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:


OakridgeBBQ said...

Good primer on BBQ knives and sharpening. I switched to Japanese knives and water stones 6 years ago and haven't looked back once. If you're serious about sharpness, learning how to freehand sharpen on a set of water stones is a necessity. However, I differ from Dave's sage advise and prefer all of my knives to be razor sharp. Just don't expect a 150mm petty to perform the same task as a 300mm gyuto or sujihiki.

monty said...

His advice only applied to softer German knives. I think if the knife were Japanese - and thus able to tolerate the sharpness and maintain the integrity of the angle he'd suggest a Japanese slicer. Thanks for checking the blog out!

Angry Pig BBQ said...

Thanks for the post, very informative.