Tips for Choosing Your Kitchen Knives
Chefs agree that knives are the most important tools you can invest in for your kitchen.
Knives come in a variety of sizes, shapes and costs. It is important to take into consideration a number of issues when contemplating the purchase of a knife, such as the knife's materials, features, and how you will use the knife. Here's a list of factors to keep in mind when contemplating your next knife purchase:
Knife Blade Materials
One of the most important things to take into consideration when choosing a knife is the type of steel used in the blade. There are many choices, but the consensus among veteran chefs seems to be high carbon stainless steel. High carbon stainless steel is the best of the stain-resistant steels and the alloy is the most popular type used in high quality kitchen cutlery. This type of steel will take a sharp edge and will maintain it well, yet is relatively easy to sharpen.
Ceramic blades, which aren't actually steel, are also favored because they are lightweight and can maintain a sharp edge for months or years with no maintenance. However, they are more brittle than steel, require diamond-sharpening tools to maintain, and lest we forget to mention, they are definitely more expensive than knives with steel blades.
The next material choice to consider is for the handle. Handles fall into three general categories: wood, stainless steel or composition. Some chefs prefer the feel of wood. While composition handles help ensure a safer grip on the knife when handling slick or wet items, and are generally preferred over slippery stainless steel, both are sanitary and practically maintenance-free.
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Knife Parts and Construction
Although knives vary, they have three general parts. The first part of the knife is the blade, which has a cutting edge, a spine that is opposite the cutting edge, and most blades have a tip or point at the end. The second part is the tang, which carries the handle into the knife. And finally, some knives have a thick section of steel between the blade and the tang, called bolsters.
Knives are generally made three ways; they are stamped, forged or sintered. Sintered knives are made by fusing the various parts of the knife (blade, tang, and bolster) together to make a complete knife. Stamped knives are made by cutting shapes out of a single piece of sheet metal, which are ground and edged and handles are attached to the tang. Stamped knives never have bolsters and can be poorly balanced. However, this does not necessarily make them inferior knives. Stamping is a less expensive process than forging. Forged knives are more expensive than stamped or sintered knives due to the number of individual steps required to construct a single knife. Forging begins with a rough shape of steel that is heated to red-hot in a furnace and then dropped into a mold. It is then given a few hits with a hammer, after which it is then tempered by the process of repeatedly heating and cooling the knife form to give it the desired level of hardness and flexibility. The forging process allows for the formation of the bolster. Forged knives are made from a single piece of steel and are a favorite among veteran chefs.
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Knife Balance and Blade Type
Balance is a critical and often misunderstood factor to consider when purchasing a knife. Some knives are blade-heavy, some are handle-heavy, while some are a balance in between. This view of a knife's "balance-point" is not the most important thing to consider. Bottom line: the knife should feel good in the cook's hand. Is it comfortable? Does it feel like an extension of the cook's arm? This should be the basis on which you make your decision concerning the balance of the knife you choose.
There are several types of blades including flat ground (tapered), hollow ground and serrated. Hollow ground knife blades have a concave profile and are considered inferior to flat ground blades. High quality cutlery is usually made with flat ground knife blades, which taper from the thicker spine to the thinner edge in either a convex or straight line. Serrated knives have a wavy blade edge and will be discussed later, in detail.
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Knife Blade Size and Usage, Part One
The final issue to consider when choosing a knife is what you expect to use the knife for. There are three basic cutting actions: chopping, striking or slicing. Each of these actions is complimented by a specific knife design. The following are a few of the classic knife designs:
This knife, also known as the cook's knife, is the most popular among veteran chefs, and one they use more often than any other type. It has a triangular blade from 6" to 10" long, the most popular being 8". They are usually 1-1/2" tall and gently taper to a point. This blade shape is ideal for allowing the blade to rock back and forth on the tip while you are mincing, chopping or dicing. Yet, at the same time, they can also be used to cut vegetables, meat, poultry or fish. The sides of the blade can be used for crushing garlic and some spices. But the chef's knife is best used in a rocking motion for chopping.
The paring knife has a blade that is about 2-1/2" to 4" and it is only about .75" wide at its widest point. It is usually held in one hand, while the food to be cut is held in the other. It is considered a slicing knife and, though it can be used on a cutting board, it usually is not. It can be used to peel vegetables and fruit, trim meats, cut pastry dough, make decorative cuts, or in numerous other ways.
Also a slicing knife, serrated knives have a scalloped blade edge. This type of knife is sometimes known as a bread knife because it functions perfectly for slicing bread, which requires a back and forth sawing motion. Yet, beyond breads, it can also perform well when used for slicing tomatoes or peaches or other fruits that have a skin that easily bruises. Serrated knives are designed to keep part of the edge of the blade from coming in contact with the cutting board surface, which dulls knives much faster than food can. Knives with serrations are sometimes common in lower-priced knives because they cut much better when dull than a plain edge knife. However, a serrated knife must be sharpened professionally and should never be sharpened on a sharpening steel. In fact, replacement is usually a more practical option when faced with a dull serrated knife. Yet, a well cared for serrated knife should not become dull very easily because it is seldom drawn across a cutting board surface.
Knife Blade Size and Usage, Part Two
The cleaver is a striking knife that is used in a fashion similar to using a club. It is used in meat preparation to sever bones and joints. These knives will either have a straight or slightly curved edge. It is similar in looks to a Chinese chef's knife, which is lighter than a cleaver because it is used to chop vegetables instead of meats.
This knife, as you might assume from its name, is used for cutting meat off bones. The blades are generally narrow and can be 5" or longer. Boning knives can either be straight or curved, stiff or flexible. It is a favorite for poultry, and is utilized with brief, slicing strokes.
The utility knife is a compromise between the larger chef's knife and the smaller paring knife, and is typically 6" or so in length. They can serve a multitude of purposes and are frequently utilized by the extra hands of the sous-chef.
This group of knives, dedicated to the art of slicing and carving, are frequently used against a cutting board. Slicing knives are long and thin and are available in either straight or serrated edges. They tend to have narrower blades, which will help decrease their likelihood of sticking in foods. Customarily, you want the slicer to have a longer blade than the food you are cutting, so consider a longer slicing knife if you can only have one.
Examples of knives that fall into this category would be filet knives or steak knives. These are nice to have around, if a substantial amount of your time is dedicated to the tasks that these knives are designed for, but they are not essential items to have in the everyday commercial kitchen.
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Final Thoughts on Knife Selection
Now that you've taken the time to educate yourself on the significant issues to consider when purchasing a knife, remember that your knife is the most important kitchen tool a chef can have - so think of your knife purchase as an investment, not an expense. Choosing to invest in high quality cutlery is one of the wisest decisions you can make. The return on your investment will be well worth the initial expense.
If you're like most of us and are on a budget, veteran chefs agree that most any kitchen can function quite nicely with three basic knives: a chef's knife, a paring knife and a long serrated slicer. These three knives can cover virtually any foreseen cutting task in the kitchen.
Once you've taken the plunge and invested a fair amount of capital into your cutlery, the next most important thing to remember is to properly care for your investment. It does no good to shell out money for a high quality knife that you damage through negligent maintenance or improper sharpening. Use your knives on the proper cutting surfaces and follow the knife manufacturer's care and maintenance suggestions. I suggest having your knives sharpened by qualified professionals whenever possible.
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