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.