Even today, passing through Seki, Japan, you can still hear the sound of hammers all day long, banging away. This is where some of the world’s best and most expensive knives are made, following the same techniques used to create the piercing, indestructible blades used by the samurais. It’s almost a rite of passage, which emphasizes the nobility of what is not merely a kitchen tool, but the natural extension of a chef – the secret ingredient that makes even a simple beef tartar something extraordinary.
Of course knowing the proper techniques of cutting and chopping raw meat is important – and beef tartar is one of those deceptive dishes (a bit like a fried egg, which the great Fernand Point used to make his students prepare as a test of their skill) that can pose problems for new cooks but so is the material of the knife itself.
The relationship between a chef and his knife is as intimate and personal as the one between a wizard and his wand, and there’s a similar air of mystery and popular beliefs surrounding both. It’s a common adage, for example, that knives shouldn’t be given as gifts because they bring good luck; and if you do give one, you should always include a coin inside the package. The person receiving the knife will then give you back the coin, as a symbolic “payment” to the giver, thereby warding off any possible curse.
Beyond all of the legends and superstitions, a knife’s importance is very clear especially when it comes to preparing something like tartar – either of meat or fish – in which the consistency and grain is important and is imparted to a large degree, by the quality, thickness and sharpness of the blade. Any expert butcher will tell you how important knives are to the carving of meat. But how is it possible that the quality of a knife can determine the success or failure of a dish? And what is it, precisely, that makes a good quality knife?
Let’s start with the basic construction: a knife is composed of two essential parts – the handle and the blade. The blade is most commonly made of tempered steel, steel that has been quickly cooled in water and oil. This process creates a certain internal irregularity, which determines the hardness. The addition of other materials – like carbon, nickel and chrome – gives each knife its specific characteristics. For example, stainless steel, which is the most common and least expensive, has a high chrome content and a low nickel content, which makes it particularly hard and resistant. On the downside, however, stainless steel blades tend to be less sharp than those with a high carbon, vanadium and molybdenum content.
These are the three elements to consider when purchasing a medium to high-quality knife. Those who aim for the top, instead, will opt for a ceramic blade (which, however, are very delicate) or else those made from what is sometimes (and often mistakenly) called “Damascus Steel”, which is made from many different layers with a variation in terms of the percentage of carbon. This process results in unparalleled sharpness, which makes it suitable for use in the creation of samurai swords.
And so it should be no surprise that Japan is one of the world’s biggest producers of quality knives – along with Germany, the Middle East and Northern Europe. All of these countries, in fact, are linked by a strong tradition of making weapons, and over the course of many centuries they’ve perfected the ability of creating sharp, resistant swords. The similarity between a sword and a knife should not be underestimated: just ask all the chefs who, on a daily basis, put themselves at risk by slicing and dicing meat and vegetables, cutting into fowl and then stuffing it. But of course, there is no one knife that is suitable for all cooking needs.
While a well-equipped kitchen should be furnished with around a dozen different knives, there is a multi-use model that all the greatest chefs would never go anywhere without. It’s called the “santoku”, whose features include a wide and thin blade, about 8-12 inches in length, with a lower-than-normal tip, making it suitable for almost every use except cutting through bones, due to its lightness and fragility.
The cost of a knife of this kind starts at around 250 dollars and when shopping for one, you should also pay close attention to the handle, which should be comfortable and provide a firm grip (left-handed cooks should make sure it can be easily managed in both hands). Where knives are concerned, it’s true that the more you spend the better instrument you’ll get. But keep in mind that even the best models of knives require special care and maintenance.
They should always be washed by hand with a mild detergent, and while doing so it’s obviously important to avoid touching the sharp blade. When it comes time to sharpen a high-quality knife, consider leaving the job to a professional sharpener, or at least invest in a kit specific to the type of blade. This may seem like a lot of trouble to go for something as basic as a knife – but a real cook knows that a good knife is the closest thing to a magic wand that can be purchased in this world.