Posts Tagged ‘Bernal Cutlery’

How to Buy a Japanese Chef’s Knife

December 21, 2012

After learning so much about how to pick a cutting board at Bernal Cutlery, I decided to ask Josh about the basics of choosing a chef’s knife. Bernal Cutlery primarily focuses on Japanese-style knives, but also carries new French knives as well as a selection of refurbished recent, vintage and antique knives from around the world.

Bernal Cutlery doesn’t carry the seven or eleven piece knife sets that are often found in cutlery stores, simply due to the fact that most people will never use seven or eleven different kinds of knives. Instead, Josh encourages purchasing the nicest possible chef’s knife that one can afford, and then building a knife kit around that central piece. If taken care of, a good chef’s knife can last more than ten years.

To the average home cook in search of a good chef’s knife, Josh recommends starting with a Japanese-style 210mm stainless steel blade. The alternative, carbon, requires more upkeep and care, as carbon blades are prone to rusting if left wet or with food on them (just ask Diane who almost cried when hers rusted on the drying rack because she hadn’t wiped the blade down properly). Also, if you are going to cut a lot of food that will cause the steel to react (think peaches, red onions or artichokes), wiping the blade clean during use will prevent the food from acquiring a slight metallic taste.

Many home cooks like myself enjoy the familiar weight of a heavy German knife. Japanese knives, on the other hand, tend to be thin and light, and may feel too delicate and unsteady for people used to more weight. Before testing recipes, I only used German chef’s knives. After using a Japanese-style chef’s knife during the day then returning home to a heavier German knife, I have decided to make the switch. I find that the Japanese knife moves easier, can slice thinner, and doesn’t leave my hand tired. For someone that cooks a few times a week, the difference between a heavy and a light knife may not be important, but for professionals or avid home cooks that spend hours chopping and slicing, a lightweight knife might make a big difference. Additionally, the thin, Japanese-style knives are great for fine vegetable work. The thinner blade does not wedge and crush the sides of vegetables, resulting in vegetable pieces with smoother surfaces, less oxidization and less discoloration. Josh, who encounters many fans of German knives, encourages his customers to give  Japanese knives a chance by keeping a bag of carrots in the store for them to chop to their hearts content.

I asked Josh to recommend four knives for the average home cook, and to tell me a little about each:

ashi

Ashi Hamono 210mm Gyuto: Swedish Stainless Steel with Western Handle

This Ashi has an excellent edge life and is very easy to sharpen. Made in small batch production and hand forged from single steel, the Ashi is light and thin, but not as delicate as many similar knives. This knife retails for $220.

yoshi

Yoshikane 180mm Gyuto: Stainless Cladding, Semi-Stainless Core and Japanese Handle

The Yoshikane above is a high quality, hand forged option that is slightly shorter than the typical chef’s knife. Constructed of three layers of steel: the outside is stainless and the core is more like carbon steel. This knife is easy to sharpen, but it also has a hard center and so it holds its edge well. The Yoshikane is thicker and a bit heavier than the Ashi. This knife retails at $180.

sakai

Sakai Kikumori Nihon-kou 210mm Gyuto: Carbon Steel with Western Handle

At $90 dollars less than the higher end Ashi, this Sakai has a similar outline but is a little wider and a little heavier, with a slightly shorter edge life.  This is a good entry level knife with a lot of bang for buck, especially for those planning on using a whetstone at home. They make a stainless steel version of this knife that is slightly thinner. The carbon steel version retails at $130.

asai2

Asai Tezukuri 180mm Gyuto: Powder Metal with Japanese Handle

This gorgeous  top-shelf Japanese knife is hand forged and features a powdered steel core with an incredibly long edge life that is easy to sharpen. The beautiful acid etched Damascas cladding breaks up the surface area of the knife and makes for smooth cutting. In case you can’t tell, I’d be beyond thrilled if my boyfriend took the superfluous language in this knife’s description as an indicator of what I would love to see under the Christmas tree this year. Unfortunately for me, this knife retails for $358.

In terms of knife care, Josh says there are three main culprits that cause a large percentage of the knife damage he deals with:

  • The number one knife no-no is the dishwasher! Even though some manufactures state that their knives are dishwasher safe, don’t subject your knives to the high heat and caustic water of the dishwasher. Interestingly, stainless steel is a bit of a misnomer; this material stains less, but is not impervious to staining and rust.
  • In terms of at-home sharpening, Josh recommends learning to use a good sharpening steel or a whetstone, and cautions that using a diamond steel or a pull through sharpener (especially two carbide blades or disks that shave the metal off the knife) can be very damaging.
  • In terms of knife use, scraping on hard surfaces or wiggling and bending knives (such as cutting through a large squash) can do significant damage to both the blade and the knife’s edge. Using knives deliberately and making sure your cutting surface is soft enough to protect your knife’s edge both can go a long way to keeping your blade in good shape.
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How to Choose a Cutting Board

December 18, 2012

In our search for a good knife sharpener, we stumbled across Bernal Cutlery, a charming small business in San Francisco that specializes in Japanese whetstone sharpening and carries an impressive array of knives, nearly all of which you can’t buy anywhere else in the Bay Area. After meeting Josh Donald, the owner of Bernal Cutlery, I knew that I had found my long sought-after knife-sharpening service, knife store and information resource for all things sharp.

The knife sharpener at work

The knife sharpener at work

I recently decided to replace my old plastic cutting board and thought Josh would be the perfect guy to talk to about what a home cook should look for in a food prep surface. I headed down to his cool communal space in Bernal Heights and learned about the most important things to look for in a cutting board.

331 Cortland Ave. in Bernal Heights, home to: Bernal Cutlery, Paulie's Pickling, Spice Hound, Eji's Ethiopian, Anda Piroshki, and Big Dipper Baby Food.

331 Cortland Ave. in Bernal Heights, home to: Bernal Cutlery, Paulie’s Pickling, Spice Hound, Eji’s Ethiopian, and Anda Piroshki.

Considering Josh is a knife-obsessed dealer and sharpener, it should come as no surprise that his number one priority when considering a cutting board is protecting the knives that will cut on it. If you share that priority, then a wood cutting board is the way to go. While many government and food safety organizations require the use of plastic cutting boards in commercial kitchens, significant debate exists on the topic. Ultimately, the decision to go with plastic or wood is a matter of personal preference; if you won’t be able to sleep at night without putting your cutting board through the dishwasher, then you should probably get a plastic cutting board and plan on getting your knives sharpened a little more often. Most importantly, unless you have a serious crush on your local knife sharpener, do not use your knives on serving plates or cutting boards made out of glass, marble, super hard or super soft plastics.

For those of you ready to make the switch, there are several types of wood used to make cutting boards, and each have unique advantages. Typically, wood cutting boards will be presented as hardwood or softwood, and then there is bamboo. Though bamboo is actually a grass, bamboo cutting boards share some characteristics with their wood counterparts and are popular enough to be worth addressing. Common hardwoods used for cutting boards include maple, hickory and walnut. Softwoods used for cutting boards include cedar and cypress.

Hardwood and bamboo can be used as either length grain or end grain, and softwood boards always use length grain. The hardest (too hard, by Josh’s standards) and least forgiving on knife-edges would be length grain bamboo, followed by length grain hardwoods.  Mosaicked, end grain bamboo and hardwoods create a more forgiving surface than the length grain, but still allow for the knife to slide easily. For those who prefer a little more stick to their cutting board, some of the softer length grain softwoods are a good option.

Bernal Cutlery carries two types of cutting boards. The first is a dense but soft North American cypress similar to the traditional Japanese “hinoki” wood used for cutting boards and aromatic baths. Josh sources the wood and then has pieces finished to specification by local craftsmen. The second is a smaller Umezawa–brand cutting board made out of Japanese “sawara” cypress.

Bernal Cutlery custom Port Orford Cedar cutting board (bottom, $78-$98) and                                             Umezawa Japanese Sawara cutting board (top, $42)

Bernal Cutlery custom Port Orford Cedar cutting board (bottom, $78-$98) and Umezawa Japanese “sawara” cutting board (top, $42)

Josh keeps his cutting boards in top shape by wiping them clean immediately after use, periodic cleanings with salt and lemon juice, and treating them every so often with walnut oil. There are many products such as mineral oil, beeswax, almond or coconut oil on the market to treat and protect wood. Ultimately, cutting board treatment is a personal preference. Wood cutting boards should never be put in the dishwasher or soaked in water, and should be wiped dry after use and cleaning.