Ask anybody in the culinary arena what the most important kitchen tool is and they will all have the same answer. It won’t be the blender, food processor or mixer. It will be (drum roll please, ) knives.
I know many people who don’t enjoy chopping food, but I LOVE IT!!! I find it relaxing and satisfying.
For those who hate chopping stuff up, how many of you have knives that are as dull as a banana?
Ever heard that a dull knife is more dangerous than a sharp knife? I don’t know if that is based on fact, but I do know that cutting with a cheap, dull knife is torture. When I have been forced to use dull knives I have wanted to poke my own eyeball out. (But I couldn’t because the knife was too dull!)
If you want to cook healthy, tasty meals that aren’t super expensive, then you are going to have to chop and dice and cut.
Good news! I am here to help you out. This is the beginning of series teaching you about knives, and knife skills. And hopefully help you, so if you don’t end up enjoying chopping, then at least you won’t loathe it.
After we finish with knife skills, I will start to teach you how to cut different produce. Onions, avocados, pineapples, mangoes, bell peppers etc. (If you have any requests, start sending them my way, so I can help you out!)
In real life I am a physical therapist. PT’s usually start with learning anatomy. That is where we will begin our knife series.
Anatomy of a Knife-
There are hundreds of varieties of knives. Every knife has a blade (duh) and a handle. After that, there is a lot of variability.
Blades come in two basic styles, straight edge or serrated. There is also the granton edge, (which really isn’t an edge so much as the side of the blade). They can be made of many materials, mostly metals, but some knives are made with ceramic blades. (Ceramic blades are very sharp and hold their edges well, but they must be sharpened professionally and are notoriously brittle. They chip and shatter too easily for someone like myself, so we’ll stick with metal blades in this series.)
Most blades are made with either stainless or carbon steel. But saying a knife is made of stainless or carbon steel is like saying your salad dressing is a vinaigrette. It tells us pretty much nothing. Sure, a vinaigrette has vinegar and probably some sort of oil. But the ratios of oil to vinegar are infinite and there are many types of vinegars that could be used. Then there are all sorts of ingredients that could be added for different flavor profiles. Stainless and carbon steel are similar. They comes in an infinite number of varieties. Each has a different combination of metals and different grades of steel. Then you must consider how the metal is processed. Two blades with the same metal composition can be vastly different depending on how the metal was heated, cooled and shaped. *
The harder the metals used in a blade, the longer the edge will last, but it is harder to sharpen these when they do dull and they tend to be more brittle. Also different metals will have different properties such as rust or stain resistance.
There are two major camps in knife making. The German or European knife makers and the Japanese or Asian knife makers. Both have fine traditions and are skilled knife makers. They have different philosophies in their knife making. Japanese knifes tend to have a more acute cutting edge angle. What does that mean? The edge is sharper, but it also is less durable. They usually have an angle of 16°. These knifes tend to have thinner blades. The German cutting edge is more robust at 22°. This is not quite as sharp, but also more durable. The blade is also thicker. I think of the Japanese knife as a ninja and the German knife as a viking. Both are effective, but in different ways (I know vikings aren’t from Germany.) Ninjas are about finesse and precision and Vikings are about brute strength and cutting down whatever gets in their way.
Main stream German knife makers include Henckels, Wusthof. Mainstream Japanese knife makers include Shun and Miyabi.
Blades are usually formed in two basic ways: stamped and forged. Stamped blades are made using a giant knife cookie cutter. A large machine stamps the blade out of a large sheet of metal. These are usually cheaper and usually not as nice. You can tell a stamp blade because it has no bolster.
A forged blade is made when a roughly shaped piece of metal is compressed under pressure to form its shape. These blades have a bolster at the handle end of the blade. They are usually thicker and higher quality, but also pricier.
(See that the stamped blade has no bolster? Also notice how it’s missing one of its rivets? It’s not the nicest knife.)
Handles and Tang
Where the blade meets the handle two things can happen. Either the blade can end, or it can continue into the handle. The latter is called a full tang. A full tang is desirable because it makes a stronger blade and helps with balancing.
Handles are generally made of wood, plastic (or composite plastic) or metal. Each can be useful, depending on how and where and what you use that knife for.
Wood handles are most common. They have a good balancing weight and look really nice.
Plastic handles are great if you need to sanitize the knife. If you are boning meats or other “dirty” foods, they are great. That is why a lot of restaurants use plastic handled knives. But the weight doesn’t balance the knife as nicely as a wood handle. Some handles are a plastic/wood composite which gives a nice balance..
Metal handles are less common, but they do pop up every so often.
What Knives Do I Need?
What knives do you need? This is of course only my opinion, but here goes.
Every kitchen should have a chef’s knife or santoku knife. What’s the difference you ask?
They have just a little different shape. The nose of the santoku knife is a little more blunt and there isn’t as much curve to the bottom of the knife near the tip. Both are a great knife for basic chopping.
The length depends on your preference, but I would start with an 8 inch and see how that feels. (Oh, did you notice that you need to try the knife out before you buy it? That is important. It’s like buying jeans, you can’t just buy it based on their size alone, you need to see how you knife makes you hips look, so to speak.)
Once you have your chef’s knife or santoku, then I would suggest a paring knife and a serrated bread knife. After that you can decide if you want to add a carving knife, filet knife, boning knife or cleaver.
Almost as important as the knife itself, every kitchen should own a honing steel, a proper cutting board and a place to store your knives. We’ll learn about those in another lesson.
Unfortunately, usually the more expensive a knife it, the better its quality. So I would suggest sticking with a reputable brand and buying open stock cutlery. That way you can spend a little more on each piece, and make each piece count. Instead of buying a set of 10 knives of which you will only use 4 regularly. And you can save for each knife and add them as you are able to afford them. (Don’t worry, you don’t need to buy the $1,899 ones, I got all of my knives for around $100 each.)
With that being said, stay tuned for our next installment where we will learn how to care for our precious knives. We don’t want to waste our investment by treating them wrong.
*Thanks to my brother Brent, who was my unpaid consultant for this post. Brent is a metallurgical engineer, so he knows a lot about the properties of metals. He also brought me my beloved santoku knife all the way from Japan.