In the past year I have seen several articles, Facebook debates, forum rants and Twitter tussles over which knife one “must have” for barbecue competitions. This debate is starting rival the wood versus charcoal versus pellet debate best I can tell. I’ve read several articles and many blog posts on the subject as I have started to build my competition set. So I decided why not throw in my 2 cents on the subject and cloud the issue even more.
The very first thing you need to consider when buying your knives is “how much knife can you afford?” This will depend on how much money can spend obviously but for me it also is a factor of how much money can I comfortably live with if lose the knife or if they were to some how get damaged or stolen. While I can afford a $200 hand made knife of the finest Japanese forged steel, I think it would be foolish to carry that knife and 3 or 4 of its friends to competitions. If someone were to grab my knife case they would make off with $800 in steel and I would be crushed.
There is nothing wrong with spending that kind of coin on a knife, but in my opinion those knives have a place. That place is at home in a fine walnut knife block or in your hand while you are using them. I have a hard time believing that most real chef’s or people who work with blades day in and day out use these ultra expensive pieces. To me it’s much like taking a $15000 ultra rare guitar and touring with it acrossEurope. It doesn’t make sense when you can make the same music with a $1000 guitar and beat the crap out of it without the guilt and still cash checks. The $1000 guitar is nicer than most guitars out there but isn’t an heirloom and it gets the job done at a professional level. I think that is exactly what you should look for in a set of competition knives. Something professional, cheap enough you can lose without too much guilt, but well built enough to take the hardships of real use.
The next thing most people consider is forged versus stamped or laser cut. I used to believe I would only ever be satisfied with a forged blade and that I just HAD to have forged. Let me just say I was wrong. The new process of stamping and cutting is so much better than it used to be and they are putting out near forged quality at a small fraction of the cost. Forged has it’s advantages, but I think more times than not it’s the perception that they are of higher quality that push the uninformed into thinking they have to have forged. This article from Mark at Your Cutlery Helper has some great links and makes some great points in the forged versus stamped debate. I won’t rehash all his points as he does a fine job laying out the argument.
My opinion on the debate between the two was settled when I got my first high quality stamped knife, a 6” boning knife by Victorinox. I stumbled onto this knife during my research when I found a blog post by Danielle Dimovski (Diva Q) on her recommended competition bbq knives. Admittedly I got a good deal on the knife as I only paid $18 for it, but I would have paid 3 times that much for it and still be happy with it. This is the best knife I own for the money. I feel lost when I am trimming meat without it. It is simply awesome and means so much more to me than the money I paid for it. What’s best is that if I lose I can get another one without guilt. Heck, I could get a new one every year if I wanted to at that price.
Last thing to keep in mind when considering knives for competition is…YOU. First and foremost do what works for YOU. YOU have to use them. YOU have to wash them. YOU have to live with them. It’s great to research and read, but never lose site that it’s your money and your gear.
So all of that said what knives do you “need” to compete? I will be the first to admit I used to be a gear collector, I needed one of everything made and would pack that to the competitions “just in case” I needed it. My load in and load out was nothing short of a beautiful disaster. Thankfully, I took a class in this off season that drastically changed my perception of what I really needed to take to a competition. I now do my meat trimming at home if at all possible which means much less gear and clean up. That means I can make it through an actual competition with 3 knives, vice the 8 I used to take and much less to clean up. I used to believe in using every knife for its specified purpose and only it’s specified purpose. I have sense adopted more of an Alton Brown approach to things and I prefer devices that can “multitask” vice “unitask.” For the purposes of this article I will include all the knives I use for trimming and turn in so you get a full picture of what is really needed.
Knife 1 – A boning, trimming knife. You will use this knife to trim up your chicken before the competition, to get in tight spots on briskets and butts during trimming and also for surgical “clean up” cuts before turn in. It’s small, sharp, pointed and easily maneuverable. This knife for me replaces a pairing knife more times than not. You may find you need a pairing knife; I don’t so you may want to add that one into the mix if you feel strongly about it. As I already mentioned above the Victorinox 6” Boning knife, model number 40615 is the winner for me. You may prefer a flexible boning knife vice the stiff one I chose. Both work fine, I just prefer the stability of the stiffer blade.
Knife 2 – a long slicing knife with a granton edge. This knife you will use to draw through brisket in one single motion for the cleanest cut possible. It is a little more of a unitasker than I prefer, but a needed one. You can use it for slicing money muscles in your pork butts and for dividing your ribs as well but its primary shining purpose is perfectly slicing wide slices of meat. There is debate between 10in, 12in and 14in models and yes there are many perverted jokes about length that can be made here. For most briskets and applications the 12in will do the trick best I can tell. The 14in is great, but it can be a bit unwieldy. No matter which you choose you will want to practice with it. This isn’t a knife everyone can pick up and be a pro with. Practice trying to make deli thin cuts on a ham, turkey or some roast beef. It takes a little bit of concentration to break the habit of sawing back and forth like we are so used to. That is completely opposite to this knife’s DNA. It is purpose built for single drawing cuts. Be forewarned granton edged knives in the 12in size range from $20 to $300 and vary greatly. One of the best reviewed one’s out there that got the Cook’s Illustrated seal of approval is also one of the cheapest. The Victorinox 12in Granton Slicer, model 47645 is a clear winner for the money. For just under $40 it’s the best slicer you are going to find. There are others that are awesome, but they are also in the $150 range.
Knife 3 – Utility knife. This can be any size, any brand and any type you want. I recommend keeping one knife in your mix that you can hack open bags of charcoal, cut rope with, stab creeping marauders who try to steal your ribs, etc. This is the throw away knife. You treat it like crap and go get another. Some folks keep a pocket knife with them, some don’t. I keep a cheap $6 chef styled knife in my tackle box that serves this function for me. It doesn’t keep a good edge, it isn’t pretty but it works for opening packages and what not.
Believe it or not these three knives are all that I actually need for the competition. I am working on becoming a true minimalist. I know you are asking already what about shears, cleavers, a real chef’s knife, etc. I have all of those, but they stay at home because the trimming is done at home. Check out the next few knives for the one’s I would recommend in addition to the boning knife for trimming and prepping competition meat.
Knife 4 – Breaking Knife. This knife can come in many incarnations. What you need though is a larger knife that can break down meat and trim fat from briskets and pork butts adequately. For some that is a nice butcher, breaking knife or cimeter (scimitar) knife. For other’s a chef’s knife works. While the chef’s knife is another great multitasker I don’t prefer it in this application. For me it’s best for chopping and prep more so than breaking down large cuts of meat. I much prefer the curved blade design of the other types of knives. For me it really came down to the cimeter versus the butcher knife. In the end the butcher won out. It came down to pricing and I was already fairly attached to another butcher styled knife so I knew this one would be an easy transition. I went with the Victorinox 10in Granton Edge Butcher, model 47638. Be sure to shop around on this knife as I’ve seen the price vary as much as $30 on it, but for around $40 you will have an awesome knife to break down nearly anything.
Knife 5 – I will throw this one in just because this is the “go to” knife for most cooks. The chef’s knife comes in a million incarnations and the trend now is between the santoku and the traditional chef design. I’m not here to really say one is better than another. For me it was the difference between rocking movements or chopping movements when using the knife. If you are a rocker you want the curve of the chef’s knife. If you chop faster than Morimoto then the santoku is likely more for you. If you still have questions (and you should) as to which is right for you check out this article. It is a good starting resource for figuring out which is best for you. Which did I choose? All of them but in 3 incarnations. I have a standard chef’s knife that I use. I also own a straight handled traditional santoku. Then I have what has become the rage in the last couple of years, which is basically a hybrid. It has the handle more akin to the chef’s knife but a santoku blade. This is the one I tend to grab out of the drawer more than the others. I can’t any longer find it online to show it to you, but it is very similar to this one. Again it’s nothing outrageously expensive, but it works and that’s what matters most.
Other Gear – There are 10 other kinds of knives and gear I could recommend. Of those I would recommend a good cleaver, a good pair of kitchen shears, blade protectors for every knife and a good sharpening steel. A quick word on each to help you in your endeavor to find the best your dollars can buy. The cleaver in my opinion needs to have some heft and weight to it. The idea is to be able to blow through bones when needed with it. So keep that mind in your search. They don’t have to be expensive to work. The kitchen shears comes in a million varieties. If you are going to be breaking down whole chickens with them get a hefty pair with good leverage and a set that breaks apart for proper cleaning if at all possible. The blade protectors many over look, you shouldn’t. This is for your protection as much as the knife’s. This will set you back all of a couple of bucks per knife and will keep them from getting nicked and dinged as you toss them in a tackle box or drawer. Last but not least, actually most importantly is the sharpening steel. This is the one tool you will use EVERY time you use your knife. Spend some bucks get a good diamond steel. They aren’t cheap but makes your knives better and helps them last even longer in between professional sharpening.
Finally you will notice that pretty much every knife I recommended was from Victorinox. Why? Well, because they are doing it right at the right price. They have great blades, non-slip grips and just plain work. If I had to recommend another brand that is on par with the quality and pricing of this line it would be the Dexter-Russell Sani-Safe line. Great knives, great value and easily found online or at any Restaurant Depot.
Happy cooking folks, I hope this has helped you make a decision that took me hours and hours of research to make!