How 'bout them new Calphalon knives?
September 23, 2005 2:00 PM   Subscribe

Kitchen knives. One more time. How do knives distinguish themselves as they increase in price? Specifically, how does the recent offering from Calphalon compare?

I saw something shiny. They told me it was an amazing price and I made an impulsive purchase. I've already received my Calphalon 15 pc and now I'm trying to sort out whether I made the right choice. I can very easily return them and replace them with something else. (A smaller set though as the replacements are likely to be significantly more expensive.)

None of the three previous AskMe threads mentioned Calphalon cutlery because Calphalon has only recently entered the market. (Right?) So, how does Calpahlon compare to Wusthof, Henckels, Global, Mac and Shun?

If you think that Calphalon is significantly inferior to all of these other knives I'd like to know exactly in what way you think that is so. Let's leave ergonomics and aesthetics aside. I've viewed and held the knives myself and I'm happy. I guess what I don't understand is why I should pay $400-$600 when I have a nice, shiny set of knives for $150. In fact, I'm not entirely convinced that I was justified in spending as much as I did. How do knives distinguish themselves as they increase in price? Right out of the box or immediately after a proper sharpening is a Shun sharper than a Calphalon? Is the price premium about sharpening once every two months versus once every three months? Is the price premium about aesthetics? Is the price premium about brand snobery?
posted by stuart_s to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It all boils down to metallurgy. The best knives are easy to sharpen, take a very sharp edge, hold their edge and stay clean. A well made knife will also be properly balanced. Some have fancy handles which can add cost. Reputation for quality sure adds some price.

I like carbon steel knives. They take the best edge, but require more resharpening and they stain and darken with poor care. They are usually much cheaper than stainless steel. Mostly I like the fact that I can get them sharper than other knives and do it easily. Sabatier makes great carbon steel knives. I do have a MAC Santoku knife which is stainless steel and has an edge that beats even my Sabatier carbon steel knives. I have not yet had to sharpen it.
posted by caddis at 2:14 PM on September 23, 2005

I don't know anything about the new Calphalon knives, but knives increase in quality on several levels.

Grade and type of steel is the one that most corresponds to remaining sharper.

Balance of the knife and it's weight are elements of design and construction and will affect how well you can use the knife and how comfortably. A higher price doesn't necessarily mean better in this case, because it's an individual preference thing. A knife I love might not fit you, as well.

Construction - bolstered vs not, full and partial tangs, how handles are attached, what materials the handles are made of, forged vs stamped - will all affect how easy the knife is to clean and use, and how long it might last. More expensive knives are generally significantly improved in these areas.

The reality is, though, at the end of the day, few non-professional chefs use their knives frequently enough and well enough for much of this to matter. If you're hacking up an onion with poor chopping technique, it's not going to matter if you do it with a $50 chef's knife or a $150 chef's knife.

One area that can make a difference is the support behing them. Some brands offer warranty in case you do dumbass things like break the tips off prying frozen hamburgers apart. If you're the kind of person who uses what's handy instead of what's right for the job, you might like to pick a brand that offers a decent warranty.
posted by jacquilynne at 2:16 PM on September 23, 2005

Response by poster: If I may follow up...

Is there some point at which sharp becomes sharp enough? The chef's knife of this set sells separately for about $50. If I hone it faithfully and sharpen it regularly won't it be sharp enough? Will I crush tomatoes? Tear meat? Get stuck half way into a thick carrot?

Or do higher priced knives distinguish themselves specifically in regards to their cutting ability at their peak performance and in a practical, noticable way?

Thanks for your answers so far.
posted by stuart_s at 2:53 PM on September 23, 2005

I like my Stainless (Thiers Issard) Sabatier knives better than the budget knives I've used in the past for several reasons, mostly blade stiffness, good response to a steel, and edge retention. But also the way they "fit" my hand.

At least part of the higher price of these knives is the sheer quantity of good steel in them - The 8" T-I Sabatier weighs at least 4 times as much as my previous bargain knife, and is very thick at the base of the blade (not counting the bolster). There is absolutely no wiggle or tendency to turn or bind when working the blade through a head of lettuce or turnip, but the edge is fine enough to slice soft fruits cleanly, without crushing them, and will last quite a while (with use of a steel) before they need sharpening with a whetstone.

I'd never choose to go back to cheap blades.
posted by Crosius at 3:17 PM on September 23, 2005

A 15 knife set would be serious overkill for me. I use a small carbon steel paring knife constantly. It's got a small, very thin blade, and sharpens easily. I've had to sharpen out nome nicks in the tip. Slightly larger carbon steel paring knife gets a lot of use when the other one is in use or missing(quite frequent - my son takes it to the living room to quarter apples while teeveeing). Large carbon steel Chef's knife is used a lot for slicing meat, bread, etc. 1 cheap serrated steak knife sees some general action. 1 cheap long serrated knife is used to cut soft or freshly baked bread. The knives in my flatware are sufficient for cutting steak at the table.

Other knives stay in the drawer unused. When there's company helping in the kitchen, they'll use different knives, and always gravitate to the expensive ones that I mention. I got suckered into a sales visit from someone with pricey knives. I preferred my well-worn knives by far.
posted by theora55 at 3:52 PM on September 23, 2005

I use my MAC santoku nearly exclusively. 15 knives is, in my opinion, complete overkill. If your knife is sharp and your technique is good, you can do a lot with a little.
posted by Rothko at 4:30 PM on September 23, 2005

A 15 knife set would be serious overkill for me.

Agreed. As a former chef, I can say that you need maybe three knives total - your basic solid chef knife or a sanktoku, a small paring knife and a filet knife if you plan on doing any of your own butchering/fish fileting. Anything else is just marketing. As Rothko says, it's about sharpness and technique. Most Asian chefs use only one knife for everything.

That said, I would return the set and take the 150 bucks out and get a Global santoku or a chef knife from any of the other brands you mentioned, which will not let you down.
posted by spicynuts at 5:31 PM on September 23, 2005 [2 favorites]

Knives are SOOOOO personal. I have two beautiful $150+ japanese knives that are wonderful to use, I also have a few Wustoff/Henkel/Savattier that are fine. But most often I use a couple of $10 chinese knives because they are so easy to sharpen and have a really nice balance. I've had them a couple of years and I can see that the handles aren't going to last much longer. But at $10 I really don't care.
For me, ease of sharpening trumps longevity. If I can't make it sharp with a few strokes of the steel, I probably won't bother, which is why I don't use the more expensive knives (the japanese knives need a stone) as much as the cheap knives.
posted by johngumbo at 6:26 PM on September 23, 2005

I'm with spicynuts - get one good chef's knife, it can do 90% of what you need and you can't use more than one blade at a time, right? 15 is crazy.

A Global G1 or G2 will be maybe $80 then with the leftover $$ you can get a good stone and a steel. Maybe a parer like the GP11.
posted by polyglot at 7:37 PM on September 23, 2005

If I can't make it sharp with a few strokes of the steel, I probably won't bother

A steel doesn't sharpen anything - it only repairs the alignment of the edge. While the impact of not being aligned and being dull are the same for the end user (the knife doesn't cut well), the two are very different. Using a steel is not a substitute for sharpening - steeling does not remove any metal from the blade. When a steel makes the blade "sharp", this means that the blade already was sharp but out of alignment. What this probably means for you is that your Chinese knives have held their edge for quite a while, and this the effects of actual dulling haven't caught up with you yet. It's also possible you haven't noticed the effects of dulling because it's so much more gradual than going out of alignment, but if you compared your blades with a really sharp one it would become apparent. (For more info. see the rec.knives faq section on sharpening)

posted by advil at 8:12 PM on September 23, 2005

Just so it doesn't seem quite as crazy as it sounds, I suspect a 15-piece knife set includes a block, steel, shears, a carving set, a bread knife, and six steak knives, so the plain knives in the set probably are a chef, paring and filleting knife.

That said I agree with most of the sentiments above — it's worth finding a couple good knives you love, starting with a chef's knife, and then don't worry so much about everything else that came in the set. On the other hand, if all the stuff in the set seems decent, start by replacing the chef's knife and the steel. $10 each for all of the other things other than the core knives is probably fine, if you'll use them.

And I couldn't let a knife thread go by without pointing out what a good deal the Thiers-Issard knives from Lee Valley are. French knives aren't my thing else that's what I'd use.
posted by mendel at 10:45 PM on September 23, 2005

I'd have to agree that a 15 piece knife set is totally overkill.
I just recently acquired a set of Henkels and a single 7in Calphalon Santoku. While, if kept nice and sharp, the Henkels are a pretty good set of knives, I could easily replace about half of them with that one Santoku.
As others have said before, weight, balance, and blade quality are really important factors in selecting a knife.
The shape of the blade is also really important. As opposed to a regular cleaver, you can sort of "rock" a Santoku on the cutting board because the blade curves. That makes it easier to make a number of rapid, thin cuts. Also, the blade is broad enough that, like a cleaver, I can use the knife as a spatula and scoop up whatever I've just sliced. It's also good flat surface to smash garlic with.
I would absolutely recommend the Calphalon Santoku. I like mine so much that I find myself cooking just as an excuse to use that knife. It glides effortlessly through whatever winds up on my cutting board.
And nothing makes cooking fun like having the right tools.
By the way, while you're out buying your Calphalon knife, if it's in your budget, get some of their non-stick pots and pans, too. They're worth whatever they cost.
posted by Jon-o at 8:08 AM on September 24, 2005

Long time J.A. Henckels user, with a couple of opinion points.

If you, like me, eschew food processors in favor of good knives, and do a fair amount of cooking, good knives and sharpening techniques make a lot of difference in the results you get. Chopping is not mincing, etc. Thus, I find that a wider selection of knives than recommended here is very, very useful. A 10" inch chef knife lets me produce a couple of cups of chopped leeks in about a minute, where an 8" chefs knife on the same job is too small, and takes several minutes to get the same uniformity, because I wind up repositioning and pulling the mound of leeks together for about as much time as I spend cutting, with the small knife. I always have at least a couple of small paring knives, and a couple of medium paring knives available - they are cheap, and constantly used, so averaging the cutting load over several edges means I always have a clean, sharp knife at hand for most general cutting tasks. Same for filet knives. A single 10" slicer, as a bread knife, and a couple of semi-serated meat slicers are other kitchen essentials, along with a real cleaver.

I don't like "steels" at all, and especially detest "ceramic steels." Steels _do_ remove metal from a knife's edge, but also act primarily to draw a burr, and burnish the burr, as is done to prepare a cabinet scraper. But knives are not generally used as scrapers! So I find the best way of sharpening kitchen knives is to use a machine made for the purpose regularly, and never let the knives get dull.

And it goes without saying that good cutting boards are essential to enjoying good kitchen knives.

As to answering questions originally posed:

So, how does Calpahlon [sic] compare to Wusthof, Henckels, Global, Mac and Shun?

According to the Calphalon website:
"How is VG Japanese Steel different than German Steel?

The main difference between the two steels is the carbon content. VG Japanese steel has a higher carbon content than German Steel and, thus, will retain its edge longer."

I don't know that I would agree 100% with that. Fact is, a lot goes into knife metallurgy and manufacture besides pure chemistry. Knives are sort of general purpose tools, and the overall "quality" of a knife is the result of balancing a number of tradeoffs in cost, metallurgy, and manufacture. If you at least take away cost as a constraint, even metallurgy and manufacture are huge areas of variability. High carbon content may be important to making a knife that will sharpen well, but the amount of carbon in steel must also be balanced with forging, tempering, and grinding processes in manufacture, to get an optimum dispersion in the metal crystalline grain at the edge, if the carbon inclusions are going to be at all effective in delivering their desired properties. And a good kitchen knife is also tough (crack and bend resistant), hard (dent resistant and stiff), stain and acid resistant, and
can be sharpened predictably. To achieve these additional properties, you need steels with additional alloying elements including molybdenum, nickel, chromium, and silicon, along with a manufacturing process that gets the steel blank to develop and deliver the right balance of properties in the finished knife. Personally, I find the grain structure of J.A. Henckels knives to be very uniform, and that contributes to easy sharpening and consistent cutting performance. But others will say that Henckels knives do not sharpen as well as other knives. Sigh...

I've personally found that "sharpness" in a kitchen knife is a pretty subjective quality. Bringing a kitchen knife to the sharpness of a scalpel blade usually isn't wise, and can even be counterproductive. In the kitchen, "cutting" is usually some combination of crushing, slicing, and tearing, because most foods are amalgams of texture and materials. Most produce contains some silica, meats have bones, cakes and breads include air pockets, etc. So, a "sharp" kitchen knife should be able to withstand being used to chop, slice and crush, while being able to be washed without slicing up the sponge and the cook's fingers in the process. So, for day to day cooking, I find that a multi-bevel edge is the best compromise between sharpness, durability, and knife life. For this reason, I like the Chef's Choice machine linked above, although they also produce inexpensive manual sharpeners that try to produce this edge with a simple drawing motion.

"How do knives distinguish themselves as they increase in price?"

Obviously, the price of a knife reflects what the market is willing to bear in consideration of it's overall properties. Ideally, there would be a direct relation to the cost of manufacture to price of the product, but product volume, marketing channels, R&D, and overhead are big influences in knife pricing in the real world. Generally speaking though, multi-step forging and tempering are more expensive operations than stamping and grinding. Specialty alloys made in comparatively small quantities cost more than common tool steels. Personally, I like forged knives that are well tempered, because the resulting knives last a long time, and sharpen predictably. But there is a school of thought that says knives are consumable tools, and cheap knives that work well for a few years and are easily replaced are the way to go. I'm not of that stripe, but I understand the arguement.
posted by paulsc at 1:30 PM on September 24, 2005

1. Spicynuts is correct. It's not how many knives you have, it's your knife skills that determine what the outcomes are. Most actual chefs do about 85% of their work with the French (chef's) knife. They supplement this with a paring knife and a double-edged serrated knife for the occasional tomato- or bread-slicing duty. That's the system I've replicated at home, and I'm happy not to have the clutter of extra knives and the uselessness of ta knife block.

2. After giving it their exhaustive consideration, in November 2002 the incredibly anal Cook's Illustrated rated this $30 OXO knife third overall, behind only a Wusthof and a $31 Victorinox. I am a knife junkie but I am also skeptical about hype, and got my cooking training in 4 restuarant kitchens over 6 years. This knife is everything I'll ever want from a chef's knife; I recommend it.

The kitchen-gadget market is one that has captured the attention of corporations everywhere. The fact that people who hardly ever cook will plunk down a few thou for a Viking range or a stainless-steel outdoor grill has not escaped the notice of companies that would like to profit from the boom in the 'lifestyle' industry. You're not getting anything from a $150 knife that you can't get from a good quality cheaper knife. There is quite a bit of mystique around certain knife brands, but if you ask chefs -- people who handle and use these tools eight hours a day, masterfully -- you'll find that a high price is not a reliable indicator of good quality. On the flip side, there are a lot of cheap bad knives out there, but there are cheap excellent knives as well. Just do some research.

And, in the end, much comes down to your own preference: the fit in your hand, the balance, and the weight.
posted by Miko at 4:06 PM on September 24, 2005

my girlfriend swears by the ceramic knife i was given as christmas present last night - hasnt been sharpened in a year and still fillets a tomato nicely.

posted by specialk420 at 5:01 PM on September 24, 2005

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