THE ALCHEMY OF STEEL PART ONE

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THE ALCHEMY OF KNIVES
THE CHEF'S MAIN TOOL


GERMAN STEEL
Most of the knives you see are stamped , burned or otherwise marked, German steel.  That’s a selling point.  But to someone who knows knives it’s not.  

The Germans themselves define German steel as a metal made from bog iron ore in a forge, with charcoal for fuel.  Thus you get “Carbon steel”.  Charcoal is used as the carbon supply or ingredient necessary for steel production or the steel would be too soft.

Historically the Germans got their iron ore from Scandinavia. This ore from Sweden had some neat trace elements in it that made for very good steel.  The huge German Steel industries developed in the 1800's with companies like Krupp. They made the steel wheels for railroad cars and rails themselves.  

The second steel renaissance came during the rebuilding of Germany after the first World War.  Steel became a vast part of the culture, unfortunately it was more for Panzers, Tigers, bayonets and gun barrels than the kitchen.  They had the good blast furnaces from Britain and with good ore and charcoal, you had “German steel” and the world lost almost 60 million people. So much for German steel, I see it in ads all day long.


CARBON STEEL
Steel is an alloy of iron that must contain Carbon. It is the most important hardening element in a knife.  Other elements may be added for specific applications. Carbon is the most important element, which increases the strength of the steel, and without the high enough percentage, the alloy would not harden. 

Most knife blades in the past were made of carbon steel. They take a better edge and may be made sharper than most metal combinations. BUT they have a down side. They can lose their sharpness faster if not used right, they are brittle, they corrode and discolor if not treated right. 

They do however have a cult following especially in the Sushi world where people do take care of knives as a matter of practice.  Wiped after each stroke, never left in liquid and kept as sharp as a razor as a matter of habit.  This is fine as these blades are never used to hack, chop, and butcher. They slice. The total carbon steel cleaver might be the exception and many are made with a lacquer finish for rust protection so you are concerned with the blade edge mostly.


SOLINGEN STEEL
Another name that pops up is "Solingen" steel which is a trade name for formulas by each manufacturer adding small elements of rare earth, each is proprietary to the maker.  A sample might be .5% carbon, 15% chromium, 2% molybdenum.  It also can denote a technique such as hammer forging. Solingen pocket knives main blades were hot-punched from stock and beat on a few times before stock removal. This makes for a better blade by compressing the molecules.

HIGH CARBON STEEL or STAINLESS
RUST RESISTANT AND RUST PROOF

Stainless Steel - Stainless steel is stronger than carbon steel, has better properties as to rust or corrosion. It's harder to get a good edge, but practice and the use of stones will make it easier and it will hold an edge much longer. This is not usually the case with mere mortals. If you said stones to some of my friends, they would tell you about their last kidney operation.   

In metallurgy stainless steel, also known as inox steel is defined as a steel alloy with a minimum of 10.5 or 11% chromium content by mass.  Most range around 13%. Stainless steel does not stain, corrode, or rust as easily as ordinary steel, but it is not stain-proof nor rust proof. Resistant is a better term.  It is also called corrosion-resistant steel or CRES. There are different grades and surface finishes of stainless steel to suit the environment the alloy must endure. Stainless steel is used where both the properties of steel and resistance to corrosion are required like in kitchens.

Unprotected carbon steel rusts readily when exposed to air and moisture. This iron oxide film (the rust) is active and accelerates corrosion by forming more iron oxide. Stainless steels contain sufficient chromium to form a passive film of chromium oxide, which prevents further surface corrosion and blocks corrosion from spreading into the metal's internal structure. Has a minimum of .5% carbon, the higher the %, the higher hardness can be achieved. 

Chromium is what gives the alloy its corrosion resistance, it forms chromium carbides for wear resistance, and hardens the steel.  But it has limitations, it can make steel too brittle if used to excess.  Thus the secret formulas and processes such as freezing or cold quenching to produce a good knife with properties.  Stainless Steel is really chromium steel with 13% chromium. The first 11% forms carbides, the rest help with anti-rust qualities. Stainless steel alloys can rust, they are only rust resistant, not rust proof and can stain by some acidic foods.

CHINA IS NOT JAPAN
FINE BLADE MAKING

 
It also put China on the map as the supplier of a large percentage of kitchen knives, mostly stamped not forged by some big names we call celebrity chefs and there is such variance in the quality I do not recommend them for anything other than clearing brush around the campfire and then throw them in the campfire.

Unfortunately there are as many kinds of stainless High Carbon alloys out there as there are stars in the sky and combined with China’s knack for cutting corners (no pun) you are back to square one and usually you get what you pay for and sometimes a lot less than you paid for.  

Here is a prestigious German knife maker Henckels who went international and put their name on a line or several of lesser quality blade lines made in China.  It backfired, they were named after a Chinese off shore boat.  Le JUNK.

I had accumulated on a deal three  Mikados made by Henckels  stamped German steel in larger print and Made in China by the hilt needing a magnifying glass to see.  One was a paring knife which broke the tip off, after two weeks, I reground it and then used it as a scraper in my shop,  it got pitched, the second is a serrated bread knife which is OK as long as you use it only on bread,  I gave it away and the third which is a boner literally needs to be steeled after each stroke, could not hold an edge on chicken.  

Henckels, once known for its fine forged knives in their Four Star and Five Star lines are the Henckels I knew and wished they just kept their place in line with quality cutlery.  Their newer lesser price economy, lines with serrations and no sharpening needed attributes probably OK for beginners.  Found in most Supermarkets, and box stores mostly stamped serrated blades.


SECRET STEEL CODES 
BESIDES CARBON ALCHEMY

  • First two numbers - 10 means plain carbon steel, any other number designates alloy steel.  
  • For example 50XX is chromium steel.
  • Last two numbers of steel specify the steel's carbon content for example:
  • Steel 1095 has 0.95% carbon.
  • Steel 5210 has 1.0% carbon.
  • Steel 5160 has 0.60% carbon. 
  • SAE designates tool steels with letters Example: W-1, O-1, D-2
  • Manganese – Has a hardening ability and offers strength and wear resistance. 
  • Molybdenum - Forms carbides, prevents brittleness and maintains the steel’s strength at high temperatures.
  • Nickel - Enhancer for strength, corrosion resistance, and toughness.
  • Silicon - Increases strength, and wear resistance.
  • Tungsten - Increases wear resistance.
  • Vanadium - Forms finely structured carbides to enhance wear resistance, toughness, and hardening ability.
  • Cobalt - Increases strength and hardness and permits quenching in higher temperatures. Intensifies the individual effects of other elements in more complex steels.


CERAMIC
DO NOT DROP

Ceramic knives are very hard ceramic, usually zirconium oxide. They retain a cutting edge longer than most metal knives, no discoloration or corrode, BUT BEWARE!  If dropped most likely like China they will break, very easily, and the edges will crack if left in a drawer mixed with other knives or tossed and pitched in a dishwasher. And again, if dropped will be rendered useless.  

On a ten dollar model I bought on a whim from Harbor Freight, it lasted all of ten minutes till the blade cracked. I was glad I didn't buy the 60 dollar model from the Chef's store. The 300 dollar KYOCERA’s require a bodyguard to prevent theft and if dropped or mistreated are gone and you are screwed. Pass, they work well but my friend suggested its like taking a baby in diapers to work with you.


DAMASCUS STEEL
I was looking for the clues to find the Holy Grail of knife-making, so lets go back into time to the source of some great carving, slicing, stabbing and chopping...the Crusades.  The differences in knife styles came about or became more evident in the traditional East Meets West Religious tournaments held often enough called the "Crusades".  Now there’s a two hundred year reality show still going on today, the swords and lances being replaced by bombs and rockets in the same arena we call the Middle East.

File-Watered_pattern_on_sword_blade2.Iran.JPG.jpg

The Crusades were a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns waged by much of the Roman Catholic Church to restore Christian control of the Holy Land. They were fought over a period of nearly 200 years, between 1095 and 1291. Other campaigns in Spain and Eastern Europe continued into the 15th century. 

Campaigns were also waged against Slavs, Balts, Jews, Russian, Greek Orthodox Christians, Mongols, Cathars, Hussites, Waldensians, Old Prussians, and other political enemies of the various popes. Sort of a “my way or the highway” approach to theology.  So much for “Can’t we just get along?”.


THE BROADSWORD
 vs. DAMASCUS STEEL
The heavier steel swords of the armed Knights and foot soldiers contrasted with the lighter sharper Damascene foundry work. Damascus steel was a term used by several Western cultures from the Medieval period onward to describe a type of steel used in Middle Eastern swordmaking from about 1100 to 1700 AD. 

These swords are characterized by distinctive patterns of banding and mottling reminiscent of flowing water. Such blades were reputed to be not only tough and resistant to shattering, but capable of being honed to a sharp and resilient edge. In one scene from a movie the Saracen slices a silk scarf in mid air. The broadsword smashed a table.

It became further apparent in the traditional sword-making of the Japanese, who also blend the metals into layers, and has filtered down into the Japanese higher end kitchen knives we see today. They are as much art as they are tools. They as many things are, traditional as in many parts of the world, copied and cloned in China.  

"I can sum it up in one last observation. Forrest Gump once said: "Life is like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you get".   Other than Chinese cleavers, thats about what I think of some of the knives coming from China.  You don't know what you will get even with a big name endorser swearing how great they are".  The endorsers, follow the money, usually mediocre quality products so they can be sold direct to consumers on TV with enormous profits.


LOTS OF KNIVES, PROCESSES 
AND PRICES TO CHOOSE FROM 
At the top of the food chain the chef's knives are again divided into styles, size, categories, price ranges and subtle differences. You will find entire websites devoted to these products and a myriad of endorsements and formal bribery because TV Celebrity Chefs sell their names to manufacturers and some frankly will put their name on anything. 

There is some real junk out there with big names endorsing them. Most likely they will have something in common, the Chinese foundry and the labor that made them under contract.  And the marketing firms that make the money off their names.   I often get asked what do I own, first lets look at how knives are made, their designs, and their use.

TWO SEPARATE PROCESSES
Knives have either forged or stamped blades.  Stamped blades began life as thin sheets of steel.  Punched blanks are cut out and the knife is then finished. Blade-shaped blanks are punched out of the long sheet in a huge press, bolsters may be welded in place.  Some feel stamped blades are thinner and lighter in the front for better slicing.  

Till you get your hands on a quality Japanese thin blade.   This is the basic difference of East vs. West knife theology. Weight and balance, thickness of the stock and in good quality Eastern knives rolled or layered specialized steel for thinness and stiffness.

Both styles may be forged or stamped, usually the forging products costing more. The thinner blades may be cryogenically treated which means they have been subjected to extreme cold and unique quenching processes to stiffen them.

Some of the knives have exotic handles which easily raise the price range.  Good knives have good handles and good blades.

TOP QUALITY LINES
Wusthof,  Shun, Henkel’s,  Global and Victorinox, Forshner, in their premium lines.  But all make both stamped and forged lines in a myriad of handles and shapes (and price ranges) including one piece stainless knives to accommodate all markets from high-end to middle preferences and price ranges. After that we go to branding.

BRANDED LINES ARE SUBORDINATE LINES
 Branded lines like salt and pepper are added to the major product like pots and pans made by the same company and are usually a price point item or complimentary in color, design and not in that companies own plant.  Some brands are  Farberware, Chicago Cutlery, Kitchenaide  Calpathlon, Rachel Ray, Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Bagasse,  Mario Batali, the drop dead gorgeous Giada Pamela De Laurentiis, Paula Deen, “The Butter Queen” and a hundred others.  

EVERYONE ELSE
The eight inch standard chef’s knife is available for budgets from $2.99 to $2400.00 and no less than eight countries manufacture these knives. They come in colors, they come in weird handles, strange looking blade shapes and lots of promises that last as long as your time allocated to credit card statements.

When you have been to a plant and seen the steel-working processes’ and hand honing of a quality knife and then the production line setup of a lesser cost item, you might start to understand what quality and literally "soul" means in knife-making. 

COMMERCIAL KNIVES
Restaurant  cooking requires something a little more in the design of knives as they will be used heavily by many different chefs, mis-treated, dumped in the dish washer, dropped on the floor, sharpened on a grinder or with a file and auspiciously displayed on a magnetized holder on the wall to make sure it was not stolen.  Some places had their blade handles numbered and a corresponding number on the wall, just like they do in prison kitchens.

Dexter Russel, Mac, Tramontina, Mundial, Franklin Commercial, to name just a few.  Most chefs have their own knives and guard them voraciously, as I do. My portable knife kit  is good quality TRAMONTINA commercial knives, very inexpensive but excellent quality. My really good Shuns, Wusthof’s and my one Kramer do not leave the house for a charity gig.  Sometimes at a really nice charitable function we’ll give a knife to the best helper as a gift for being a worthy person.


ABOUT JAPANESE KNIVES
THE ART OF KNIFE MAKING

Since the end of World War II, western-style double-beveled edged knives have become much more popular in Japan, the best example being that of the Santoku, an adaptation of the Gyuto, as used as a French chef's knife. While these knives are usually honed and sharpened on both sides, their blades are still given Japanese-style acute-angle cutting edges with a very hard temper to increase cutting ability on specialty knives and designs.

Professional Japanese cooks usually own their personal set of knives, which are not used by other cooks. Some cooks and I have heard this before, and even witnessed it on Iron Chef as they treat their knives as an extension of their hand. Some even own two sets of knives, which they alternate every other day. 

After sharpening a carbon-steel knife in the evening after use, the user normally lets the knife “ Rest" for a day to restore its patina and remove any metallic odor or taste that might otherwise be passed on to the food. 

They are very fussy about their cutlery. On the Iron Chef, I believe the famous chef Morimoto used a sharpened abalone shell to cut the fish and not let the knife steel change the taste of the delicate Abalone which is a very absorptive flesh to work with.


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