Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Sunday, November 10, 2013

A Cut Above

There was never a good Knife made of bad Steel - Poor Richard's Almanac
I have fallen in love with a knife.

I never planned it this way - I never knew I wanted it this badly. It's not like the gleaming Shun chef knife on display at my store.  I have lusted for that for years.  Now that I know I will be bringing it home, I visit that knife every day.  Just to talk to it.  Get it used to the sound of my voice. I have even introduced it to a couple of knives I already own, so it won't feel like a stranger when it arrives.

Here is a selfie I took with it.

This is different. Not a longing or desire, but an actual need. It was time for a new bread knife.

We tend to overlook bread knives. This despite the claims of many (including me) that you only need three knives in your kitchen: Chef’s, paring and bread. It may be that serrated knives, in general, lack the cachet of their straight-edged relatives. Yet, if you are like me, you actually may have more serrated blades in your kitchen than smooth ones.

There are steak knives, of several sizes, to start with.  The serrated set that my Mom bought because it looked good.  They live around the house - I use them to open bags of charcoal and sacks of flour.

Other hand-me-downs include grapefruit knives and citrus cutters.  A frozen food knife that has never worked for anything. There is a serrated cheese knife, with a handy built-in fork on the end. A knife from a bar set, with a built in bottle opener. Then there is the much maligned tomato knife.

Say what you will about it, but a tomato knife is a great travel knife. Perfect for hotels and campgrounds – hiking too. It is compact, fits easily in luggage or a backpack. If you get the rounded tip style I favor it won’t be likely to damage anything else you are carrying. It works great on breads and cheeses. It is broad enough to spread butters and jams.

It's also really good for slicing tomatoes.

When I am doing one or two at home or at work, I steel up a Chef. It works just fine. But for more than a couple, I reach for the 'mater knife. To do tomatoes with any speed with a smooth knife you have to reach for the steel too often. It's not efficient. In the words of Seattle chef Tom Douglas “Trying to get a knife sharp enough to cut a tomato is overrated. Just use a serrated knife”.

A good bread knife needn't be expensive. In fact an expensive knife would be a waste. A serrated edge is difficult to sharpen, if not impossible. I prefer to treat them as a temporary item. A well maintained, quality chef knife may last a lifetime - a bread knife will need to be replaced. In the words of Chad Ward, author of The Edge in the Kitchen, the definitive guide for use and care of your cutlery (and someone who takes the time to respond to your inquires).

There are techniques for sharpening serrated knives, but it is a pain. Don't bother. For the most part you can treat bread knives as disposable items.

On the other hand, you don’t want to go really low rent. I grew up with the ones that are little more than cheap flimsy plastic handles attached to cheap, flimsy stainless. Blades so flexible as to be dangerous - if it can cut through a can imagine what it can do to your hand. I don’t have to imagine. I have done worse damage with one of those than all the other knives I have used put together. Any questions about why I bring my knife roll when I visit my folks?

That still leaves a lot of choices. I generally look in the $20 – 40 range and a smart shopper can find great bargains. I would disagree with those who suggest purchasing Dexter-Russell knives below this price point. A solid knife brand used in many professional kitchens (except around here, to my chagrin), the bread knives are scalloped edges, rather than a serrated blade.

You can see the difference in the photo at right, gratuitously stolen from a post in eGullet by the aforementioned Chad Ward. On the top is a scalloped (the middle is a granton edge - my slicer and santuko both have such) and at bottom a serrated edge.

My first purchased bread knife was serrated. Like most of my cutlery at that point it was from the Chicago Cutlery walnut-handle line – still available and still quite serviceable. It was a 10 inch blade with everything you’d want. Over 15 years it dulled and needed replacement, but it still lives in the toolbox we call the “Adventure Kit” and gets plenty of use.

IMG_1615Its replacement was an 8” Wusthof I picked up at T.J. Marshall’s. A scalloped blade, I had issues from the start at both ends of the crust spectrum. You had to push hard on the crisp crust of a boule or baguette to get started, but it was even tougher to get started on the Italian loaf (Beezil Bread) I make for the girls sandwiches. Too often the bread got squished. Then it too got dull, and in a much shorter period of time. Mark me in the camp that prefers the serrated.

So it was time for a new one and I had one in mind: a LamsonSharp offset serrated knife. It came highly recommended – an endorsement that stuck with me as I re-entered the bread knife market.
For the life of me I can’t figure out where it came from.

I had the recollection that it was Cooks Illustrated, but when I checked it was a Forschner. They didn’t even like offset knives. It couldn’t have been the Frug – offset knives weren’t de rigueur back then. Bourdain liked an offset knife, but an F. Dick. Alton and Chad don’t recommend particular knives (and both prefer scalloped edges). That swill of shill known at The New Cooks Catalog has a Lamson, but a straight blade.

So I have no idea how this knife became imbedded in my brain as someone’s top pick, but I went with it. Found it online at a good price. Unwrapped and washed it when it arrived, and put it to use on the Michelle Miche. No problem. Beezil Bread? Great. Bagels? Super. I liked it so much I bought a second one for a friend.

Think I am going on and on and about a silly bread knife? I am. No apologies from me.

Because love means never having to say you’re sorry.


Emily Lowrey said...

Thank you for your candid, and hilarious review, of the bread knife. It's not often that someone goes into such detail about longevity and practicality. Much appreciated. I'll be using your intel to purchase my next bread knife.

Scotty Harris said...

You re most welcome. The bad news is that less than 12 hours after posting this I find out that the knife has been discontinued . . .

Tyrone Barton said...

Years ago while traveling with Mercy Ships on the Caribbean Mercy we were docked in Boston. I had a day or two free time after a major event we catered for public relations (for Mercy Ships fund raising)and I traveled to Greenfield Mass because I lived there a very short time and my mom and sister were born there...caught up with old friends of family, and family (30 plus years old)and then promptly went to the Lampson-Sharp store (in Shelburne Falls) and later toured where they make them. I know I blogged about it at some point BUT as luck would have it I lost quite a few years of my blogging posts when transferring my website. SIGH

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -