If you’d like to amp up your cooking skills, with more enjoyment making meals, having a few good knives on hand is essential. And a well-crafted, versatile chef’s knife is truly a must. A chef’s knife is the home cook’s equivalent of a Swiss Army knife – it’s ready and willing to perform any task it is given.
Kitchen Knives – The Alpha and Omega of Cooking
Right from the beginning of our history, knives have been an integral part of our day to day lives.
The sharpened flints our ancestors used may have been the most basic of cutters, but they gave birth to an innumerable amount of tools and innovations in the fields of culture, science, technology, agriculture, armaments, and of course, food preparation.
Having a good kitchen knife has been of the utmost importance to our survival.
So, the next time you pull out your favorite kitchen knife, a little reverence please! Our survival may not depend on them anymore, but a finely crafted blade is a treasure indeed.
You don’t have a favorite yet? Then let us entertain and inform you. Because here at Foodal, there’s a few of us that are more than just a wee bit daft about the elegance and efficiency of a good knife.
If you want to enjoy any level of success in the kitchen, knowing how to work with knives is a keystone piece to the puzzle.
Choosing the best tool for the job and using the most efficient techniques to wield it are straightforward, learnable task, as is knowing what qualities and features to look for when purchasing the cook’s best friend..
From piercing a haggis to filleting a fish, there’s a stylized blade to suit the task. Not that you necessarily need a large arsenal – a few basics, such as a general purpose chef’s knife as well as a paring bade, will do nicely to start with.
You can always add more specialized pieces as you develop your cooking skills, although many fine cooks are happy with just a few.
Good kitchen knives are an investment, and choosing high-quality ones that excel in strength, durability, sharpness and handling is a must. They save time and energy, and pay big dividends in terms of longevity when well-maintained.
And becoming proficient with a couple of good blades is a great confidence booster – you feel as though you’ve been initiated into the kitchen wizards’ society. Which, naturally, increases your enjoyment of cooking.
So have a look through our various articles below and click on the tabs above to learn about the different types of knives, cutting techniques, what to look for when buying, how to sharpen them, and much more as we delve into the workings of this superb tool.
Types of Knives
While there may be a knife out there for pretty much any cooking task, not all cutters are created equal. Nor is it absolutely necessary to have a different blade for each chore in order to be a proficient cook.
So in this section, we’re going to have a look at the different types of kitchen knives. We’ll cover some of the more common cooking blades, and go into more specific aspects like style, construction, comfort, technique and price.
If you’re gearing up your first kitchen, you may be tempted to purchase a set – several knives that come in a block with a honing steel.
And while there are many good sets available, care needs to be taken as some will be loaded with variations of the same style, with only a difference in blade size. Also, the quality of many sets can be questionable, with tools made of sub-par materials that won’t stay keen, and constructed for purposes of economy rather than longevity.
A good alternative is to invest in a few basics such as a good quality knife block or other storage along with a knife-friendly cutting board. As you progress in your skills, you can add specialty blades or Japanese knives to suit the style of cooking you enjoy, and as your budget allows.
Before purchasing any kitchen utensil, understanding its uses will help to ensure you pick the best one for the job. So here’s a brief primer on some of the most frequently used styles.
Varieties of Kitchen Knives
Boning – a mid-length, thin and rigid blade suitable for cutting meat from roasts, ham, and poultry.
Bread – a long serrated blade, longer and wider than a steak knife, used to cut bread, cake, tomatoes, and other soft fruits and vegetables. See our complete guide.
Butcher’s – a long-bladed, hefty tool used mostly for butchering and dressing animals.
Carving – a long, thin blade used for slicing cooked meats, and often comes with a carving fork to secure the meat.
Chef’s – also called a cook’s knife, it’s a multi-purpose tool 6 – 14 inches in length, used for chopping, slicing, dicing, and mincing. See our complete guide.
Chinese Vegetable Cleaver – similar in shape to a standard cleaver, it has a thinner, more delicate blade ideal for chopping, slicing, and scooping large amounts of ingredients from the chopping block. See our complete guide.
Cleaver – a rectangular, tall blade of varying lengths that has a particularly durable edge to cut through tough tissue and bone, as well as to chop, pound, shred and mash with the flat of the blade.
Filet – a 6 – 11 inch blade that’s very flexible, and is used for the delicate work of slicing along the backbone of fish and removing skin.
Gyuto – a popular Japanese chef’s style with a long, thin and more nimble blade.
Kitchen Shears – used for parting poultry, snipping stems and a range of kitchen tasks. See our complete guide.
Mandoline – Not a knife in the traditional sense but instead it is a blade embedded into a board that allows for slicing (and sometimes fancier cuts). See our complete guide.
Nakiri – a traditional Japanese cook’s knife with a squared-off tip that excels at chopping veggies.
Paring – a short, sharp blade used for peeling vegetables and coring fruit.
Santoku – a Japanese chef’s knife that uses more of a forward motion with a quick, vertical drop for chopping. And it has a deep blade that makes it good for scooping ingredients.
Serrated Edge – often called a bread knife, it has a long serrated blade for cutting bread with a hard crust and soft interior.
Utility – a lightweight tool with a blade 4 – 7 inches in length used for different cutting duties when a paring blade is too small and a chef’s knife is too big. It can be used for some chef’s knife chores in a pinch.
Western Deba – has the same profile as a western chef style but is constructed of tough Japanese steel.
Novelty Knives – blades that are designed for a single purpose. These are designed for a single purpose, like cutting cheese, shucking oysters, mincing herbs, or cutting grapefruit.
As you can see, necessity has led to the invention of a blade for every occasion. So before you make a purchase, read our related posts to help you put your best edge forward.
Most kitchen knives are constructed with either a hot-forged, stamped, or stock removal technique.
Hot-forging a blade requires multiple steps by skilled artisans. A steel blank is fired in a forge to very hot temperatures, then the work piece is transferred to an anvil where it’s beaten into shape by a smith with a heavy hammer (smith is derived from the old English for the verb to smite).
After forging, the blade is then ground, sharpened and polished.
Although larger manufacturers have automated this to some degree, forging by hand is still one of the primary means of making an excellent quality edged tool.
Most full-tang knives are forged, with the metal from the blade continuing in one piece right through to the butt of the handle.
This full-tang construction offers exceptional strength and stability when cutting through thick pieces of meat, tough connective tissue or over-sized items.
Handles are the final component in construction, and are generally made of wood, steel, or a composite of synthetic materials which are riveted through the tang.
The most important bit added with a forged western-style knife is the bolster. A bolster is a thicker pieced that has been forged into the steel that separates the handle and the blade. This provides a transposition point and helps keep the hand from slipping from the handle to the cutting blade. It also counterbalances the blade by moving the center of balance more towards the center improving control of the tool. The bolster also helps to strengthen the entire assembly
Bolsters are good to have but not critical – Japanese knives don’t traditionally feature them (unless they are of western-style handles) and are some of the best kitchen knives in the world
Stamped knives are created from a single piece of rolled steel which is then cut with a stamp in the form of a blade – which will be lighter in weight than a forged one, and will have much more flex to it.
But, because it hasn’t gone through the forging process (which rearranges the steel’s molecular structure) it doesn’t have the same strength as forged steel, nor will the edge stay keen as long.
The other main difference is that stamped knives won’t have a bolster.
And as stamping is a much less labor-intensive process, they’re also less expensive as well.
Thin and whippy, a stamped blade is suitable for boning and filleting, but isn’t the best material for most kitchen knives.
Once the stamp has been formed, the knife is finished by attaching the handle, sharpening the edge and polishing.
Mostly the purview of custom or semi-custom knife makers and small scale, high quality manufacturers, stock removal involves starting with a metal blank or billet and grinding away everything that doesn’t look like a knife.
The blades are then given a basic polish before heat treating, and then a final polish occurs after the tempering process has been completed.
These are usually the most expensive to purchase and in the case of custom made examples, the wait time can be extraordinary. The small scale batch manufactures also make limited numbers in one go and if the design is popular, they can sell out to collectors fairly fast.
Materials and Alloys
Typically, a kitchen knife will be made of either carbon or stainless steel, a combination of both metals, stainless steel alloys or even ceramic.
Carbon steel is manufactured as an alloy of iron with approximately 1% carbon. Most blades made with carbon steel are from a simple formula free of additions such as chrome or vanadium.
Not only is carbon steel much easier to sharpen than stainless, it will also hold an edge longer.
Unfortunately, it’s also prone to rust and staining, which means it requires a maintenance regime of cleaning and seasoning after each use – similar to seasoning a carbon wok or other carbon steel pots.
Carbon blades are more popular in the Middle East and Asia than in the West, and some chefs will allow their carbon knives to have a day of rest after each use to restore the natural patina.
This patina forms a barrier that inhibits the transference of a metallic taste from the blade to the food.
Stainless steel is another iron alloy with approximately 10-18% of chromium and nickel, and only a fractional amount of carbon.
The most common grade of stainless steel for home use is 18/8 – what those figures indicate is that it contains 18% chromium and 8% nickel. And, the lower the carbon content, the less staining will occur.
Chromium is a durable metal, white in color and is used in the manufacturing of stainless steel and other alloys due to its hardness and stain-resistant qualities.
Nickel is a corrosion-resistant metal, silvery-white in color and commonly used to add a bright, shiny finish to other metals.
However, stainless steel is more difficult to sharpen and most common allows won’t hold an edge for nearly as long as a high-carbon blade. But, it does resist corrosion and staining, and are generally inexpensive to make (although there are certain alloys that are much more expensive).
Higher grade and specialty stainless steel can take an extremely sharp edge and retain it well, even outshining high-quality carbon steel blades.
To qualify as stainless, the metal must contain at least 13% chromium, and today’s exotic blends can also contain molybdenum, vanadium, and tungsten – all of which are used to aid with sharpness and edge retention.
A laminate or composite blade is made with layers of both types of steel, utilizing the best qualities of both. Layers of tougher but softer stainless might form the backing, while the harder and sharper carbon steel is used for the edge.
A ceramic blade is very sharp and will hold an edge the longest. Usually made of zirconium dioxide, they are sintered into shape with heat and pressure to form a dense, tough mass.
They’ll remain rust and corrosion free, but are very brittle and inflexible. And that means they’re prone to chipping and breaking easily. Also, they’re difficult to sharpen and specialized equipment is needed for the task.
Japanese kitchen knives will be covered in a separate post, where their composition will be explored in detail.
The Importance of Tempering Steel
When considering the type of steel used in the manufacture of kitchen knives, a lot of attention gets put on the “hardness” of a blade, and with good reason.
In general, the harder the blade, the sharper the edge. And while hardness is important, it comes with a price – hardened steel, particularly some of the alloys used in Japanese blades, is known to be somewhat brittle and prone to chipping.
However, brittleness does not have to be synonymous with hardness, as it can be tempered with… tempering.
Hardening is the process of making knife steel harder by producing a uniform internal structure free of excessively hard crystals and soft spots.
As the steel is heated, it begins to take on different colors as well as different properties of hardness and strength according to how the carbon, iron, and other elements are aligned.
Depending on its composition, the steel is first heated to very hot temperatures (1922-1994°F), then quickly quenched to cool. This produces extreme hardness in the form of martensite, but at this point it’s too hard to be of service as it will shatter.
Tempering is used to reduce a certain amount of the extraneous hardness in order for the steel to be usable – it will lose some of its hard, brittle nature but will become tougher in the process.
And toughness, or the ability to handle impacts without chipping, cracking or breaking, is every bit as important as hardness.
A secondary heat treatment for steel, tempering is achieved at much lower temperatures (347-662 °F) which is then allowed to air cool with a resulting hardness of 53-63 HRC (What’s HRC?).
The precise temperature used determines the degree of hardness removed, and depends on the composition of the alloy as well as the properties desired for the end product.
Precision tempering will result in an ideal balance between hardness, toughness and corrosion resistance for the finished blade. And when done properly, tempering will cause a low quality steel to perform at higher levels than a knife made of better quality steel, but not treated correctly.
So don’t look for hardness alone in your kitchen knives – for outstanding performance and longevity, look for blades and other high quality tools that have been finely crafted with skillful tempering.
The Rockwell Scale
The Rockwell Scale
The Rockwell Scale is a standardized measurement to determine the hardness of a material, such as stainless steel, and has been in use since the early 1900s.
Knives and most hand tools use the Rockwell “C” Scale which is usually abbreviated HRC but you sometimes see it referred to as RC.
Very hard steel used in chisels and knife blades generally ranks at 50–66 HRC. Japanese blades often will measure at 60 HRC, while a high-carbon kitchen knife will rate around 56–58. A rating of 62 or above would be considered very hard.
Written by Lorna Kring
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