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In praise of the Santoku knife   (Protagoras, August 20, 2007)

Everyone who has cooked seriously has a memory of various early accidents with cutting implements.

Cooking knives are essential, but dangerous. The most dangerous knives are those which are sharp, thick bladed, and narrow from front to back. Cut a potato with them, and they turn unpredictably. The safest ones are broad bladed, thin, and sharp. The Santoku knife falls into this last category. It is sometimes called 'Oriental Cooks' knife. In addition to being safe, it is the knife that is easiest and most pleasant to use of any. It is about six inches long, about 1.5 inches wide, very thin, and it has no real point. In this respect it is unlike the classical European chef's knife. The broad blade remains broad almost all the way to the tip, though there is a slight taper. The name by the way means 'three things', and it refers to the three things the kife does superbly: slice, chop and mince.

You can pay almost any amount for one. In the UK, they are to be had for as little as $10 or as much as $100. It matters how much you pay of course. The cheaper ones are perhaps not as well balanced, and do not hold an edge as well. They are not a joy to look at. The handles are a sort of soft rubbery substance, which grips well but does not feel wonderful. But as soon as you use even a cheap one, the attractions of the basic shape become apparent. The blade never turns in any sort of food. It cuts large hard vegetables easily and cleanly, without the excessive effort that is the cause of many accidents. You can use it with both hands, one for the blade and one for the handle, to chop finely. It slices finely and easily. It has all the virtues of both a knife and a cleaver. It sharpens rapidly and well. It seems extraordinary that the different blade shape can so improve performance, but it does.

The best way to sharpen them (and any other knives) is to get some 2000 grit wet and dry paper from an auto supply store. Cut off a piece and glue it to a piece of thick flat glass with spray on adhesive. If you have no spray on adhesive, put a little oil on the glass before putting the paper on it to hold it down. Using oil, sharpen the knife at an angle of about 20 degrees. Only a few strokes will be necessary to restore the edge. If it gets very worn, you can use a coarser grade of paper - 600 followed by 1000, to reset the edge. If you have bought an expensive knife, this should never be necessary, and should be avoided. You risk destroying the shape.

If you don't cook yourself, but live with someone who does, get one and give it to them as a present. Get stainless, and don't feel you have to get true Damascus steel if its beyond your means. Its nice, but its not essential. The first few uses will be a bit hesitant. After a week, you will never be able to take it away, and it will be the only knife they use.

If you really cannot afford even a cheap Santoku, buy the cheapest, thinnest bladed knives you can find. They will be narrow bladed, but as long as they are thin, this is not too much of a problem. They will be too short. But as long as they are thin, they will be fairly safe. If you do a lot of slicing, you can buy a mandoline. There are two kinds. One kind has a blade running diagonally across the bed. This is the right kind, and is fairly safe. Opinions differ as to whether you should use the food holders they come with. Some professionals think its idiotic. Others, who have had accidents, will never use them without.

The mandolines to avoid are those whose blade is a sort of V shape. One diagonal blade you can manage quite safely. Two on the same bed, you cannot. If you see these in church sales and second hand shops, there is a reason. Someone has decided, never again. They mostly look as if they have been used two or three times. Its a pity, because the standard single bladed ones, used carefully, are safe and excellent, and will slice more finely than you can ever manage with a knife.

Even a Santoku knife.

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