German vs. Japanese Knives?

Western Style, German vs. Japanese Knives
East vs West?

First I want to clarify, by Japanese knife I do not mean "santoku," "usubi" or japanese shaped knife blades. Most of these companies produce a larger number of knives shaped with a classic "french," or "chef knife" style of blade. Suisin Inox and Misono UX-10 are excellent examples of japanese made knives in addition to the popular kershaw shun knives.

Japanese knives: Beauty and form.

They often have a higher rockwell rating or (HRC) which means the blade will stay sharper longer. However, with this increased hardness comes a more brittle blade. These knives can chip or break if dropped on the floor, should not be cleaned with conventional dish detergents. These knives require a much higher level of maintenance and skill in care than their german equivalents. For a casual home cook, this knife will present more of a burden than an asset. For a knife enthusiast or a more serious cook with an eye for japanese asthetics this knife will probably be a better fit.

Did I mention prices?
9 times out of 10 you will pay more for a japanese knife

German knives: durability and functionality

On the other hand are much more durable in general. Wusthof's composite handle can withstand an occasional pass through the dishwasher. A good knife should not be washed in the dishwasher because the steam cycle can damage the handles and wear down the knife. A japanese knife should NEVER be washed in the dishwasher.

Rockwell Scale Hardness of Knives

It seems a lot of importance and confusion has been given to this topic recently. I can see this term easily falling into the same consumer buzzword hell as “megapixels” for cameras and “bits” for video gaming consoles. Before I go into the relevance of the Rockwell system I want to first talk about steel.

A knife maker will buy steel from a company that processes it from iron ore and other materials to create a specific alloy. A high-quality steel for kitchen knives has specific metallurgical properties and can be expensive to produce. If the knife maker buys a cheaper - lower quality steel, it will make no difference how hard it is in Rockwell terms or how it is processed by the knifemaker - it will simply be a bad knife. A good example is the Global brand, which I like very much. Many of these knives are not forged to create a lighter knife. Because of the alternative techniques used, and the high-quality steel, they are able to create a great lightweight knife without the forging process so valued among knife consumers.

Hardness of knives is very important. A softer steel will be more durable but not retain an edge the way a hard steel will. On the flipside a hard steel will be sharper and have better edge retention, but will be much more delicate and likely to chip or break. This is the idea behind ceramic knives, they are so hard that they almost never need to be sharpened, but even dropping them onto a marble counter can damage or destroy it. Blades made for axes, chisels and swords must be made from a softer steel because they must endure high impact that would break a blade from a harder steel. On the other hand, pocket knives and hunting knives don’t have this problem and are often made from very hard steels.

A cheap knife or blade from a softer steel is extremely hard to sharpen and will never take on the edge of a harder steel blade.

The Rockwell scale is a measurement system used by commercial manufacturers to determine the relative hardness of objects based on the depth of indentation from a heavy object. In other words, they drop a heavy ball or diamond cone onto the steel and measure the size of indentation. For knives they use the “C” scale in units labeled “HRC.” High carbon steel kitchen knives generally run from HRC 56-58. HRC 62 is a very hard knife.

Initially I spent a great deal of time comparing Rockwell ratings for different brands. For the most part it seems these companies list a very generic and apocryphal range. In my opinion there are many other factors that are more important in buying a knife, among which is cosmetic appeal. Obviously I am concerned with a high quality knife, but a good knife is a good knife. You don’t have to call the steel company to confirm the alloy.

High carbon steel is an alloy where carbon is added to increase hardness. The difference between “Carbon steel” and “high carbon steel” is with high carbon steel or HCS, other elements have been added to prevent rust and tarnish and increase durability. These additional elements effectively decrease the hardness of the knife which makes HCS a compromise between the two types of steel.

Hardness is important when buying a knife but only to an extent. A professional chef will invest the money is a very hard Japanese knife because it will not need to be sharpened as often even with extensive daily use. These knives can break or chip if they are dropped on a hard floor or even handled carelessly. They require greater attention and care. Wusthof knives are very durable and have comparable edge retention. The represent a good value.

Buying a Kitchen Knife

Whether you are looking for a heavy duty Chef's knife or a small paring knife, or a knife to cut smoked salmon - there's really no absolute recommendation.

There are a few axioms to follow while shopping:

1. Ergonomics -A knife that you can hold comfortably is always the best knife.

2. Heavier is not necessarily better. German style knives, as a matter of style, are almost always heavier than their Asian counterparts.

3. You will always pay more for a Japanese knife.

There are so many options now, you can basically shop in whatever price bracket you want. Forschner's fibrox 8 inch chef knife is available for under $25. This is perfect if you only cook once or twice a week and are sick of cheap department store knives. If you are resolved to buy a really good knife, you'll be spending at least $80. Wusthof's 8 inch classic chef's knife is available for around $90. A chef might spend $300 on a good knife and sushi chefs spend $5000 on a knife. It is unlikely that best knife for a chef will be the best knife for you.

Trusted Brands:

Wusthof, Global, Messermeister, Shun, MAC, Sabatier. Victorinox and Forschner make very good knives at bargain values. They, however don't compare in quality and lack the cosmetic appeal of the others.

Brands to avoid:

Henckels, Chicago Cutlery, retail brands ie. calphalon, cuisinart, kitchenaid, viking and anything with a celebrity chef's name on it.