a competent service that can do it for you, then your money is wasted. You might as well as buy a cheaper knife and replace it more often. But a knife is like a fountain pen, the longer you use it the more it wears to your hand – you don’t want to replace it, it’s a friend you just want to continue satisfying your expectations.
Generally, the easier the knife is to sharpen the less time it will stay sharp because the steel is either softer, less tough/dense, or thinner. A blade with hardcore and soft outer is easier to sharpen than mono steel. The more layers there are the thinner the core and so easier to sharpen.
For example, if all the other factors like a method of making, hardening, grinding and finishing are the same, a knife made of a single layer of VG10 will be harder to sharpen than a 33-layer blade with a core of VG10 and soft cladding. The mono steel will stay sharper longer but the layered one will be far easier to sharpen – and way easier to thin when the geometry needs to be restored over the years.
That is why this is subjective – you must decide what is better for you. I have a 210mm Artisan that was the first knife I bought in the mid-1980s that as sharp today as the day I bought it. I have thinned it 4 times and needs stone sharpening every 4/5 months, whilst my 210mm JKC Aogami (acquired around 15 years ago) that is equally sharp has been thinned twice but needs sharpening every couple of months, but the sharpening process takes less than half the effort.
So which is better? For me, my Artisan is amazing when I have not had the time to sharpen but with over 35 years of regular use and the need to thin it a few times the blade is now much narrower than when new so the Aogami is my knife of choice when I need the width.
Marks out of 10 are again based on the price point.
This is very subjective. Depending on the size of the users’ hand, a thicker handle may be more comfortable than a slimmer one for a bigger hand and vice versa. The point at which the user grips the knife dictates how balanced the knife feels – if your normal hold is on the handle, a lighter blade with a heavier tang/handle will feel more balanced whilst a heavier blade and lighter tang/handle will be more balanced when griped on the body of the knife.
The more balanced the knife is in your hands, the lesser the ‘repetitive strain’ with prolonged use over time which is important for professional chefs that work with a knife for long periods daily for many years. Honestly, in most domestic use, where it’s used for a few minutes every day the balance has no physical effect – it’s more about what just feels right.
I have given the score for this assuming the knife is held in a pinch grip on the blade at the bolster where it meets the handle.
Hopefully, with proper use and care your knife will be with you for many years and it’s far nicer to work and look at something that not only functions well but also pleases your eye – I don’t want to work with a tool that looks ugly. As a domestic user, I also want the knife to reflect my taste and is in keeping with my décor and lifestyle. One knife where this is of particular consideration is the Carving blade. This is one knife that you take in front of the diners when carving at the table so the looks are almost as important, but not as primary, as the functionality.