Heirloom Cutlery

This electric sharpener looks to be a great value; but, it's also symbolic of the how-best-to-fix climate change debate that's brewing. While environmental activists fight the uphill battle against SUV's, a product owned by a minority of us, what to do about the smaller planetary cuts inflicted by all? In the kitchen, learning how to cook with hand sharpened, heirloom quality knives is an option. Hand-held cutlery ranges from beautiful to function-ugly ("fuggly") and from absurdly expensive to trashy cheap. Price has a weak correlation with performance. A well made knife can last for many years, acquiring a treasured patina, and giving it heirloom status. Every cuisine seems to generate a parallel universe of preferred cutlery. Look at this Japanese filet knife for example.'Fuggly-ful'
or beautiful? That choice lies in the eyes of the culture.

Here's an overview of the functional issues.

  • Your most heavily used kitchen knife should need a careful sharpening about once a month. If it goes out faster, you can do better by changing habits or tools.
  • Any edge is quickly ruined by mishandling. Dishwashers, drawers, and package cutting are the big destroyers.
  • You need a different sharpening technique for each blade style; and, sadly,only a few percent of the US population seems to be good at sharpening by hand.

  • The "quick-draw" sharpeners don't sharpen per.se.; instead, they take small chips out of the very fine part of the edge, introducing a serration effect that only lasts a short time.

What's the green dimension?  I'm not going for the rainforest conservation angle. That's not what drives the high consumption of steel, wood, and plastic in cutlery. Here's the perspective:

All dull work:-- Ever notice how many kitchens are cluttered with dull knives? There's always a "special" one that gets dragged out for Thanksgiving. If you keep truly sharp knives at home, you'll politely acknowledge it's worth, realizing your host has no idea what sharp is.  There's also likely to be a bunch of worn out serrated knives mixed in with those handed down from Granny. Helping with the cooking becomes a frustration.

Fear and Fastfood: -- If your host has one of those lovely two-hundred dollar cutlery sets, odds are that the whole set is either dull or else completely overlooked: "we don't use them because they're too sharp".  I've met many people who have serious knife phobias, so much so that sharp is unused or even banished from the kitchen. One person I knew gave good knives away because of the fear factor. I've wondered how much this drives people to eat in restaurants or buy prepared meals from the store.

Lack of Services: -- The traveling tinker who made a living sharpening all manner of edges is long gone now from our society.  Look in your yellow pages under "Sharpening Services".  There might be one retired guy who works out of his garage, but you'll be lucky if he's nearby. We'll just get some more knives when these are dull, right?

Transformative Technology: -- the food processor has subsumed many tasks formerly relegated to hand cutlery; which means there is less need to keep knives in good condition. While you really do need a great serrated blade for bread, serrated knives quickly lose out with denser foods and when a serrated blade gets dull, the tools needed to sharpen them are highly specialized and difficult to use.

Lost Skills: -- knife sharpening was traditionally a male domain until, that is, the introduction of the multi-stage electric knife sharpener.  If you don't have an electric sharpener, and you were not taught by a friend or relative how to hand-sharpen cutlery, you don't appreciate how much easier life could be in the kitchen.Even the electric sharpeners are far from perfect. From the resource efficiency standpoint, I've come to believe they're a poor investment.

Here's my drawbacks list for electric sharpeners.

  • Cost can be more than a complete top end knife set and they don't hold up for long if you cook at home regularly.
  • The diamond cutting and cewramic polishing heads typically wear out in under five years.Since few models sell replacement heads, the entire device, including fancy worm gears, transmission devices, switches, vibration dampers, and motor, have to be tossed when those small parts wear out (bad design-life matching).
  • Electric sharpeners barely work on short bladed paring knives.Unfortunately, short blades get the most use in food preparation. 
  • They work poorly on thick blades and on any strongly curved blade tip.

If you want to learn how to hand sharpen, I found an on-line tip sheet that's detailed enough for anyone. Go for the PDF version if you can (better formatting). It'll take a while to read and understand. Vegetarians may want to skip though, given the veterinarian context.

My winning strategy, the one that let me toss my last broken electric sharpener, was to find a mid-point between cutlery cost and hand sharpening tool investment. Here's what I ended up with.

First, I bought a handful of cheap pocket knives to leave around the house, and taught everyone to use the kitchen knives for cooking and the pocket knives for everything else.

I bought a half-dozen, inexpensive Chicago Cutlery stainless kitchen knives of various sizes. Because these all have relatively thick blades, the factory edge did not hold up for long and cutting tomatoes and such was awkward. I solved this problem by purchasing, for under $30, a large diameter, electrically powered, water-cooled sharpening stone; and I used this to "hollow grind" the stainless blades myself, narrowing the approach to the cutting edge significantly. The fine work is done with a hand held set of diamond hones that cost about $25. The resulting fine edges hold for up to two months of intense use. Note: the electric sharpening stone is also good for axes and scissors, things that typical kitchen electric sharpeners will not handle.

I purchased a 10-inch, thin and broadly curved carbon steel carving knife along with a graded set of sharpening "steels", as recommended by the maker. These items came to almost two hundred dollars, sopping up all the money saved with the common cutlery.

Finally, I bought a mid-weight, stainless steel meat cleaver, soft enough to chop poultry bones without risk of chipping or breaking. Also good for cutting large root vegetables. As I use this infrequently, it's sharp still as the day I bought it.

Now I have to promise myself to teach my children what I have learned.

by: John Laumer

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