Kitchen Knife Basics

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Published on: March 18, 2014
 

It’s been a long time since I wrote about my Hammer Stahl knife set and I said I would review them once I’d used them – I will get around to it, but I feel I should go over the basics of kitchen knives and what to look for when buying.  First, you need to decide which knives you are going to buy.  In my opinion there is an essential set of knives that everyone should own at home.  I’ll describe each knife and their function, then I will explain what to look for, the differences in quality and most importantly, how to use and maintain them.

 

The Chef’s knife:

The all-rounder.  This will probably be the most used knife in your kitchen, it is your most important knife as it can do almost everything.  Other knives specialise in a specific task but this one can do be used to do anything in a pinch.  If you can only afford to invest in one knife, make it this one and make sure it is a good one.  Chef’s knives come in different sizes and styles.  It might be a Japanese Gyuto, Santoku, Kiritsuke or a typical German Chef’s knife, it’s worth covering the basic differences in styles:

HS ChefKnife

Chef’s Knife – The western style Chef’s knife is long knife, broad at the base and tapering off to a sharp tip.  This allows the knife to be used in a rocking motion for rapid chopping and slicing.  The spine of the knife is typically thicker, adding weight and strength to the blade and forming a wedge shape to help “push through” anything it isn’t sharp enough to cut, like bone or cartilage.  They usually have a bolster between the handle and the heel of the blade to prevent slipping and accidental cuts.  Ranging from 6 to 12 inches in size (15-30cm) but more typically 8-10 inches.

JapGyuoto

Japanese Gyuto – Of all the traditional Japanese knives the Gyuto is the closest to the western Chef’s knife.  It generally isn’t as broad as a Chef’s knife and has a much thinner spine, this allows for much finer and thinner (paper-thin) cuts.  A Gyuto is made of harder steel as it does not have the thick spine to strengthen it, while this allows for a much sharper edge it also means the knife is more brittle and needs careful maintenance as it will not withstand much abuse.  A Gyuto will rarely have a bolster so more care is required when using it but this makes it much easier to sharpen the heel of the blade.  Typically ranges from 6 to 10.5 inches in size (15-24cm).

HS Santoku

Santoku – You will often see this knife used as a replacement for a Chef’s knife but its use is quite different.  The Santoku is a much flatter blade with a rounded tip and thicker spine.  Because the blade is flat you cannot use it in the typical rocking motion, so a chopping motion is used instead.  Like the Gyuto, the Santoku rarely has a bolster.  Usually a shorter knife about 6 or 7 inches in size (15-18cm)

Kiritsuke

Kiritsuke – These are less common than the Gyuto or Santoku knives but it fulfils the same category.  The Kiritsuke is a long flat and thin blade but it has a sword like tip.  Very good for slicing large quantities of vegetables to a superfine thickness.  Again, no bolster and as stated, longer than most – 7 to 10.5 inches upwards (18-24cm+).

Size wise for a Chef’s knife I like 8 inches.  If it is much bigger I find it difficult to do the more precise tip work.  The belly of most Japanese knives is generally flatter so you can get away with a shorter blade.  If you have small hands a smaller knife is easier to use and likewise bigger hands might benefit from the extra knuckle clearance of a bigger blade.  For a beginner I recommend a traditional 8 inch Western style Chef’s Knife.  The bolster will protect your fingers and the knife will stand up well to most abuse.  As you get more experienced you may find that a 10 inch knife is more useful or that a Gyuto is needed for the razor-thin cuts of veg that you can see through.

 

Steel:

No, not the material, I mean a honing steel or butcher’s steel.  I know, it’s not a knife but it’s the second most important kitchen “knife” after the Chef’s knife.  A good steel will keep your Chef’s knife and other knives in working order.  Contrary to popular belief the Steel does not sharpen a knife, it actually realigns the edge of the knife so that it is nice and straight.  A steel does not remove or grind material from the knife like a whetstone so you need to get the knife professionally sharpened once a year or you can buy the whetstones and do it yourself but I won’t cover that here.  There is of course a “but” when it comes to Steels.  Steels made of steel do exactly as I have described but Steels made of ceramic or diamond will sharpen knifes as well as realign them.  It’s not as effective as using a proper whetstone but it will do the trick.  This is further complicated by the make-up of the steel used to construct your knife.  Your typical western chef’s knife is made from softer steel and a ceramic Steel will sharpen it by removing some of the metal.  But Japanese knives which are made from harder steel will only be realigned or honed by the same ceramic Steel and your typical steel made from Steel will hardly do anything to it, so get a whetstone.  Global sell their own range of whetstones to go with their knives, it’s not cheap but nothing will beat it.  Remember, always wash a knife after sharpening, you don’t want little bits of metal in your food.

 

Serrated (Bread) Knife:

This is one knife that fulfils a role that most Chef’s knives are not suited.  A hard crust bread or soft veg like tomatoes can be difficult to cut; serrated knives are well suited to this task.  As an added bonus, serrated knives do not need sharpening, so the whole “Steel/steel” confusion – you can forget about it for this knife.  I recommend a proper bread knife as it has the size to cut a whole slice of bread at once, rather than a small serrated knife.  It is up to your own personal preference if you want an offset handle or not.  The angled handle makes it easier to cut down to the bottom of a loaf but might not be so useful when it comes to cutting cooked meat or soft veg.

 

Meat Cleaver:

The big heavy-duty butcher’s knife.  This knife is less about sharp edges and more about sheer weight and brute force.  When you want to butcher an entire cow, a meat cleaver is the way to go (Chainsaws are messy).  This is the knife for chopping through big bones.  It has the weight and thickness to hammer through bones without getting damaged.  Get one with a good weight to it, the cheaper ones are usually quite light and thin and rarely last – usually because you will find it’s more efficient to headbutt the meat apart rather than use the cheap cleaver.  Cleavers are about 6 inches in size and rectangular in shape.  You don’t need to spend a lot on this knife, it should be the very definition of robustness, so a work of art is unnecessary.  If you happen to invest in some ceramic knives then this solid chunk of metal will also fill in nicely when you want to pulverise garlic into submission without snapping those fancy (and expensive) knives of yours.  Also useful for threatening anyone who dares to enter your kitchen uninvited or who criticises your food.

 

Paring Knife:

The polar opposite to the meat cleaver.  This is the knife for the very fine and precise knife work.  If you want to do some fine decorative work or simply peel an apple, this would be the knife to use.  It should be small and sharp from base to tip.  The tip itself should be quite fine so you can pierce and core an apple with ease.  You don’t need to invest much in this knife, thankfully this knife is most commonly paired with Chef’s knives in package deals so you will rarely have to hunt for one.  Paring knives are the smallest knives, about 3 or 4 inches in size (7.5 to 10cm)

 

I think that’s all for the essential knives to have in a kitchen.  You could argue the Paring knife isn’t essential as you can get by just using a Chef’s knife but I find it handy to have around for the very precise, decorative cuts.  The Paring knife becomes more useful if you switch to a bigger Chef’s knife.  There are a few more knives I recommend you consider adding:

 

Carving Knife:

Very similar to a Kiritsuke but specific to cutting meats.  The carving knife can sometimes have dimples* along the blade to allow air pockets to form (in my experience it doesn’t make a difference).  Carving knifes are not suited to general cutting work like a Kiritsuke, so only use them for their intended purpose.  A Chef’s knife will obviously so the same job but it saves having to clean and wash the knife switching between cooked meat and raw ingredients.  Also the flatter blade makes it easier to carve straight through the meat, rather than at an angle if you are using a Chef’s knife.

*A proper knife with a Granton edge does make a difference, those imitation dimples do nothing however.

 

Fillet Knife:

Sometimes confused with a boning knife.  This is knife is very flexible and thin and is used to fillet fish or other delicate meats.  Fillet knives will have a slightly curved blade and be about 5 inches (12cm) in size.

 

Boning Knife:

Similar to the fillet knife but stiffer.  This knife is designed to cut through tougher bones and joints like pork or beef.  Although stiff, the blade is narrow and not as thick as a chef’s knife making it easier to cut the hard to reach joints and allows a greater level of precision.  The blade is arched to ensure that only one clean-cut is made to separate the bones.

 

Knife Block / Magnetic Knife Rack:

I prefer the magnetic knife racks to knife blocks but you need the wall space for them in your kitchen so it’s not always practical.  A universal knife block is ideal for a small collection of useful knives.  Don’t buy a full knife rack, it’s rarely worth it as you won’t use half the knives or you’ll buy a cheap set of knives for the same price as a couple of good ones in a universal block.  Get a good quality universal knife block as I’ve heard more than a few complaints of the blocks “wearing out” and failing to properly hold knifes after a few months of use.

 

Chef’s Knife (2):

For those of us who think that one is never enough, get another!  I know I will purchase a second knife before too long.  It will probably be a Jap knife – I am more than happy with my Hammer Stahl Chef’s knife but I would like the extra precision of a Gyuto.

 

Now, on to the more general stuff on knives:

 

Material:

This will make the biggest difference in knife performance and use.  As I have mentioned, most Western knives or brands, use German steel, while Japanese brands will use Japanese steel.  The difference is in the composition of the steels (I am talking about Stainless Steel).  German steel is softer, that means it needs to be sharpened and honed more often and it won’t hold as keen an edge.  The advantage of German steel is that it is easy to hone the blade and the softer steel is less brittle and therefore less prone to chipping or breaking.  So if you are cutting through bones and other hard material the German steel will actually “last” better – even if it needs more frequent sharpening.  The Japanese knives will hold their edge longer but when they do need sharpening or honing it takes longer and requires more skill.  Also worth noting is that many Japanese knives are made of carbon steel – the stuff good woks are made out of.  If you’ve ever had a carbon steel wok you will know easily they rust, but their performance is second to none, the same applies to carbon steel knives.  Carbon steel will hold an even keener edge and are easy to sharpen.  Then there is high carbon steel (HCS), which is a compromise between stainless and carbon steel.  Carbon is added to harden the knife but other materials are mixed in to ensure it does not rust and is less brittle but that also means it is softer than plain carbon steel.  There are also ceramic knives but they are very different to both Stainless and Carbon steel knives.  They are amazingly hard blades and shouldn’t require sharpening for years.  Think of them as an extreme version of Japanese knives, super sharp, super hard and super brittle.  Ceramic knives have a very specific range of uses but what they do, they do beyond compare; they also have the price tag to match!

Heat Treatment:

How the steel is heat-treated will play a major factor in the hardness of the blade.  Hardness is measured on the Rockwell scale.  Most knives will range between 55 and 66 on the Rockwell scale, with 66 being very hard.  Most Japanese knives come in the range of 60-62, while the western knives normally come in around 56-58.  Just because a knife is hard doesn’t mean it is not “tough”.  Japanese knives can and will cut through bone as well as any other material, it largely depends on the makeup of the steel.  The heat treatment gives the blade its hardness and therefore it’s ability to hold a keener edge. With the right composition of steel hard does not necessarily mean brittle. Afterall, a nation that has spent several hundred years perfecting the art of making katanas could probably make razor-sharp, rock hard and ultra tough chef knives with their eyes closed.

Tang:

Whatever knife you buy, make sure it is full tang.  Tang is the part of the blade that fits into the handle.  A full tang means the handle is built around the metal of the blade, all the way from the heel to the tip.  That means the handle is riveted to the blade. A partial or push tang is where only part of the blade goes into the handle and it is glued together. A full tang improves the strength of the knife and helps balance the weight.

Stamped vs Forged:

First of all, it’s a myth that forged knives are better than stamped. A stamped knife is made from a roll of steel, cut by machines, heated and ground down. A forged knife is made from a bar of steel that is heated, shaped and hammered, tempered and then sharpened.  Some of the steps during forging are done by hand but the bulk of the work is done by machine – so you can forget the idea of Wusthof Elves reforging the broken Chef’s knife with their little hammers, that doesn’t happen anymore. The first stamped knives were poorly made, machines were not that accurate and the techniques basic (all were part tang). But forged knives were originally made by hand, took a lot of time and effort and therefore making cheap, poor quality ones made no sense.  Today the difference is that forged knives are heavier than stamped and usually have someone finish sharpening them by hand – something you can do yourself. To put it into context, Global knives are mostly stamped and they are some of the best knives in the world. Yes, cheap low-end knives will be of the stamped variety but if you have been reading this guide you will know you have to avoid the bargain basement knife sets anyway so stamped vs forged will make little difference at the higher end of the market.

 

The last two things I will mention are largely down to personal preference.  Weight/Balance and Bolsters.  The weight and balance of a knife will vary from maker to maker.  For all round use, you will probably feel more comfortable with a well balanced knife.  Balance the knife on one finger where the blade and handle meet, if it stays balanced then it is mid-balanced which gives you good control. The Hammer Stahl chef’s knife I use is slightly heavier at the handle “I think it’s a half gram heavy on the back end” to quote a phrase! You might find knives which are handle heavy more difficult to control for the finer cuts but a blade heavy knife is more tiring to use. But a lot of that comes down to how you hold the knife, if you use a proper pinch grip then you will probably feel the same way I do, but if you hold it like a hammer a blade heavy knife is going to feel very natural.

For some reason people (I suspect sales people) believe that a good quality knife needs a full bolster – that’s nonsense. Bolsters have nothing to do with quality. A full bolster is a thick bit of metal that runs from the handle to the heel of the blade; it is meant to stop you cutting yourself should your finger slip while holding the knife. On big, wide chef’s knifes there is no need for a bolster, the heel of the blade will hang so far from the handle that even if you slip you will just touch the flat heel of the blade, the blade edge is too far “south”.  Narrower blades like carving knifes will benefit from having a full bolster but even then it makes zero difference to the quality of the blade.  I find full bolsters have a tendency to get in the way when sharpening knives so I prefer just a collar bolster or no bolster at all.  Either way, it’s entirely down to personal preference – don’t believe the marketing, full bolsters do not mean better knives!

Hopefully this article has given you a better idea of what you should be looking for in a kitchen knife and the types of knives that are required in a good set.  Remember, buy one or two quality knives rather than a set of low quality knives.  A good chef’s knife can handle the vast majority of tasks, it might not be optimal but it will do the job.  So it is better to invest in the best possible chef’s knife you can afford.  Look after your knives and keep them sharp, blunt knives cut fingers, sharp knives cut food.



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