Monday, December 24, 2012

Kitchen Knives 101

Your knives are the most essential tool or utensil in your kitchen.  Take time to get to know them and spend as much as you can afford...then take care of them!   By definition a kitchen knife is any knife that is intended to be used in food preparation.  While much of this work can be accomplished with a few general-purpose  knives there are dozens of specialized knives that are designed for specific tasks. Kitchen knives can be made from several different materials.  Common opinion among most of those that I follow and in the opinion of a couple chefs I know is that you really only need 4-6 knives in your arsenal so get to know the options, shop around and maintain them after you buy them.

The use of knives is a very personal thing, however I have attempted to provide both a definition of the basic knives you will need in your collection in this first section.  I have also attempted to place this in my own hierarchy of usefulness.

Note: Never buy a knife without checking out the balance and if you can test cut with it, DO IT!

In my experience I use 3 or 4 basic knives on a regular basis and the rest take up space except on very rare occasions. Many I know have dozens and dozens of knives.  I am currently using the Guy Fieri Knuckle Sandwich from Ergo Chef  and before that it was a VERY expensive set of Wusthof; frankly it's all personal preference and budget.
Chef's Knife: The chef's knife was originally designed primarily to slice and disjoint large cuts of beef.  Also known as a French knife or a cook's knife today it is the primary general-utility knife for most cook.   It is curved to allow you to rock the knife on the cutting board for a more precise cut making it your primary all-purpose knife.  When buying knives, this is the knife for which going cheap is NOT recommended.  Paring Knife: The paring knife is typically a 4 inch knife designed for more delicate work and usually has a plain edge suited for peeling and other small or intricate work.  It too is a all-purpose knife. Bread Knife: Serrated knives are able to cut soft bread (and tomatoes) without crushing; this long, straight blade may be the true last ‘essential’ knife in your collection.  After this its all about individual needs and desires in the kitchen. Santoku Knife: The more recent development of the Japanese chef's knife, the santoku is a wonderful general-purpose utility knife.  If you are like most people you have added one of these to your collection already and use it as a utility knife.  Primarily designed for cutting fish, vegetables, and boneless or lightly boned meats such as chicken the design features a sheep’s foot blade with a spine that drops sharply to meet the hardened, acutely-ground cutting edge.  Utility Knife: This knife typically has a smaller blade than the chef's knife and can often be substituted for by a nice paring knife making it unnecessary in most knife collections. Cleaver - A meat cleaver is a large typically rectangular knife used for splitting meat and bone. The edge is sharply-beveled and the bevel is typically convex. The knife is designed to cut with a swift stroke without cracking, splintering or bending the blade.
Caring for your knives - When I was 12 I was an apprentice shoemaker.  The first day on the job they taught me how to sharpen the skiving knives we used, why?  Because there is NOTHING MORE DANGEROUS than a DULL KNIFE; it is a simple principle of physics force equals pressure which results in danger. 
There are two elements to knife care, keeping the edges straight and sharp.  Most people mistake the honing steel as a sharpening device that is not true.  It is actually designed to align the blade edge and should be used every time you use your knives.  So, If you want to keep your knives sharp NEVER put them in the dishwasher and clean with soap and water only.  The force of the water in a dishwasher will dull an edge and the heat can damage the handles.  While many reading this will balk at this advice, I recommend that you research and send your knives out at least once each year to have the blades reshaped.  Why?  Each knife has a prescribed angle that cannot be reproduced with a mechanical sharpening device or sharpening stone with few exceptions.  This requires specialized equipment where the knives enter the grinding process at the exact prescribed angles from original manufacturing.  It is not something the local knife sharpening guy can replicate on a belt sander!

ConstructionKnives come in a variety of materials and manufacturing processes described below, the key is to understand what you want to use your knives for, determine the budget you can apply to these purchases and then buy the knives that are balanced and made from the materials you most desire and can afford.

1.    Carbon steel is an alloy of iron and carbon, often including other alloys.  The carbon steel commonly used in knives has around 1.0% carbon and is inexpensive but holds an edge.  These knives are normally easy to sharpen but are prone to rust and staining so they must be lubricated after use (which few people do).  Really good carbon steel will take a good edge, but is not so hard as to be difficult to sharpen, unlike some grades of stainless steel.
2.    Stainless steel is an alloy of iron with only a small amount of carbon.  The typical SS knife is made from 420 stainless commonly used in low end tableware and are much softer than carbon steel blades and on the high quality end of the SS knife spectrum must be sharpened frequently
3.    High carbon stainless steel normally refers to higher-grade, stainless steel alloys with a certain amount of carbon, and is intended to combine the best attributes of carbon steel and ordinary stainless steel. High carbon stainless steel blades do not discolor or stain, and maintain a sharp edge for a reasonable time. Most 'high-carbon' stainless blades are made of higher-quality alloys than less-expensive stainless knives, often including amounts of molybdenum, vanadium, cobalt, and other components intended to increase strength, edge-holding, and cutting ability.
4.    Laminated blades combine the advantages of a hard, but brittle steel which will hold a good edge but is easily chipped and damaged, with a tougher steel less susceptible to damage and chipping, but incapable of taking a good edge. The hard steel is sandwiched (laminated) and protected between layers of the tougher steel. The hard steel forms the edge of the knife; it will take a more acute grind than less hard steel, and will stay sharp longer.
5.    Titanium is lighter and less wear-resistant, but is not as hard as steel and will not take a very good edge. However it is more flexible than steel. Titanium does not impart any flavor to food. It is typically expensive and not well suited to cutlery.
6.    Ceramic knives are very hard, take a sharp edge, retain their sharp edge for a long time, are light in weight, do not impart any taste to food and do not corrode. They are very brittle and will chip if struck against hard objects or sharpened improperly, may snap if used to pry or lever, and require special tools for sharpening.
7.    Plastic blades are usually not very sharp and are mainly used to cut through vegetables without causing discoloration. They are not sharp enough to cut deeply into flesh, but can cut or scratch skin. However some plastic knives are self-sharpening, so they may actually become so sharp that they usually come with a protective covering.

Blade manufacturing

Steel blades can be manufactured either by being forged or stamped.  Forged blades are made in an intricate, multi-step process, often by skilled manual labor. A chunk of solid or powdered steel alloy is heated to a high temperature, and pounded while hot to form it. The blade is then heated above critical temperature (which varies between alloys), quenched and tempered to the desired hardness. After forging and heat-treating, the blade is polished and sharpened. Forged blades are typically thicker and heavier than stamped blades, which is sometimes advantageous. Stamped blades are cut to shape directly from cold-rolled steel, heat-treated for strength, then ground, polished, and sharpened. Though they are not preferred by most professional chefs, several popular knife brands, such as Global and Shun, do use stamped and heat-treated blades in their premium knives. Stamped blades can often, but not always, be identified by the absence of a bolster.

Type of edge - The edge of the knife can be sharpened to a cutting surface in a number of different ways. There are three main features, the grind – what a cross-section looks like (flat or hollow ground), the profile – whether the edge is straight or serrated, and straight or curved and away from edge – how the blade is constructed away from the edge

The Handle - The handles of kitchen knives can be made from a number of different materials, each of which has advantages and disadvantages; This is a user choice based on budget, feel or balance and personal preferences (Wood, Plastic, Composite, Stainless Steel and Custom products (bone, ceramic, composites, etc)

Knife Parts Defined

Point: The very end of the knife, which is used for piercing
Tip: The first third of the blade (approximately), which is used for small or delicate work also knows as the belly. 
Edge: The entire cutting surface of the knife, which extends from the point to the heel. The edge may be beveled or symmetric.
Heel: The rear part of the blade, used for cutting activities that require more force
Spine: The top, thicker portion of the blade, which adds weight and strength
Bolster: The thick metal portion joining the handle and the blade, which adds weight and balance
Finger Guard: The portion of the bolster that keeps the cook's hand from slipping onto the blade
Return: The point where the heel meets the bolster
Tang: The portion of the metal blade that extends into the handle, giving the knife stability and extra weight
Scales: The two portions of handle material (wood, plastic, composite, etc.) that are attached to either side of the tang
Rivets: The metal pins (usually 3) that hold the scales to the tang
Handle Guard: The lip below the butt of the handle, which gives the knife a better grip and prevents slipping
Butt: The terminal end of the handle
Carving Knife: A long, thin blade, the carving knife is used to, well, carve thin slices of meat. It's extremely well-suited to this task however if you do not find yourself performing this type of carving on a regular basis, skip it in favor of spending more money on your Chef’s Knife. 
Boning Knife: If you buy whole chickens or other full butcher cuts you will find this knife valuable, if not, don’t spend your money. Why? Because these knives have a very thin and flexible blade and have a limited utility, boning.
Butter knifeThese knives have a dull cutting edge and are generally used for spreading.
Slicing - A slicing knife serves a similar function to a carving knife, although it is generally longer and narrower. Slicers may have plain or serrated edges. Slicers are designed to precisely cut smaller and thinner slices of meat, and are normally more flexible.   
Ham slicer - A ham slicer is a special type of slicer, with a long blade and rounded tip specially tailored to cutting ham, as they are generally thinner and more flexible.
Fillet - Fillet knives are like very flexible boning knives that are used to fillet and prepare fish. They have blades ranging from 6 to 11 inches allowing them to move easily along the backbone and under the skin of fish.
Cheese knivesCheeses are varied and often challenging to cut. Accordingly, various styles of cheese knives and cheese cutting utensils have been developed. A wire, rather than a knife, is often used to cut cheese.  Each of the knives listed here are specifically designed for the type of cheese designated in their name and include Soft cheese, hard cheese, and Parmesan Cheese.  Cheese slicers are also used.

Tourne knife -Also known as a Bird's Beak Knife, a peeling knife has a pointed tip that curves downward sometimes upward and side to side (towards the blade). It is often used for many of the same tasks as paring knives. It can be used to cut decorative garnishes (such as rosettes or fluted mushrooms), slice soft fruits, or peel skins or blemishes. It is also used to make a cut known as a tournée cut in vegetables such as carrots.
Decorating - A decorating knife is any knife with a blade designed to make a decorative cut. The most common pattern is a simple zigzag. Decorating knives are used for making fancy cuts for garnishes and presentation.
Trimming - Usually about 5 cm to 8 cm (2 to 3 inches) long, a trimming knife has a small, curved blade that is shaped somewhat like a boning knife. Trimming knives are ideal for small tasks such as decorating and peeling.
Fluting - Usually about 5 cm to 10 cm (2 to 4 inches) long, a fluting knife has a small blade that is very straight. Fluting knives are ideal for small tasks such as decorating and peeling.
Tomato – a tomato knife is a small knife with a serrated blade. Typically about the size of a utility knife, tomato knives are ideal for cutting through the tough skin and soft flesh of tomatoes.
Oyster - An oyster knife (also known as a clam knife) has a short, thick blade that is used to pry open oysters and separate their meat from the shell. Some models have a shield built into the handle that prevents the knife (and hand) from slipping and going too far into the shell.
Deveiner - A Deveiner or deveining knife is a small knife used to remove the colon ("vein") from the back of shrimp.
Grapefruit - grapefruit knife has a long, fat, dull blade that is used to separate the flesh of a grapefruit from the peel and inner membranes. The blade is usually serrated, with a blunt tip. Some knives even have a different blade style on each end of the handle – one for the inner membrane, one for the peel – and some have a double blade an the inner membrane end, to cut on both sides of the membrane.
Chestnut - A chestnut knife is used to score a chestnut with an "X" cut prior to roasting, so that steam does not build up inside and cause the nut to explode. They have very shallow blades so that they can cut through the shell without cutting through the nut inside.
Mincing - Also known as a Mezzaluna (Italian: "half moon") because of the shape, a mincing knife is a semicircular highly-curved blade with a handle that allows the blade to be rocked back and forth repeatedly on a hard surface. This rocking motion is ideal for mincing and chopping. Some mincing knives are supplied with a wooden cutting board with a circular bowl-shaped indentation that matches the curvature of the knife. Some models have two blades that are parallel to each other to increase their mincing power.  Large Mezzaluna-like knives with shallow curves are sometimes used to cut pizza, though the rolling pizza cutter is more common for this purpose.


The Japanese Santoku - The Santoku has a straighter edge than a chef's knife, with a blunted sheepsfoot-tip blade and a thinner spine, particularly near the point. From 12 cm to 18 cm (5 to 7 inches) long, a true Japanese Santoku is well-balanced, normally flat-ground, and generally lighter and thinner than its Western counterparts, often using superior blade steels to provide a blade with exxeptional hardness and an acute cutting angle. Sashimi bocho- is a long thin knives used in the Japanese kitchen used  to prepare sashimi. Nakiri hocho- Nakiri bocho and usuba bocho are Japanese-style vegetable knives that have a straight blade edge suitable for cutting all the way to the cutting board without the need for a horizontal pull or push.  Nakiri bocho are knives for home use, and usually have a black blade. Usuba bocho are vegetable knives used by professionals. sharpened from both sides which allows for the cutting of thinner slices and requires more skill to use. Usuba hocho - Japanese knives used primarily for chopping vegetables. Deba hocho – these knives are Japanese knives used primarily for cutting fish.   Chinese chef's knife - or Chinese kitchen knife — sometimes referred to as a "Chinese cleaver" though it is not a cleaver as most Chinese chef's knives are relatively thin-bladed and designed for slicing, chopping, and mincing vegetables, fish, and boneless meats.  It is NOT a cleaver it is a general purpose knife.


Brown, Alton (2003). Alton Brown's Gear For Your Kitchen. Stewart, Tabori and Chang. ISBN 1-58479-296-5. 
Wolf, Burt;Aronson, Emily;Fabricant, Florence (2000). The New Cook's Catalogue. Alfred Knopf. ISBN 0-375-40673-5. 
Lee, Matt and Lee, Ted (December 15, 2004). When a Knife Is the Gleam in a Cook's Eye. New York Times.
Japanese Kitchen Knife Types And Styles, photos and explanations
Kitchen Knife Buying Guide
Cooking For Engineers – Examination of Parts of a Chef's Knife and what to look for when buying a kitchen knife
"How to Succeed at Knife-Sharpening Without Losing a Thumb" New York Times, September 23, 2006
1.    ^ "Welcome to Granton Knives". Granton Ragg Limited. 2008. Retrieved 2008-01-16. 
2.    ^ Knife Edge Grind Types
3.    ^ Phenolic Impregnated Woods: Dymondwood
4.    ^ What would you choose in a "one knife challenge?" by Chemicalkinetics Mar 17, 2010 10:50PM
5.    ^ "We are producing serrated knives thus bread knives since we started the production of knives in 1889." "Series 1893 means that in this year, Friedr. Dick exhibited during the biggest international fair in Chicago"
6.    ^ US patent 1388547, J. E. Burns, "Cutting Tool (filed Sept. 25, 1919)", issued 1921-08-23 
7.    ^ Willian, Anne (1989). La Varenne Pratique. Crown Publishers. ISBN 0-517-57383-0.
Disclaimer:  Any Wustoff knives shown are composed the bulk of my original Wusthof knive selection.  Today I use ErgoChef exclusively.  I do not receive any compensation or products from them and the opinions stated within are my own opinions.