Expert Interview Series: Nate Ouderkirk of KitchenKnifeGuru About Choosing and Caring For Kitchen Knives

Nate Ouderkirk is a kitchen knife aficionado who has spent hours and hours researching kitchen knives and how to keep them sharp, and helps thousands of visitors a month on his website/blog, KitchenKnifeGuru.com. He managed to carve out some...

Nate Ouderkirk is a kitchen knife aficionado who has spent hours and hours researching kitchen knives and how to keep them sharp, and helps thousands of visitors a month on his website/blog, KitchenKnifeGuru.com. He managed to carve out some time in his schedule to share his expertise with us.

What makes you the "Kitchen Knife Guru?"

KitchenKnifeGuru is more a handle than an authoritative title. It's a way to share what I have learned (and am still learning) about kitchen knives and things kitchenistic. It's sort of a journey...

I'm a consumer, a home cook, a stay-at-home Dad, a writer, a lot of things. And at one point a few years ago, I got really really fed up with not having a chef knife that could effortlessly slice a tomato. And because I like to get to the bottom of things, and I appreciate quality, I searched for a quality solution - and found one.

Funny enough, my solution was NOT to become a master sharpener and sharpen my own knives. I don't have time for that, and even if I did, I'm not sure I would want to spend my time doing that. My solution was to send my knives out to a high-quality professional sharpening service and then hone them religiously to maintain their sharpitude as long a possible. (As well as treat them properly and not abuse them, of course.) And KitchenKnifeGuru was first launched to share this core wisdom with the world - because NOBODY (in home kitchens) has sharp knives.

Even a non-chef knows that in order for a knife to be effective in the kitchen, it has to be sharp. Is there any other quality that's important as well?

Yes, a sharp knife is effective, but it's also more fun! When you use a sharp knife, say, to cut up a pineapple - and the blade just glides through the fruit, doing your bidding with little resistance - then it becomes more of a game than a chore.

But there are other qualities, yes, of course. Feel. That's a big one. Depending on the cook, feel can be a huge deal (or not so huge), but can be broken down into a number of aspects: How does the handle meld with your hand? Is it comfortable? How long or short is the blade? How heavy is the knife? Does it feel balanced and centered in your palm, or does it want to flip out of your hand? (Most cooks want their chef knife to feel balanced or slightly weighted forward - but not back heavy.)

Feel. Some cooks are intimidated by large blades and some love them. That's one reason santokus have become so popular. They work well as chef knives, but they're more compact. Although a large knife can be handy for big jobs, in general, your go-to knife should be a length you're comfortable with.

What makes one knife sharper than another?

This is what consumers all seem to care the most about. But in the end, it's not anywhere near as important as this question: How are you going to keep your knives sharp? Because no matter how sharp a knife is when it comes from the factory, it's always going to get dull - and, most of the time, sooner rather than later, like within a year or two of buying it (if it's used regularly). And if you don't have a plan for how you're going to keep your knives sharp (most American home cooks don't), after the first year or two you will putting up with dull knives.

That said, certain types of steel can take a finer, more acute angle than other types of steel. For example, carbon steel (not high-carbon stainless) can have a finer grain structure than stainless, and thus take a finer edge. It will also be easier to sharpen.

Along with this phenomenon, and probably even more important, is the fact that high-quality steel (stainless or no) can hold a sharp edge longer than lesser-quality steel. That's why it's important to be willing to pay a premium for your kitchen knives. Quality steel costs more.

Are there any current trends in kitchen knives that everyday cooks need to be aware of?

There is one major trend I'm aware of and one smaller one.

The major trend is the invasion, and growing influence, of Japanese-styled knives. Let me explain...

Historically, there have been two basic approaches to consumer knifemaking: German-style and Japanese-style. German knives, traditionally, were made from a softer but tougher steel, were thicker and heavier, and were sharpened at a wider angle. Japanese knives were traditionally made from a harder but brittler steel, were thinner and lighter, and were sharpened at a more acute angle.

The German approach gives you a knife that is tougher and can stand up to more abuse, but is not as wickedly sharp. The Japanese approach gives you a knife with a thinner, more delicate blade (you must be more careful with it) that has less resistance and a sharper cutting edge. A German-style knife will also weigh more and, over long periods of time, be more liable to tire out the user's hand and arm than a Japanese knife.

Each knifemaking approach has its strengths and weaknesses, but currently, the Japanese approach is on the rise and the German one is waning. I use both styles of knives in my kitchen and see no reason why a home chef should feel forced to exclusively use one or the other. But it is useful to be aware of what styles you own and why you do (or don't) favor them.

The minor trend is the subtle resurgence of knives made of carbon steel rather than high-carbon stainless. If you go back before World War II (or maybe further), you'd find that many more kitchen knives used to be made of carbon steel because people loved how sharp they could get, how well they held an edge, and how easy they were to sharpen. The main negative was that they could rust. Then, it became more and more important to consumers (or knife manufacturers) for knives to be able to resist rust, and thus dawned the age of stainless steel kitchen knives as the norm. But now, there's a renewed appreciation of the strengths of carbon steel - and it's making a bit of a comeback.

What steps do you take to keep your knives in pristine condition?

Most are preventative. And the two most important are:

1) I never ever cut on any material that's not meant for knife cutting and is too hard... like marble, glass, steel baking pans, or ceramic plates. And there's a corollary: I never use my knives to cut through things they were not designed to cut through... like bones or anything frozen.

2) I hone/steel my knives regularly with a ceramic hone.

I also...

- store my knives properly, protecting the edges and never letting them bang around in a drawer where the edges can get dinged.

- always hand-wash them and DRY them as soon as possible after using them. I never put them in the dishwasher.

All this probably sounds a bit fanatic and excessive, but once you get in the habit, it's pretty darn easy. And your reward is knives that stay in primo shape and don't need to be sharpened very often.

Could you name a few types of dishes, meals, or entrees for which having a dependable kitchen knife during preparation is most important?

It seems to me, as long as you're working with fresh ingredients - fresh meat and fresh fruits and vegetables - a dependable kitchen knife is indispensable to everything you do in a kitchen. From slicing a cantaloupe for breakfast, to dicing onions for soup, to carving up an avocado for guacamole. There's no escaping it! Now if you're fixing pre-prepped food, then you probably don't need any knives at all. What knives do you need to heat up frozen lasagna or boil up frozen string beans?

What are a few of your favorite kitchen knives?

This is a tough one - there are a whole lot of well-made and well-designed kitchen knives out there! But here are a few I own that I use regularly and the reasons why.

Global G-48 Santoku, 7-inch: It keeps its edge wonderfully and I love the lightness, compactness, and the wide, santoku blade. And its ultra-modern look is none too shabby.

Wusthof Centennial Carbon Steel Chef and Paring Knife: I love their vintage design, how the natural wood feels in your hand, the thinness of the blades, and their sharpitude.

Shun Classic 6-inch Chef: Great for small jobs like fixing guacamole or doing a small salad. Light and nimble, sharp and handsome. Hones back to a sharp edge, time and time again.

Here are three I'd love to own:

- Kramer Carbon Steel or Meiji

- Miyabi Birchwood

- MAC MTH-80 Professional

The first two are beautifully designed, but killer sharp. And the third is praised as the ultimate cutting machine by and for professional chefs.

So many knives...

Finally, do you have any safety tips to share that can help people avoid kitchen knife mishaps or injuries?

    • Number One: Never be in too much of a hurry. Never.

    • Two: Learn, and practice, the curved knuckle technique of holding whatever you're cutting in place without sticking out your fingers. Like the pros.

    • Three: If you are accustomed to dullish knives but are placed in the circumstance of using a sharpish knife, do not be casual or lackadaisical. A sharp knife is a completely different animal. Treat it with enormous amounts of care and respect. It will pay you back fourfold.

    Check out Cilantro's selection of kitchen knives today!