The most basic tool in the kitchen is the knife, however it is often the thing that is most taken for granted. If you ask most chefs they will tell you that their knives are an extension of their arms. They will spend hundreds of dollars on a single knife and even more to keep their knives in top condition.
This leads us to several questions including what knives should I buy? How much money should I spend on them? How many should I have? In this series we will cover all of the basics including how to buy, what to look for, and basic knife information.
When you are ready to buy a set of knives, a good rule of thumb is to buy the best knives you can afford, because with proper care and maintenance they will give you years of faithful service.
When shopping for knives go to a reputable kitchen store. They will have the largest selection and will let you try out a knife as opposed to simply looking at the box in a discount mega store. The first choice you have to make is to buy a “set” or “open stock”. Each has its benefits; knives are usually more affordable if purchased as a set. Buying a set will provide you with the general tools to start your knife collection and often contains a knife block or other storage so you can keep them safe.
Most major cutlery manufacturers including J.A. Henckels and Wusthof also sell knives in “open stock,” which means you can buy the knives a la carte to create your own set. Buying knives in “open stock” usually makes sense if you want to add a knife to your existing knife set or if you want a particular knife. For example, a person with small hands may prefer a smaller chef knife than the one provided in the set. Or, your cooking style may frequently call for a specialty knife, such as a cleaver. Most of the time however, a set of knives probably makes the most sense.
Now that you have decided to buy a set or open stock there are a lot of things to look for and a vocabulary to learn so that you can make the most educated purchase.
A knife is comprised of; the blade, the bolster, the tang and the handle. The blade is obviously the part you cut with. The bolster can be found between the handle of the blade. The bolster is a thick piece of metal that adds weight to the knife to provide extra balance and comfort. Some people call the bolster a “shank” but it is the same thing.
The tang runs from the bolster back into the handle. The tang can be seen from the top, bottom, and back of the knife. High quality knives have a full tang, while some of the lesser quality knives have half tangs. Half tangs are visible only on the top and back of the handle. The tang is held to the handle with rivets.
Handles can be made of different materials. Wood handles tend to require more maintenance as they need to be treated with oil to keep them healthy. Plastic handles can sometimes break if not taken care of well. Today however, handles can be made of composite materials that offer excellent comfort and quality. Composites are almost unbreakable and can last almost forever.
Take into consideration the shape of the handle also. Handles come in various shapes to provide grips that can cater to almost everybody.
How knives are made
The two most popular knife constructions today are stamped and forged knives.
Stamped knives are usually less expensive than their forged counter part. They are cut from a sheet or roll of steel of constant thickness something like cutting cookies from a dough. The blades are then ground and edged and handles are attached to the tangs. Some stamped knives have a full or partial tang with rivets and some have a handle glued to a stick tang.
Forged knives undergo a treatment process to enhance the flexibility, density, and hardness of the knife. Forged knives tend to be heavier than stamped knives but are much better balanced. Forged knives are hand made through a process of extreme heat and hand molding. Each knife is carefully hand crafted with extreme detail. The tang of the knife merges into the handle and is typically secured by three rivets.
Know your Steel
Basically, kitchen knives are available in three types of steel. High carbon steel is actually the best performer providing toughness and the ability to take a very sharp edge with less overall effort. The down side to high carbon steel is that it is not stain resistant. It can rust and will discolor from use and with high usage the high carbon steel kitchen knife blades will actually become black. This discoloration is purely cosmetic and does not affect the performance of the knife in any way.
High carbon stainless steel is the best of the stain resistant steels. It has a high content of carbon for hardness and still enough chromium to keep it looking great. High carbon stainless will take a sharp edge and maintain it well. It is the most popular steel type used in high quality kitchen knives.
Stainless steel or surgical stainless steel has less carbon and more chromium in the alloy. It is very resistant to rust and stains but not hard enough to maintain the best possible edge. This type of steel is used often in the less expensive knives that you find at a local discount mega store.
Titanium is actually a matrix of titanium and carbides. Titanium is lighter than steel and more wear resistant. So a titanium alloy can hold an edge as well as steel. The carbides in the alloy allow the blades to be heat treated to hardness appropriate for kitchen knives. Titanium imparts no flavor whatsoever to food. The blades are more flexible than steel blades so they aren’t a good choice for some applications like decorative cuts but work pretty well for boning or anywhere a flexible blade is required.
The latest type of blade to hit the market is not steel at all but ceramic, but a very hard ceramic material called zirconium oxide. These blades are so hard that they will maintain a sharp edge for months or years with no maintenance at all. The down side to these knives are they are more brittle than steel and they require diamond sharpening tools to maintain their edge.
When you look at handles you should always look at more than how it looks and feels in your hand but the type of material it is made of. You can choose between composition handles, wood handles or stainless steel handles. The choice is between the practical maintenance-free nature of composition or stainless and the beauty and luxurious feel of wood. Most professionals choose composition or stainless handles because they require no maintenance and wood handles aren’t allowed in most commercial kitchens because bacteria can easily make their way into the handle. Wood handled knives are attractive and work fine in a home kitchen where the cook takes care of the equipment.
5 kitchen knives you can’t live without!
Often considered best all around knife in the block. Chef knives range from 6-12″ in length. The most common chef knife size is 8 inches long and is mostly used for chopping, mincing and dicing. The knife has a broad “flat” (blade) and is typically the knife used for most tasks. The knife is best used on a cutting board by rocking it on it’s curving edge and using the tip as a stationary pivot. Chefs also use it’s spine to crack lobster shells, break bones and scrape foods from the cutting board. The flat side is good for crushing things like garlic.
Boning Knives typically have a narrow blade length. There are two types of boning knives, stiff and flexible. Stiff boning knives are good for boning beef, while flexible boning knives are good for poultry and fish.
The long serrated knife is often called a bread knife because it is particularly good for slicing breads that require a back and forth sawing motion. However it has many more uses other than cutting a good slice of bread. The serrated knife can be good for tomatoes and peaches and other fruits that have a skin that can bruise easily. The serrated knife must be sharpened professionally, and should not be used on sharpening steel. However, the properly cared for serrated knife should not become dull because it is rarely drawn across a cutting board or other surfaces.
Utility Knife A.K.A “sandwich” knife:
A medium knife, which has a blade that is generally 4 to 7 inches long and is used for miscellaneous light cutting such as fruits and vegetables. They are also called sandwich knives because they are just the right size for slicing meats and cheeses.
A small knife with a sharp blade that is generally three to four inches long. It is easy to handle and works well for peeling and coring foods. The blade is typically thin and narrow and tapers to a point at the tip.
The common urban legend about steels are that they will sharpen your dull knife. This is not true at all. A honing steel will only true a blade and typically a user will have better results if you use the steel every time you use a knife. A regular metal steel will not sharpen a dull blade. Steels realign the edge of the blade. Be very careful when using a steel as each stroke used may remove metal.
I hope that I have given you all the tools for you to make an educated buying decision on kitchen knives. The key things to remember are buy the best knives you can afford, like cookware they will last you a lifetime as long as you take care of them properly. Secondly, choose knives that feel good when you use them. It is a matter of personal preference and feel. Remember knives are the most important tools in the kitchen.