Monday, June 23, 2008

Book Review: An Edge In The Kitchen

I am a knife enthusiast. Maybe even a knife nut. I have read virtually every book ever published on the topics of knife making, knife smithing, and sharpening. I have made knives from kits and from blade blanks and by stock removal. I own a number of custom and semi-custom knives.

I also love to cook and every knife stuck to the wall in my kitchen is sharp enough to shave the hairs on your arm.

So I was delighted when An Edge In The Kitchen: The Ultimate Guide to Kitchen Knives: how to buy them, keep them razor sharp, and use them like a pro showed up in my Amazon recommended reading list.

I highly recommend this book for any serious cook and also for any serious knife enthusiast. The knife enthusiast will learn a great deal about kitchen cutlery that he/she probably doesn't know (I learned quite a bit about the evolution of styles of kitchen knives - a lot of the knife literature if very heavily weighted towards hunting knives). The cook will learn knife techniques (there is nothing new here - serious cooks may not learn much) and most importantly sharpening and knife care.

The author (Chad Ward) shares many of my biases about sharpening and he does a decent job of describing techniques that should produce excellent results. I strongly believe that people should sharpen their own knives. It is neither rocket science nor voodoo. When Alton Brown told me that I had to send my knives to a professional to get them sharpened, I threw my remote at the TV. I am sure that there are excellent sharpening services out there, but I have never personally experienced a "professional" edge that was even close to being as good as the edge I put on my knives. On the other hand I have overheard some shocking conversations in high end cutlery stores that have convinced me that there are lots of professional knife sharpeners who have no clue at all what they are doing and who likely ruin knives at a fabulous rate.

Here is the book by section.
Part one: Choose Your Weapon

Here the author describes the various knife styles, tells you what you actually need (one big, one small), tells you how to get what you need on various budgets, and tells you what the options are if the sky is the limit. He also does a nice job covering the ins and outs of cutting boards. This section contained the most new material for me - I think I will definitely have to branch out from my "traditional german-made" chef's knife and my plastic cutting boards.

Part two: Cut Loose

This section is devoted to classical kitchen knife techniques. It is well done and the photographs make the subject clear. It is not comprehensive (you won't learn how to butcher a cow), but it has the vegetable and chicken basics.

Part three: Stay Sharp

This section is the better part of a hundred pages and it is pretty comprehensive. It covers everything from metallurgy basics, to edge geometry, to sharpening techniques and systems.

I do have a couple of criticisms, though.

At one point, the author disses round crock sticks in V-system knife sharpeners because, "It is difficult to produce a flat edge with a round stone." That is complete nonsense. The knife edge contacts and is pulled along the top arc of the cylinder. In geometric terms this is a straight line meeting another straight line. In my opinion the round crock sticks are better (for everything except serrations) because you can just turn them a bit to get a clean surface. I have several of these V crock stick sharpeners and they have become my favorite tools for keeping a good edge on my kitchen knives. My only complaint is that they don't offer enough choices in angle, but you can solve that with a drill press. The Idahone system with coarse and fine ceramic rods is hard to beat.

My other criticism is that he doesn't make it plain enough what the difference between a good sharpening job and a bad one are. He does a nice job of describing how to get the planes of the blade to meet (raise a burr) and how to polish off the wire edge, but he fails to warn the reader that a single swipe at too steep an angle can undo half an hour of painstaking work. To sharpen successfully you have to understand the basic physics involved (which he explains well), but you also have to be very mindful and consistent.

David

8 comments:

Chad Ward said...

David, thank you for your very thoughtful review. I appreciate compliments and will take a closer look at the criticisms to see if there is something I missed. Good point about the warning, though. I may have to revisit that for the paperback. I'm glad you're enjoying the book.

Chad

David said...

Thanks Chad. I wish you well on the book. I quite enjoyed reading it.

David

John Duncan said...

Nice review.

The url in the Idahone link is malformed. I managed to purchase the sharpening system anyway :)

David said...

Thanks John. Link fixed.

Anonymous said...

I liked your review and I use various crock stick system to keep an edge on my knives. Basically I use them like a steel.

I don't understand where you are going with this though:
"At one point, the author disses round crock sticks in V-system knife sharpeners because, "It is difficult to produce a flat edge with a round stone." That is complete nonsense. The knife edge contacts and is pulled along the top arc of the cylinder. In geometric terms this is a straight line meeting another straight line. In my opinion the round crock sticks are better (for everything except serrations) because you can just turn them a bit to get a clean surface. "
It is difficult to develop a straight line along the length of a blade edge if you do your heavy sharpening with a round stick. A stone will develop a straight line much better then a round stick.

Your geometry theory may need some revision. Two straight lines meet at a point, not a line, when held at any angle other then parallel and tend make a wavy edge rather then a flat straight one. A knife edge and a flat stone tend to form a flat surface along the length of the blade and most prefer that for the more aggressive sharpening task. I bet you do too.

Also, crock sticks are better for sharpening serrated edges. They are not the exception, as you say, where they are not indicated. That is because you don't want a straight edge here and they fit inside and sharpen the serrations! Duh.

Did you just feel the need to say something negative for a balanced review.

How about listing the URL for Idahone. I can't fide it anywhere. I didn't think they had a web site.

Gary

David said...

Gary,

Perhaps I wasn't very clear.

The author says that round crock sticks are not as good as triangular crock sticks.

My geometry argument is that in either case (triangular or round crock sticks) you have a line meeting a line. You correctly point out that this is a point. They are geometrically the same, so one is not better than the other, geometrically.

However you can rotate the round sticks to get a clean surface, so I like them better. Except for serrated knives where you need a triangular crock stick to get deep into the serrations.

I absolutely agree that if you are trying to remove a lot of metal, then you want the biggest widest flattest stone you can get your hands on.

Does that help?

David

Anonymous said...

Yes. Very nice. I feel much better.

Gary

Kitchen Knives said...

Thank you for this insightful review for An Edge In the Kitchen. I am Chef Knife addict, and I've seen this book all over, but I think you review has been the most helpful. Thanks!