A New Knife Worthy Of Our Attention

Knives are the oldest type of manufactured tool, and they’re still evolving. Karsten Moran for The New York Times

I last posted on the topic of knives earlier this year, partly because the onetime blacksmith apprentice in me felt compelled to salute the skillset, but mainly because the mission behind the knife-making in that case was worth promoting.

Otherwise, culinary utensils do not get much attention in our pages. Ceiba being the celebrated exception to that general rule–wooden culinary utensils, but no knives. Derrick Bryson Taylor offers us a good reason to revisit this neglect:

Knives are humanity’s oldest tool, dating back millions of years. A group of scientists in Maryland have produced a version made of hardened wood, which they say is sharper than steel.

More than 60 years ago in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Julia Child, one of America’s most emulated chefs, described the necessity of decent, reliable kitchen equipment.

“Theoretically a good cook should be able to perform under any circumstances, but cooking is much easier, pleasanter, and more efficient if you have the right tools,” Ms. Child said. Among the essentials she named were a heavy-duty electric mixer, a skillet and a knife — specifically, a quality, stainless steel knife that’s “sharp as a razor.”

What Ms. Child could not anticipate was that decades later, researchers in science labs would disagree. Last year, a group of researchers announced they had developed wood that they say is 23 times harder than its natural counterpart. They used the hardened wood to make a table knife that their study shows is nearly three times sharper than commercial table knives, like those made from steel, plastic and natural wood.

To create the hardened wood, researchers used a process involving a chemical treatment, water rinsing, and both 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 soft wood commonly used for woodworking and constructing the bodies of musical instruments, was selected for its high performance after processing, said 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 is applicable to other types of wood, too, he said.

Researchers tested the knife by cutting a steak, along with cucumbers, carrots, onions and tomatoes. Although they worked relatively well for researchers in the lab, could a wood knife really replace a traditional one in the real world?…

Read the whole article here.

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