The Great Knife Off

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The Great Knife Off

I tend to be pretty flexible in the kitchen and make up for equipment deficiencies by repurposing other tools. One thing I just can't deal with though is a dull knife. It's one of my biggest kitchen pet peeves and something I find all too often when I cook in someone else's kitchen.

When New West Knifeworks offered to send me some knives to review, I was excited by the chance to compare them to the knives in my current arsenal. While I'm always telling people that you only need one chef's knife and one paring knife, I inherited pack-rat tendencies from my mother and have amassed quite a collection of kitchen knives over the years. To make this comparison as comprehensive as possible, I got some of the older ones out of mothball and gave them all a good sharpening so I could share how well the New West knives stacked up.

What are your kitchen pet peeves?

Back in my college days, it was common to find people with cheap knife sets that sliced through food about as cleanly as an aluminum baseball bat. This was understandable, for that matter, my first knives came from Macy's on clearance and they came with a ceramic pot full of cooking utensils. Now that my peers have all grown up, they've moved on to better knives, but I'm still often shocked at how dull their knives are.

It seems that people have it in their heads that if they spend lots of money on a knife, it will stay sharp forever. This simply isn't true. The constant abuse the fragile edge takes with every stroke on the cutting board will blunt even the sharpest knife over time. That's why it's important to hone your knives on a regular basis and sharpened them when they need it.

I sometimes hear people say that they don't sharpen their knives because they are worried about cutting themselves. I know it may sound a bit counter-intuitive, but when handled correctly, a sharp knife is much safer than a dull one. Accidents happen when a knife slips, or when you are using too much pressure because the knife isn't doing its job.

The Great Knife Off

So what are the criteria to judge a knife by? The best knives will hold their edge for a long time without sharpening and can easily be resharpened back to their original edge. Beyond that, there are subjective measures such as appearance, weight, balance, blade length, curvature of the blade, and the ergonomics of the handle. I'll attempt to cover these points over a series of two posts.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be using all the knives below on a regular basis and I'll be sharing my observations on Twitter with the hashtag #knifeoff. At the end of my review period, I'll share some conclusions here, including which knife held its edge for the longest.

The Contenders:

New West Knifeworks Phoenix "The 9"(price:$199, weight:7.9 oz, usable length:8.75")

New West Knifeworks Fusionwood "Chef 8"(price:$149, weight:9.7 oz,usablelength:7.75")

Wusthof Classic(price: $110,weight:8.7 oz,usablelength:7.75")

J.A. Henckels Fine Edge Pro(price:$15, weight:5.3 ozusable length: 8")

Japanese nakiri bocho (price: $?? , weight: 5 oz, usable length: 6.25")

Initial thoughts:

New West Knifeworks Phoenix "The 9"

The Great Knife Off

Right out of the box I already knew I was going to love this knife. The Damascus steel blade is beautiful to look at with its nebulous swirls of high carbon steel and the candy red handle sports curves in all the right places. This knife just wants to be held in the tender caress of your palm. It's also relatively light. This isn't normally a good thing for a knife, since you should be using the weight of the knife to slice through whatever you are cutting, but in this case the thin blade is so sharp it effortlessly glides through everything from meat to tomatoes to ginger. The blade is also 1" longer than most chef's knives and that extra length really helps, especially when you're trying to cut thin slices of meat or fish.

While I'd love to declare this knife the winner and be done with it, there are a few minor drawbacks I should mention. The first is that the blade is a little more narrow than a standard chef's knife, so it does make scooping things up and over to a pan a bit of a chore. The second thing is that the blade is thinner than a chef's knife, so I wouldn't use it to debone a chicken for fear of chipping the blade. Neither of these drawbacks are really the knife's fault since it's technically not a chef's knife, so if you can afford having this one and a more heavy duty chef's knife, you won't be disappointed.

New West Knifeworks Fusionwood "Chef 8"

The Great Knife Off

More burly and rugged than its lithe Phoenix brethren, this is the Mickey Rourke of knives. It's not much of a looker, but this knife isn't worried about getting dirt under its nails, and it does a couple of things the The 9 doesn't. First of all the blade is really thick, inspiring confidence when hacking your way through a whole chicken. The extra weight also helps in this department (you'll need a proper butcher block if you don't want to whack right through your cutting board). The broad blade makes it the perfect scoop for transferring those minced onions over to the pan without dropping them all over the floor.

The only minor flaw I found upon initial testing is that the blade discolored after only a few uses. I suspect it happened when I used the knife to cut up a hot pork roast, which has never happened before with any other knife I've used. This doesn't effect how the knife functions though, and frankly it adds a little something to its grizzled charm.

Wusthof Classic

The Great Knife Off

This has been my go-to knife for the past 3 years. During that time, it's been one of my most treasured kitchen tools and it's seen a lot of action. I gave it a good sharpening before embarking on this knife off to ensure that it had the best chance of holding its own against the new knives in the block.

Now that I've used the New West Knifeworks' knives, I do notice some flaws in the Wusthof's design. First of all, the weight is almost perfectly distributed between the handle and the blade. It's a personal preference, but I would rather have more of the weight in the blade since this is the part that actually does the slicing. Also, when doing a lot of chopping, the squared edges of the handle just don't feel as nice as the beveled handles on the New West knives. Lastly, I'm not one to choose kitchen equipment for style over function, but the "classic" look is a bit dated, and next to the gorgeous Phoenix knives, it will have a hard time winning any beauty contests. That said, it's a fine piece of cutlery that costs significantly less than the hand crafted ones above, so it shouldn't be totally discounted, especially if you're on a tight budget.

J.A. Henckels Fine Edge Pro

The Great Knife Off

Put simply, this knife is a piece of crap. It not only looks cheap with its flimsy stamped (as opposed to forged) blade, it feels like a toy in your hand. The blade will actually flex if you're trying to cut something hard. Of course, for the price, you could do a lot worse, but I'd recommend saving up and getting something a little more solid since a good knife should last you for many many years.

In all fairness I should mention that this wasn't exactly an apples to apples comparison, since Henckels has other more expensive lines of knives that would probably compare more favourably to the other competitors. I'm including it in this comparison anyway as a representative sample of all knives in this price range.

Japanese nakiri bocho

The Great Knife Off

A nakiri bocho (literally vegetable cutting knife) isn't technically a chef's knife, but it's roughly the same size, so I thought I'd throw it into the ring along with the other knives. With a very light wooden handle and most of the weight in the thin blade, some might find this knife "unbalanced". Personally I don't mind the blade forward weight bias. The cutting edge is almost flat, making it perfect for rapidly chopping and mincing vegetables and herbs. Although it's not intended for meat, and fish, the blade is sharp enough that it does an admirable job with both. The only major drawback of using it on meat is that the blade is quite short and you might not be able to slice all the way through a thicker piece of meat in one stroke.

If you like to chop using a rocking motion (instead of a circular motion), the flat edge may make this type of knife awkward for you. Another problem is that it's made from a regular carbon steel (not stainless). This makes the knife rust, and the softer blade tends to lose its edge rather quickly. That said, it can be sharpened to a razor sharp edge that you could shave with, and it is very easy to sharpen.