More than 60 years ago, in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, Julia Child, one of America’s most imitated chefs, described the need for decent and reliable kitchen equipment.
“Theoretically, a good cook should be able to perform well under any circumstances, but cooking is much easier, more enjoyable and more efficient if you have the right tools,” Child said.
Among the essentials she named were a sturdy electric mixer, a frying pan and a knife – specifically, a quality stainless steel knife that is “razor sharp”.
What Child couldn’t foresee is that decades later, researchers in science labs would disagree. Last year, a group of researchers announced that they had developed a wood that they claim is 23 times harder than its natural counterpart. They used the hardened wood to make a table knife which, according to their study, is almost three times sharper than commercial table knives, such as those made of steel, plastic and natural wood.
To create the hardened wood, the researchers used a process involving chemical treatment, water rinsing, and cold and hot presses on basswood. They then soaked it in food grade mineral oil to increase its water resistance and carved the material into knives.
Basswood, a softwood commonly used for woodworking and musical instrument body construction, was selected for its high performance after treatment, says Teng Li, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Maryland. , College Park, and the lead researcher on the project.
But the manufacturing strategy used in the study also applies to other types of wood, he says.
The researchers tested the knife by cutting a steak, as well as cucumbers, carrots, onions and tomatoes. Although they’ve worked relatively well for researchers in the lab, could a wooden knife really replace a traditional knife in the real world?
Bob Kramer, a master smith in Bellingham, Washington, says he wants to see more data and try the knife out before forming an opinion.
“I say put the thing in front of you, try cutting a lemon, try cutting an onion with it,” he says. “Cut up a raw chicken and see how it goes.”
Having kitchen utensils that work well is a “nice thing,” says Kramer, who has been making knives for 30 years. “When it works, you feel the power of it.”
A short story
While the future of knives might take shape in a lab, historically they have always changed over time.
Knives are the oldest known artifacts. At least 2.5 million years ago, prehistoric humans slaughtered animals with small stones that were sharpened by hitting one stone with another, according to “The Cooks’ Catalogue,” an encyclopedia of kitchen utensils published in 1975 and edited by Chief James Beard and others.
The knife took on different shapes and materials in Iron and the Middle Ages, and around 1600 the table knife was invented. Even though knives grew in popularity at the dinner table, they were still used as weapons, sparking fears of danger during the meal, according to the California Academy of Sciences. In order to reduce the violence, in 1669 King Louis XIV of France declared all sharp knives – both for the street and the table – illegal and ordered them to be crushed.
While knife production soared across Europe in the late 18th century, it has declined and shifted to Asia in recent decades, says Alastair Fisher, director of Taylor’s Eye Witness Ltd. ., a knife maker in Sheffield, England, who has been in business. since 1838. Sheffield, a town about 170 miles north of London, has played an important role in producing knives for the English-speaking world, he says. Hundreds of knife makers were once located in Sheffield, he says, and a wide range of knives were produced there. The city’s proximity to multiple natural resources, including iron ore, coal and limestone, made it an ideal location, he says.
In recent decades, knife production in England has declined, partly due to the growth of fast food and its plastic cutlery, says Fisher: “Unfortunately people have moved on to TV dinners.”
But even with the rise of disposable utensils, a niche community of knife enthusiasts is thriving, and its members have opinions on the idea of a hardened wooden knife.
Yao-Fen You, senior curator at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, says she’s picky with her knives. She learned to use a cleaver around the age of 5 and now owns around 10 kitchen knives, including a Miyabi Koh stainless steel knife, which costs her around $130.
“I’m skeptical,” You says of a wooden knife, which contracts and expands. “It’s usually the problem with wooden handles. I like the feel of them, but they will deteriorate over time.
Li, the University of Maryland professor who helped create the hardened wood, heard such concerns. Natural wood utensils, like chopsticks, spoons and cutting boards, are widely used in kitchens, he says, and while they degrade, they can also last a long time. With proper care, he says, he expects hardwood utensils to last longer than natural wood items. Hardened wooden knives can also be resharpened just like steel knives, he says.
Which is best for the environment?
It is complicated.
Li argued that producing hard materials from metals and alloys is energy-intensive and results in a high carbon footprint. However, a typical knife uses less than a pound of stainless steel, according to Chris Pistorius, co-director of the Center for Iron and Steelmaking Research at Carnegie Mellon University. He says the climate impact of a steel knife was minimal and its ability to be recycled was a major benefit.
To really assess whether a hardened wooden knife is better for the environment would require a “life cycle analysis,” says Jesko von Windheim, a professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment. It’s a “cradle-to-grave analysis” that does carbon accounting along the way, he says.
Sometimes products appear more environmentally friendly on the surface, but may not actually depend on their production process and how they are disposed of, he says.
“If you want to argue that woodcutting knives are better,” von Windheim says, “you have to do that accounting.”
Zak Eastop, in Durham, England, says he recently spent around 150 pounds, or $200, on a new kitchen knife. Eastop described his relationship with the tool as “semi-symbiotic” and said “it feels like an extension of my hand”. He says he was worried that hardened wooden knives wouldn’t last as long as steel and wondered if it could be sharpened.
“I can’t imagine replacing high-end steel knives for the kitchen,” he says. “For dinner, yes, of course.”
Back in Sheffield, Fisher didn’t seem convinced by the researchers and said he thought the knife would struggle to cut very thin slices of smoked salmon.
“I would love to try one,” he says. “But I don’t think there’s too much panic in Sheffield at the moment.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2022 The New York Times Company
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