Know Your Knives: Josh Ozersky’s Comprehensive Guide

by Josh Ozersky

I have a lot of knives. You probably do too. I really don’t know what to do with them all. There’s a Chinese cleaver, a gigantic multipurpose tool I bought for ten dollars a decade ago and which has never dulled or stained in all that time. There are two or three slicers, long, fierce, martial-looking objects that dazzle my guests and are only good for slice huge roast beeves.

The knife I want to use is my best one: a 10-inch Kotetsu Ittosai layered-steel chef’s knife, hand-forged of cobalt steel in Japan. Just talking about it makes me intimidated. How am I expected to sharpen this thing? I am afraid to bring it near bones or anything that might chip it. I’m sure it’s tough; these guys don’t make knives that are weak and crappy. The Japanese chefs use them for decades; one east-side sushi master has one that has worn down to the size of a jacknife.

I’m sure eventually, I’ll get it figured out. The Japanese knife will be my regular go-to knife, and everyone, including myself, will be impressed. Except that I won’t be. I like the santoku. It’s just easier to grab, and better for the small, tedious chopping jobs that you actually need a knife for. The open secret of knife work, of course, is that most of what you do involves cutting up garlic and slicing grilled cheese sandwiches down the middle. I don’t really deserve this Japanese chef’s knife – and I’m a meat guru! I routine cut up whole prime ribs, briskets, lamb legs, and other oversize cuts of meat. I break down chickens. When you separate the cap muscle from the eye muscle in a cooked prime rib, you do it by pulling apart two sections that don’t really belong toether. There’s nothing but hot fat connectiong the two muscles; you trace the break as it opens, and that’s about all. I could do it with the end of a pen, pretty much. And for a job like that, the suntoku, with its rubberized grip and upcurving blade, is exactly the right tool.

The fact is that nobody really needs more than one knife. I used the Chinese cleaver for fifteen years for everything from mincing to tenderizing, before it was replaced by this foxy little number, like a dowdy but loyal spouse cruelly thrown over for an office coquette. The difference is that the suntoku will last longer, stay sharper, and can make its way into more corners.

The samural blade, I’m afraid, will soon take over the ceremonial duties currently assigned to my teutonic slicer. That will leave the slicer in the same lonely exile as my Chinese cleaver; maybe they can hook up. I think my basic approach to a knife collection is a good one, and I would recommend it to you. Obviously, the simplest thing is to get the full set. But if you want to have an eclectic collection, here’s what I would suggest.

You need a small, very sharp paring knife that sits in your silverware drawer, and which you can use for slitting open bags, cutting small objects like anchovies and garlic cloves, and generally doing things a big knife would look silly doing. I have a Shun 4” deba, which costs $99 and is probably as good a knife as I am capable of appreciating and using as an actual knife, as opposed to a trophy or talisman.

A good santoku is a perfect knife for doing standard prep work. You can cut the hell out of an onion with it, and the curve of the knife allows you to rock it back and forth for things you need to cut a million times, like hard boiled eggs, garlic, pepperoni, bacon, and the like. Since this is the knife you’ll likely use the most, it’s important that it feels good in your hand. I like the non-slip rubbery feel on this knife, but maybe you want something a little more traditional; I like wood far more than all metal handles, such as you find on the popular Global knives.

You don’t need, but will enjoy owning a Chef’s Knife, a big blade that comes to a point and which you will want for bigger jobs like cutting a watermelon or halving potatoes or cutting up a corned beef. These knives should be from 8 to 10 inches, depending on how big your hand is. A santoku like the one I have is ideal for a woman, but it’s not something I would want to go to war with.

Lastly, you can allow yourself two specialty knives, and that’s it. Otherwise you’ll go crazy. You don’t need a cleaver. Nobody does. Unless you are Bill the Butcher, don’t bother with one. I indulge myself in slicing knives, which are literally good for nothing but slicing big pieces of meat that dont have bones in them. Basically that means briskets, turkey breasts, and giant roast beeves. They really aren’t that useful, in other words, but they look hot; they’re the closest thing to swords you can have, short of a Japanese tuna knife, which actually is a kind of sword. I also have a serrated bread knife, because I like to cut whole loaves of bread, and they are cheap. Some people use these to cut tomatoes, but I didn’t buy a Japanese cobalt steel folded steel knife to not cut tomatoes with it.

So that’s it. Five knives. I don’t have a carving prong, I don’t have a utility knife, I don’t have poultry shears, and I don’t have steaknives. All my table knives are sharp, and yours should be too. (Which isn’t to say that steaknives aren’t hot. Look at these!)

It’s hard not to buy knives, but it’s hard to use more than three or four regularly. And if you can’t use them, you shouldn’t buy them. There aren’t many rules about knives, but that’s one of them.