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So many knife choices can make one edgy

Asian styles, big and "scary" next to European blades, dice up all our notions about knives.

With so many knife models to choose from consumers have to experiment to find cutlery that is comfortable, suits the way they cook, and sharpens well and stays sharp.
With so many knife models to choose from consumers have to experiment to find cutlery that is comfortable, suits the way they cook, and sharpens well and stays sharp.Read moreBILL HOGAN / Chicago Tribune

Ted Allen exemplifies a problem many consumers face: What type of kitchen knives to buy? What will win - the exciting newness, for Westerners, of the Asian models, or the traditional comforts of the European-style knife? Or are there knives that incorporate features from both?

One of Allen's Facebook pages features the cookbook author, food writer, and host of TV's Chopped brandishing a big Japanese blade alongside his nose. It is a knife by Shun (pronounced "Shoon"). The brand has done more to popularize Asian cutlery in the North American market since the blunt-nosed santoku knife took the Food Network by storm a few years ago.

"I mainly like it because it's sharp as a scalpel and it looks so scary," Allen says. "Shuns have that beautiful pattern on the blade that somehow results from the way they're forged. But, in truth, it's actually too large to use often. My go-to knife is a standard 10-inch chef's knife from Wusthof, Henckels, or Viking."

There lies the rub for most consumers: Which knife will be their go-to? With prices for quality knives easily in the hundreds of dollars, and the choices seemingly infinite, the decision can be daunting.

While many consumers will make a decision on buying a European- or Asian-style knife, the wafflers among us can look to fusion knives, the newest angle in the knife market. Witness the new Japanese-made Miyabi Fusion knife line, a collaboration among Sur La Table, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, and Henckels' Japanese division. Or, look at how Shun partnered with Bob Kramer, a custom knife "master bladesmith" based in Olympia, Wash., to offer the Bob Kramer Meiji collection.

Marrying Japanese knife blade technology with handles and blade shapes that Americans like offers consumers "the best of both worlds," said Jacob Maurer, vice president of merchandising for Sur La Table, the kitchenware purveyor.

"Most of the really authentic Asian blade shapes don't fit in with how we cook and eat and use knives," he added. "We want a knife for meat and to chop vegetables and be durable enough to cut through a chicken bone or an acorn squash."

Debate may rage over various knife styles, but there's no argument that the Asian-style knives, particularly the Japanese brands, have been a game-changer in the usually placid knife market.

Susan Jardina, a spokeswoman for Kai USA Ltd., the American subsidiary of the company behind Shun cutlery, explains why Japanese knives are popular. "The Japanese knife is easy to use. It's lighter, has a thinner blade, and is sharper. It's an easier knife to hold."

James DeWan, culinary instructor and coauthor of Zwilling J.A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills: The Essential Guide to Use, Techniques & Care, sees more Asian-style knives brought by students to his classes. He likes the look of them and the ultrathin blade. But he still recommends a basic, good-quality European-style chef's knife.

"For 95 percent of what I do, I use a chef's knife," said DeWan, who also does some writing for Tribune Newspapers.

"Did you hear my sigh?" said Norman Weinstein with a chuckle when asked about the surge in Asian knives' popularity. "I like the old-fashioned knives," declared the Brooklyn, N.Y., author of Mastering Knife Skills.

Weinstein worries that consumers buying Asian-style knives won't know how to keep them honed; the metals used in the blades can be harder than conventional sharpening steels. Will they be willing to buy a whetstone, as some Asian blademakers advise, and learn how to use it properly? And, Weinstein asked, will the consumer used to the rocking chopping motion of a curved European-style blade be comfortable with the up-and-down movement a straight Asian blade edge would require?

There's an answer to nearly every question. Shun, for one, sells super-hard steels and whetstones. As to wielding the knife, DeWan says most people are ignorant of how to do it right no matter what they're holding.

Asian-style knives may be the latest thing, but Wusthof's Annette Garaghty, director of sales and marketing for the German company's Connecticut-based subsidiary Wusthof-Trident of America Inc., insisted that the interest in Asian knives hadn't cannibalized business.

"German cutlery always has had a presence in the marketplace," she said. "We are not threatened by the Japanese, we're excited by the newness."

At Wusthof, that newness is expressed in the company's Classic knife line by what Garaghty calls a robust face-lift. The blades are fashioned with a patent-pending process to increase sharpness and lengthen edge retention. The knife also sports a new, sleeker blade angle and a more tapered edge.

Don't expect the debate to be over soon.

"It's so personal, the type of knives one likes," said Allen, who admits to having another knife problem. He likes knives so much, the kitchen of his Brooklyn home is tricked out with 3 feet of magnetized bars to display his arsenal. Although the Japanese knife in his Facebook photo is too long and light for him, he is comfortable using others.

"The Japanese knife I do like is the Shun santoku with indentations for very thin slicing," Allen noted. "It's great for salmon, carpaccio, etc. I have another Japanese knife that's 12 inches long, completely straight, and sharpened/beveled on one side. It's a very specialized sushi knife. I carved my Thanksgiving turkey with it, and it worked, but it was kind of like driving a car that pulls to the right."

Choosing a knife

Comfort. Holding the knife should feel like shaking the hand of an old friend. The hold should be comfortable, snug, trusting.

Type. Buy a knife that reflects how you cook. Do you do a lot of chopping? Get a sturdy chef's knife or Chinese cleaver, not a wee paring knife. The more all-purpose the knife, the more uses you'll have for it.

Sharpness. Pick the knife that will take a sharpening well and stay sharp a long time, with only the occasional honing to keep its edge.