Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sharp is better!

"I've been rich and I've been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better." – Sophie Tucker (among others!)

While trimming spare ribs into St. Louis style ribs this morning I recalled the simple, yet wonderful, sentiments of Sophie Tucker. Given the choice between having and not having – having is better. Why did these words pop into my head while trimming pork ribs? Because as my freshly sharpened knife cut easily through both meat and bone I couldn’t help recalling the times when I tried the same cuts with dull knives.

If I may, let me paraphrase Sophie. I’ve used sharp knives and I’ve used dull knives. Believe me, sharp is better.

Most BBQ cooks understand this principle, yet do enough of us understand how to turn that principle into a reality? Sure, we want sharp knives; we crave sharp knives. But at the end of the day do we have sharp knives?

In fact, are we actually dulling our knives with the traditional tools most of us carry with us from competition to competition? Well, I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought the answer was “no.”

Perhaps one of the most important tools for keeping a sharp edge between actual sharpening is the “steel.” You know, that long rod with ridges that comes with every Henkels and Wusthof knife set! You all have one….don’t you? Of course you do!

Because I don’t want to insult your intelligence I won’t bother explaining that a steel won’t actually sharpen a knife. You probably already understand that the purpose of a steel is to re-align the edge because as a knife is used the edge tends to curl – thus taking that sharpness away. Each of you is already an expert at removing that curl by passing the knife across a steel.

But did you know that not all steels are created equal? You have your typical “new with the set” steel - these are characterized by long ridges running up and down the length of the tool. Then there’s the butcher’s steel - a long piece of steel with no ridges. Then there’s the ceramic “steel” – which actually comes close to being a sharpener because most of them have a grit like quality.

If you are going to bother re-aligning your knives with a steel do yourself a favor. Use one that actually helps you keep the knife sharp. I recommend using either the smooth butcher's style steel or a ceramic hone. In an email with knife sharpener Dave Martell (this guy's my hero!) Dave passed along some words of wisdom about using a steel:

A friend of mine send me some pictures a few years back that clearly showed what most of us pro sharpeners already knew and that's the typical grooved steel damages knife edges. It appears that the sharpcorners of the cut out grooves will grab and tear the edge which in turn leaves a jagged deformed surface behind. This jagged edge is what cuts, or rather tears, at the food.

There are some grooved steels that are very hard and super fine which are less bad for the cutting edge, however, they're very hard to locate and the price point is discouraging. I suggest using a fine ceramic hone like the ones we carry from Idahone. They work in a way where they remove loose damaged micro-teeth (trace material seen on the rod as black streaks when used) and at the same time assure that the edge is aligned correctly as well as brought back to the optimum grit level for maximum performance. For European/American knives the ceramic rod is the best way to go.

The other issue with steels is how they are used or - perhaps more importantly - misused. Here's Dave again:

One other point worth noting is that one of the worst things you can do to your knives, or maybe better said - pointless things you can do to your knives, is to "steel" them by swinging them at the rod in the air like the fancy chefs on TV do. Those of us in the know see the damage this creates to the shape of the belly of the knife and the scratches along the sides of the blade caused by slips. In the thousands of demonstrations I've personally seen I have never seen one cook "steel" correctly. They're all hitting the edge, that is if they actually do hit the edge, at an incorrect angle and most often also not hitting the entire edge along it's length. Why flail away with a knife in mid air acrobatics besides to look cool? I say drop the showmanship and go for edge quality which is after all what you're supposed to be after.

An example of this ridiculous method of using the steel is found on Youtube featuring notable chef Gordon Ramsay:
(sorry - embedding was disabled so click on the link if you'd like to see the video)

So how should you use a steel? Let's give Dave the last word:

The correct technique for using a honing rod (or steel) is to put the tip of the rod down on the counter/table top while holding the handle in your off hand. Then slowly, using control, make light swipes down the rod travelling from heel to tip. When using this method you only need 2-3 passes per side to bring the edge back to it's peak level. Using this method doesn't look as fancy to onlookers however it provides a better longer lasting edge with zero damage to the knife as well as extending the knife's serviceable life through less edge wear.

Monday, April 12, 2010

How sharp is too sharp?

When I first bought a smoker I was really impressed with my new purchase. I decided to spend way more for my cooker than the "typical" smoker costs because I believed that I might as well cry once and have the item that I wanted. When I brought it home I put it together and it was a thing of beauty. A big barrel, nice smoke stack and a firebox made me the talk of the town (it’s a small town!).

That first smoker was a Brinkmann Pitmaster, and compared to the ECB (El Cheapo Brinkmann) bullet smoker, this was a Ferrari. However, it didn’t take me long to find out that the thin layer of metal and the small firebox would be a huge disadvantage when trying to smoke meats that take a long time on the heat. After spending some time on BBQ forums I came to realize that what I though was a good smoker was, in fact, a royal piece of crap. Sure, some folks love cooking on these smokers – they love to make modifications and re-engineer the pit. But I’m not that kind of guy. I want a product that does what it’s supposed to do without hassle and frustration.

I suppose that’s just the way things go. We have perceptions of quality that simply don’t hold up to the deep mystery of reality. Lesson learned.

I am in the process of learning that same lesson again, but now it’s with knives and knife sharpening. For the last year or so I have been experimenting with dry stones, Arkansas oil stones, and recently I purchased an Edge Pro sharpening system. In order to learn how to use the stones I have had to learn a lot about knives. Secondary bevels, burrs, acute and obtuse angles, the list goes on. I have also learned a lot about the difference between Japanese knives and the German knives we have come to think of as knives of the highest quality.

My experience with knives is similar to my experience with cookers. The idea of quality is often found in perception based on experience. I perceived that the Brinkmann Pitmaster was of higher quality than the ECB bullet, primarily because of the price difference and the appearance of the cooker itself. It simply looked more like a smoker to me! Indeed, the quality of a Pitmaster is probably higher than the Brinkmann bullet smoker. However, when I was confronted with a community of other BBQ enthusiasts I came to realize that my perceptions of quality were way off the mark in the grander arena of the world of cookers. The same thing is true for knives. Put up against the knives I bought from Sam’s Club (2 for $8) and the Chicago Cutlery that I inherited from my mom, the Wusthofs and Henkels that my wife bought for our home seemed like the highest of quality. Even more impressive, they cost twice as much as the knives I grew up using. Thus, these German knives were the high-water mark for me in terms of cutlery. Then I tried to sharpen them.

I was looking for that scary sharp edge, and I managed to get it after some work. The problem was that I couldn’t keep the edge. I’m not afraid to admit when my ignorance gets the best of me, so I got onto a knife forum and began to ask what I was doing wrong. The answers I got back surprised me, they even offended me a little. The problem was that I was expecting Japanese knife quality from a German knife. The problem is that Japanese steel can be up to 10x stronger than German steel, so a razor edge is difficult to keep on a German knife. To put it in BBQ terms - A Brinkmann won't cook like a Jambo.

After a phone call to master sharpener Dave Martell (Japanese Knife Sharpening) to see what I could do differently he informed me to actually refrain from making the knives razor sharp. His council? Use a courser stone so that the edge can maintain some “teeth”, the knife will cut better, longer if it is not brought to a razor, polished edge.

I am certainly not about to go and dump my German knives in order to get Japanese slicers in order to cut briskets at a BBQ competition. Indeed, there is no need to do that, just like there is no need for us all to sell inferior pits in order to get a Jambo (believe me, I’ve come close)! The secret is to understand the equipment we have and adjust our use of the equipment accordingly.

So, if you are having trouble maintaining a “scary sharp” knife, it may not be your lack of care – it may be the knife itself. If your razor sharp Henkel is having trouble cutting through a bark coated brisket, it may be that you need a different kind of sharpness to achieve the desired results. And if that "scary" sharpness disappears as quickly as it came, there is only the deep mystery of reality to explain that the knife is just too soft to hold that kind of edge.

Here are some videos of Dave at work: