ALCHEMY OF STEEL - SIMPLE TRUTH

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THE ALCHEMY OF KNIVES

THE CHEF’S ( My ) MAIN TOOLS


PHOTO: MY KNIVES ARE EAST MEETS WEST


GERMAN STEEL
Most of the knives you see are stamped, burned or otherwise marked, German steel realize that’s a selling point.  But to someone who knows knives it’s not.  

German steel is a metal made from bog iron ore in a forge, with charcoal for fuel.  Thus you get “ Carbon steel”.  Charcoal is used as the carbon supply or ingredient necessary for steel production or the steel would be too soft. 

Historically the Germans got their iron ore from Scandinavia. This ore from Sweden had some neat trace elements in it that made for very good hardened steel.  The huge German Steel industries developed in the 1800's with companies like Krupp. They made the steel wheels for railroad cars and rails themselves.  

The second steel renaissance came during the rebuilding of Germany after the first World War.  Steel became a vast part of the culture, unfortunately it was more for Panzers, Tigers, bayonets and gun barrels than the kitchen.  They had the good blast furnaces from Britain and with good ore and charcoal, you had “German steel” and the world lost almost 60 million people.  So much for German steel, I see it in ads all day long.


CARBON STEEL
Steel is an alloy of iron that must contain Carbon. It is the most important hardening element in a knife.  Other elements may be added for specific applications. Carbon is the most important element, which increases the strength of the steel, and without the high enough percentage, the alloy would not harden.  BUT they have a down side. They can lose their sharpness faster if not used right, they are brittle, they corrode and discolor if not treated right. 

They do however have a strong cult following especially in the Sushi world where people do take care of knives as a matter of practice.  Skilled sushi chefs who prepare truly authentic Japanese sushi go through years of rigorous training, often up to 10 years, to become an itamae, or sushi master.   Their knives go home with them for proper rest.  Many own two of the same and they alternate days for the metal to reform and not create an odor on whats being sliced.

Sushi knives are wiped after each use or sometimes each stroke as on blowfish. They are never left in liquid and kept as sharp as a razor as a matter of habit.  This is fine as these blades are never used to hack, chop, nor butcher, they only slice. 

Exception might be total carbon steel cleavers and many are made with a lacquer finish for rust protection as you are concerned only with the blade edge as a chopper.  Recently bit of chromium added to the steel make some of the better cleavers more rust resistance.  There is a big difference in Chinese and Japanese use of these knives. Read on.


SOLINGEN STEEL

Another name that pops up is "Solingen" steel which is a trade name for formulas by each manufacturer adding small elements of rare earth, each is proprietary to the maker.  A sample might be .5% carbon, 15% chromium, 2% molybdenum.  It also can denote a technique such as hammer forging. Solingen pocket knives main blades were hot-punched from stock and beat on a few times before stock removal. This makes for a better blade by compressing the molecules.

HIGH CARBON STEEL or STAINLESS  -  RUST RESISTANT AND RUST PROOF
Stainless Steel - Stainless steel is stronger than carbon steel, has better properties as to rust or corrosion. It's harder to get a good edge, but practice and the use of stones will make it easier and it will hold an edge much longer. This is not usually the case with mere mortals. If you said stones to some of my friends, they would tell you about their last kidney operation.   

In metallurgy stainless steel, also known as inox steel is defined as a steel alloy with a minimum of 10.5 or 11% chromium content by mass.  Most range around 13%. Stainless steel does not stain, corrode, or rust as easily as ordinary steel, but it is not stain-proof nor rust proof. Resistant is a better term, and is called corrosion-resistant steel or CRES. er meat.

Chromium is what gives the alloy its corrosion resistance, it forms chromium carbides for wear resistance, and hardens the steel.  But it has limitations, it can make steel too brittle if used to excess.  Thus the secret formulas and processes such as freezing or cold quenching to produce a good knife with properties.  Stainless Steel is really chromium steel with 13% chromium. The first 11% forms carbides, the rest help with anti-rust qualities. Stainless steel alloys can rust, they are only rust resistant, not rust proof and can stain by some acidic foods.

CHINA IS NOT JAPAN - FINE BLADE MAKING

It also put China on the map as the supplier of a large percentage of kitchen knives, mostly stamped not forged by some big names we call celebrity chefs,  and there is such variance in the quality I do not recommend them for anything other than clearing brush around the campfire and then throw them in the campfire.

Chinese cleavers are mostly OK as they are sharpened by underpaid chefs on a belt sander, files or stone. Ther is a good Chines maker Called 


MIKADO BRAND BY HENCKELS  -  GARBAGE
Here is another example, the prestigious German knife maker Henckels who went International ( China spelled backwards) and put their name on a line or several of lesser quality blade lines which set them backwards.  It backfired, they were named after a Chinese off shore boat.  Le JUNK.  I had accumulated on a deal three  MIKADOS MADE BY HENCKELS  stamped German steel in larger print and Made in China by the hilt needing a magnifying glass to see.  



CUTCO KNIVES --  DIRECT MARKETING SCAM

VECTOR CO.  is the company behind marketing Cutco’s products their  pitch and not the product.  Vector sells door to door by hiring sales associates and paying them commissions (High Percentage) on successful sales since motivated starving salespeople make excellent pitchmen.  But any commission-based sales program is suspect since it’s the money and not necessarily the need to solve ones dull knife problems 

It’s obvious the sales person makes a commission, the his or her sales manager makes a commission,  and guess who pays all these fine folks the additional profit.  

You, about 100%  more than it is worth in quality and in plain English you just paid 50 dollars extra for a 12-16-20 dollar knife.  Stamped steel crap and dumb handles. How smart are you?   Thats their commission for coming to your house and selling high-end knives requires some understanding of products, in knives some metallurgy, honesty and making sales quotas.  In the case of CUTCO it’s more sales technique and product presentation than product.  It’s nothing but a scam,

It is also based heavy on referrals almost to the point of obnoxiousness.  Sellout your friends and you get a five dollar paring knife...and lose a friend.

😇  You can get two Tramontina Santoku’s at Costco for 15.00 dollars which will perform better than what you see here.  I use them all day long for shows and commercial charity work and they are a great bargain. From Brazil is the real Tramontina.   Sam’s sells a copy from China.    Used in many thousands of commercial kitchens they are a nice mix of cost and quality and at Costco they have the whole knife PRO lineup from Tramontina made for the industry.  At Costco the whole PRO line, Chefs 8”-10”, Santoku’s, Parers, and Boners, Filet were on sale, so for the price of a “Celebrity Chef Knife” from CUTCO I can outfit an entire kitchen with two chefs for the price of this one over-rated Cutco. 



SECRET STEEL CODES OF THE KNIFE GODS

  • First two numbers - 10 means plain carbon steel, any other number designates alloy steel.  
  • For example 50XX is alloy chromium steel.
  • Last two numbers of steel specify the steel's carbon content for example:
  • Steel 1095 has 0.95% carbon.
  • Steel 5210 has 1.0% carbon.
  • Steel 5160 has 0.60% carbon. 
  • SAE designates tool steels with letters Example: W-1, O-1, D-2
  • Manganese – Has a hardening ability and offers strength and wear resistance. 
  • Molybdenum - Forms carbides, prevents brittleness and maintains the steel’s strength at high temperatures.
  • Nickel - Enhancer for strength, corrosion resistance, and toughness.
  • Silicon - Increases strength, and wear resistance.
  • Tungsten - Increases wear resistance.
  • Vanadium - Forms finely structured carbides to enhance wear resistance, toughness, and hardening ability.
  • Cobalt - Increases strength and hardness and permits quenching in higher temperatures. Intensifies the individual effects of other elements in more complex steels.


CERAMIC KNIVES - DO NOT DROP
Ceramic knives are very hard ceramic, usually zirconium oxide. They retain a cutting edge longer than most metal knives, no discoloration or corrode,  BUT BEWARE!  If dropped most likely like China they will break, very easily, and the edges will crack if left in a drawer mixed with other knives or tossed and pitched in a dishwasher. And again, if dropped will be rendered useless.  And dropping is not warranted.  Nor will your friends reimburse you when you let them use it.

The 300 dollar KYOCERA’s require a bodyguard to prevent theft and if dropped or mistreated are gone and you are screwed.   Pass, they work well but my friend suggested its like taking a baby in diapers to work with you, something is bound to go wrong and everybody wanted to try it, another bad side.  If you work alone fine.  Group therapy never had this is mind.




DAMASCUS STEEL  -  AND RELIGION
I was looking for the clues to find the Holy Grail of knife-making, so lets go back into time to the source of some great carving, slicing, stabbing and chopping...the Crusades.   The differences in knife styles came about or became more evident in the traditional East Meets West Religious tournaments held often enough called the "Crusades".  Now there’s a two hundred year reality show still going on today, the swords and lances being replaced by bombs and rockets in the same arena we call the Middle East Wars and they are carrying on all the traditions.

File-Watered_pattern_on_sword_blade2.Iran.JPG.jpg

The Crusades were a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns waged by much of the Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian control of the Holy Land. They were fought over a period of nearly 200 years, between 1095 and 1291. Other campaigns in Spain and Eastern Europe continued into the fifteenth century. 

Prejudice, extermination, carried on by the religious leaders of all sides followed by many despicable acts of abusive behaviors, inquisitions, pedophilia proved to me a long time ago man has to get real and start with the elimination by proxy of the two worst abusers, politicians and priests.

Campaigns were also waged against Slavs, Balts, Jews, Russian, Greek Orthodox Christians, Mongols, Cathars, Hussites, Waldensians, Old Prussians, and other political enemies of the various Popes. Sort of a “my way or the highway” approach to theology.  So much for “Can’t we just get along?”.


THE BROADSWORD  -   vs. DAMASCUS STEEL
The heavier steel swords of the armed Knights and foot soldiers contrasted with the lighter sharper Damascene foundry work. Damascus steel was a term used by several Western cultures from the Medieval period onward to describe a type of steel used in Middle Eastern swordmaking from about 1100 to 1700 AD. 

These swords are characterized by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water. Such blades were reputed to be not only tough and resistant to shattering, but capable of being honed to a sharp and resilient edge. In one scene from a movie the Saracen slices a silk scarf in mid air. The broadsword smashed a table.

It became further apparent in the traditional sword-making of the Japanese, who also blend the metals into layers, and has filtered down into the Japanese higher end kitchen knives we see today. They are as much art as they are tools. They as many things are, traditional as in many parts of the world, copied and cloned in China.  

"I can sum it up in one last observation. Forrest Gump once said: "Life is like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you get".   Other than Chinese cleavers, thats about what I think of some of the knives coming from China.  You don't know what you will get even with a big name endorser swearing how great they are".  The endorsers, follow the money, usually mediocre quality products so they can be sold direct to consumers on TV with enormous profits.  Most of the time, it is shipped direct from China and the new tariffs will make note of shipping.


TWO SEPARATE PROCESSES AND NAME CALLING
Knives have either forged or stamped blades.  Stamped blades began life as thin sheets of steel.  Punched blanks are cut out and the knife is then finished. Blade-shaped blanks are punched out of the long sheet in a huge press, bolsters may be welded in place.  Some feel stamped blades are thinner and lighter in the front for better slicing.  

Till you get your hands on a quality Japanese thin blade.  Touch mine and I’ll trim your fingernails to the first knuckle. This is the basic difference of East vs. West knife theology. Weight and balance, thickness of the stock and in good quality Eastern knives rolled or layered specialized steel for thinness and stiffness.

Both styles may be forged or stamped, usually the forging products costing more. The thinner blades may be cryogenically treated which means they have been subjected to extreme cold and unique quenching processes to stiffen them. Not stronger just stiffened.  Some of the knives have exotic handles which easily raise the price range.  Good knives have good handles and good blades.

Wusthof,  Shun, WUSTOF, Henkel’s,  Global and Victorinox, Forshner, in their premium lines.  But all make both stamped and forged lines in a myriad of handles and shapes (and price ranges) including one piece stainless knives to accommodate all markets from high-end to middle preferences and price ranges. 

The eight inch standard chef’s knife is available for budgets from $2.99 to $2400.00 and no less than eight countries manufacture these knives. They come in colors, they come in weird handles, strange looking blade shapes and lots of promises that last as long as your time allocated to credit card statements.

When you have been to a plant and seen the steel-working processes’ and hand honing of a quality knife and then the production line setup of a lesser cost item, you might start to understand what quality and literally “soul" means in knife-making. 

COMMERCIAL KNIVES
Restaurant  cooking requires something a little more in the design of knives as they will be used heavily by many different chefs, mis-treated, dumped in the dish washer, dropped on the floor, sharpened on a grinder or with a file and auspiciously displayed on a magnetized holder on the wall to make sure it was not stolen.  Some places had their blade handles numbered and a corresponding number on the wall, just like they do in prison kitchens.  I don’t blame them, if we fired someone in the kitchen, first thing was a knife count.

Dexter Russel, Mac, Tramontina, Mundial, Franklin Commercial, to name just a few.  Most chefs have their own knives and guard them voraciously, as I do. My portable knife kit is good quality TRAMONTINA commercial knives, very inexpensive but excellent quality. My really good Shuns, Wusthof’s and my one Kramer do not leave the house for a charity gig.  Sometimes at a really nice charitable function we’ll give a knife to the best helper as a gift for being a worthy person and some restaurant quality knives from GFS and Tramontina for volunteer helpers.


ABOUT JAPANESE KNIVES

THE ART OF KNIFE MAKING
Since the end of World War II, western-style double-beveled edged knives have become much more popular in Japan, the best example being that of the Santoku, an adaptation of the Gyuto, as used as a French chef's knife. While these knives are usually honed and sharpened on both sides, their blades are still given Japanese-style acute-angle cutting edges with a very hard temper to increase cutting ability on specialty knives and designs.

Professional Japanese cooks usually own their personal set of knives, which are not used by other cooks. Some cooks and I have heard this before, and even witnessed it on Iron Chef as they treat their knives as an extension of their hand. Some even own two sets of knives, which they alternate every other day.

After sharpening a carbon-steel knife in the evening after use, the user normally lets the knife “ Rest" for a day to restore its patina and remove any metallic odor or taste that might otherwise be passed on to the food. 

They are very fussy about their cutlery. On the Iron Chef, I believe the famous Japanese world acclaimed chef Morimoto used a sharpened abalone shell to cut the fish and not let the knife steel change the taste of the delicate Abalone which is a very absorptive flesh to work with.