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Santoku knife Santoku!

I think I'm in love. With a knife!?

The story began with an assignment from a local magazine that I edit in my, er, spare time (Louisville Food & Dining), a job that turned into Christmas in October when an interview with a local knife merchant prompted an impulse purchase that I don't the least bit regret.

I'll ask your indulgence in an occasional break from the usual weekly recipe so I can tell the tale. The assignment was simple: Just about any chef will tell you that his knife is his most important tool, so let's write something about that. (I just love these open-ended story ideas.)

Specifically, it's the chef's knife - a legacy from the French kitchen, that formidable-looking instrument with a sturdy handle and a long, broad, curved blade designed to rock its way quickly through your chopping chores - that no serious chef would want to be without.

Kept clean and dry and razor-sharp, a good chef's knife is more versatile than a food processor and much easier to clean. Whether you're cutting up meat or slicing onions or even taking on as tiny a task as mincing fresh garlic, a good chef's knife in competent hands makes short work of most kitchen prep chores.

But all chef's knives are not created equal. A quality, professional knife goes for around $100 at local kitchen-supply stores, and a quick Internet search reveals that you won't beat that price much by shopping online. Yes, you can find cut-rate knives for a fraction of the price at discount stores, but the quality difference makes a professional knife worth the toll, in terms of durability, balance and ease of use.

I've been using my favorite, a Chicago Cutlery model, for more than 20 years, and I won't give it up until they pry it out of my cold hands. It's still like new, looks great with its sturdy riveted-wood handle, and it takes and holds a keen edge. Unfortunately, corporate changes in recent years have altered the playing field, and Chicago Cutlery is a low-end producer now, too modest a product for professionals or serious amateurs.

The same, sadly, apparently goes for Henckel, once a highly respected German producer that seems to have lost its cachet. When Henckel added a factory in Brazil that churns out inexpensive knives sold in sets at discount stores, a local "gourmet store" dropped the line, preferring not to carry a brand that's available at Kmart or Target.

Another old-line German producer, however, appears to have retained the loyalty of the high-end consumer market. Knife gurus at two local firms both recommended the Wüsthof brand, a highly rated line of knives made in Solingen, Germany since 1814.

"They're fully forged steel, all one piece, not welded," said Carl E. Heimerdinger, president of the old Louisville knife company that bears his family name. "They're perfectly balanced." He demonstrated, somewhat to my alarm, by hefting a gleaming, razor-edged blade on his index finger, showing how it balances right at the "bolster" where the blade meets the triple-riveted handle. Wüsthof knives are high-tech tools, he said, made from stain-resistant 0.5 percent carbon steel to hold a long-lasting edge; they're made with lasers, then hand-honed twice before being packaged for sale.

Chef's knives come in a range of sizes from 6 to 12 inches (blade length, not including the handle), and all work well at their appointed tasks. The choice really depends on how the knife feels to you; Heimerdinger says the 8- or 9-inch blades are popular, but those with smaller hands may find a 7-incher more to their liking.

In any case, if you're thinking about investing in a quality chef's knife that you intend to use for many years, you'll want to get hands on to make sure that the knife you buy feels right in your hands and is easy to manage as you slice and chop. The blade should be thin but sturdy, not flexible or flimsy, and that's where quality pays.

So far, so good. All useful information, and I didn't need a new one ($96.75 for an 8-inch model at Heimerdinger's). But then Heimerdinger craftily reached under the counter to show me a knife so new that you could call it pardon-the-expression "cutting-edge."

It was a Santoku, the Japanese alternative to the French chef's knife, originally designed for slicing fish into delicate, paper-thin slices for sushi and sashimi. Thanks to its use by celebrity chefs - most notably FoodTV's perky Rachael Ray - the Santoku is increasingly popular in Western kitchens, to the point where Heimerdinger said it's hard for him to keep them in stock. "This is my last one," he said with a knowing grin, gently testing its edge with an index finger.

Where the French chef's knife boasts a curved blade so you can rock it on the cutting board while chopping, the Santoku's business side is almost flat, for straight-down slicing with surgical precision. Its blade is very, very thin, the better to hold a dangerously razor-sharp edge (use this baby with care, folks), and some models are made with a line of shallow oval pockets in the steel just above the cutting edge, a technology that's supposed to keep slices from sticking to the blade.

You already know that I couldn't resist. I brought it home, used it to make dinner, and was instantly smitten. I can't say that I'll use it for everything. The French chef's knife is still best suited for heavier duty. But the Santoku is just amazing for fine, controlled slicing and chopping. It will quickly reduce an onion to a pile of slices so translucently thin that you can read a newspaper through them. And I'm thinking seriously about making some sashimi tonight.

The 7-inch Wüsthof Santoku (pictured at the top of this page in our Graphics Edition) lists for $93.60 at Heimerdinger's but was marked down to $89.99, which made the sale for me. A Web search indicates that this price is pretty close to standard around the U.S. is currently listing it at $82, a claimed 32 percent discount from an unrealistic $120 list price.

Just to be entreprenurial, I'll give you an link, with the usual caveat that if you buy it here, you'll be expressing your support for in the form of a small commission:
But I certainly won't feel hurt if you want to go check it out and compare prices at a local knife merchant or gourmet shop. Just remember that once you've had hands on, you may not be able to resist. I sure couldn't.

If you buy one as a gift, by the way, don't forget the old Chinese superstition: Include a penny in the package so your happy recipient can hand it back to "buy" the knife from you. Otherwise, the story goes, it's bad luck.

If you have questions, comments or ideas to share about this article or food and cookery in general, you're welcome to drop by our Food Lovers' Discussion Group, where I've posted this article as a new topic, "FoodLetter: Santoku!"

Click the REPLY button on the forum page to post a comment or response. (If your E-mail software broke this long link in half, take care to paste it all back into one line before you enter it in your Web browser.)

If you prefer to comment privately, feel free to send me E-mail at

Want a copy that's easy to use in the kitchen? You'll find a simple, plain-text version of this recipe, suitable for printing, online at

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Last week's Wine Advisor Foodletter: Celeriac pancakes (Oct. 6, 2005)

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Thursday, Oct. 13, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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