I am pretty sure that all of you have watched one of those late-night infomercials, or passed next to that demo at the big box store, where a sales person would try to sell you this unbelievable set of 25 knives that will last you a lifetime. Some of you might have even bought it, only to bring them back home and have most of them stand useless. What makes a good knife and which ones do you really need?
Let us dive into my favorite subject, by the time I’m done you will be able to go to a professional cutlery outlet or an online shop and talk about knives as if you were a chef…
The sum of all parts
Of course, we know that a knife has a blade and a handle, but these can be broken down to a few more parts.
Tip: the front part of the blade, usually used for the more delicate cutting jobs.
Point: the sharp end of the blade. Some knives may have a smooth point or no point at all.
Edge: this is the working part of the knife. The edge can be sharpened to different profiles depending on the knife’s function. Most common is a V edge. The angle of the edge will determine how sharp is the knife. More on that in the next section.
Heel: the lower part of the blade, used for chopping and splitting tough objects.
Spine: this is the back of the knife and the thickest section of the blade. It provides the strength and backing to the edge. The thicker the spine the more durable is the edge, although it may also result in a knife which is very heavy and not suitable for delicate work.
Tang: the metal part that extends from the blade to form the handle. A full tang is a tang that extends all the way to the end of the handle, unlike a partial tang it allows more force to be applied through the knife. A hidden tang will be completely obscured by the handle.
Scales: the pieces that form the handle. The scales were traditionally made of wood. The development of composite materials took over the knife industry with materials like micarta that offer better durability and safety. High end knives still use exotic woods, horns, antlers and other organic materials.
Pins(Fasteners): these are holding the handle scales to the tang.
Bolster: the thick part of the blade where it meets the handle. The bolster protects your fingers and is very common in traditional European style knives.
Butt: the back end of the knife.
How the blade is made
The two main ways are forged or stamped.
A stamped knife will be cut into shape from a thin sheet of steel and then sharpened. Although this is the method of choice for cheaper knife production some higher end companies are creating really good and value conscious knives.
Forged knives are made from a single piece of steel. Hammered and ground into shape. While mostly done by machines you can find high end knives that are forged by hand by master smiths. Expect to pay handsomely for these.
The cutting edge
This is the working part of your knife. The shape of the edge is sometimes referred to as the blade geometry.
Here are a few common shapes.
The most common shape is the V edge and it is characterized by its angle. The angle is drawn from the imaginary center of the edge to one of the sides. The smaller the angle the sharper the edge, but it will also be more brittle.
European style knives will have angles ranging from 20 to 22 degrees resulting in a combined cutting wedge of 40 to 44 degrees. Sounds too thick? You are probably right. It is made to be sharp enough while allowing for a durable edge that can take some abuse like splitting bones.
Japanese style knives will have angles of 15 to 17 degrees. The cutting wedge will be 30 to 34 degrees. The result is a sharp slender edge perfect for delicate cutting and chopping. If you are afraid that the edge will not be durable, rest assured that the Japanese can make durable slender edges. The secret is in the knife material.
Not all steel is created equal
The Western knives are made of relatively soft stainless steel. Steel hardness is measured in Rockwell degrees. Western steel measures about 56 degrees.
In comparison, Japanese knives will measure between 59 to 63 degrees, while some hand forged high carbon steel knives will go even higher.
The higher the Rockwell value the stronger the blade, but at the same time the stronger the steel the more brittle it is.
I tend to geek out and bore everyone when I start talking about steels and knife construction so I will hold myself back. You will encounter two types of steel, stainless and high carbon.
High carbon steel tends to be strong but requires constant care to keep it from rusting. Most knives are made of stainless steel or a combination of the two. Stainless steel offers a good compromise of strength and ease of use. In recent years a relatively new material started making an appearance, the ceramic blade. These blades are made of ceramic material. It is harder than steel but unlike the advertisements it will still get dull. I do not recommend ceramic knives because they are very brittle. When dropped they will shatter and there is no way the home cook can sharpen these knives, forcing you to send the knives back to the factory for sharpening.
I look forward to expanding on different steels and blade construction in upcoming blogs.
So Which knives do you need?
I still remember the first day of cooking school. Each one of us had gotten a fancy case full of knives and other cooking devices. Our teacher went into a lengthy explanation of the content of the case, only to let us know at the end that all we need are three knives, maybe four, and forget about the rest. After nearly 20 years of professional cooking, I still agree with him.
I have included my recommendations for each knife category and put them in groups of good, better and best. In my opinion, each selection represents a good value in its price bracket.
Wishing you all Happy Cutting,
Small and sharp. The blade length will measure between 3 to 4 inches. This knife is perfect for delicate jobs and even some light butchery jobs. Don’t spend too much on a paring knife. It is small and often gets lost, dropped in the garbage with the vegetable trimmings or stolen, like mine in my cooking school…
This is the one. Your workhorse. This is the knife you will be holding 90 percent of your time in the kitchen, so go ahead, treat yourself and get a really good one. In my opinion, the length of the blade should be at least 8 inches. For my personal use, I like a 9 inch chef knife. The extra length allows for a better chopping motion. My preference is for the Japanese knives, they tend to be lighter, sharper and more precise.
A great all-rounder. The Victorinox 8″ Fibrox Pro Chef’s Knife can handle nearly every kitchen task imaginable. “Highly Recommended” for over 20 years by a leading gourmet consumer magazine that features unbiased ratings and reviews of cookware and kitchen equipment, this Chef’s Knife is preferred due to its comfortable handle, superior weight and balance, and razor sharp edge that rarely requires re-sharpening. Tested against dozens of other chef’s knives, some with price tags nearly 10 times the cost of this knife, the 8” Fibrox Pro Chef’s Knife is still the one to beat!
The Misono is made of 44o Molybdenum steel with Rockwell hardness of 60 degrees. Sharp edge, great edge retention and ergonomic handle. The edge is sharpened asymmetrically which lends to a sharper profile. This knife is a great starting point if you want to experiment with Japanese chef knives. Another great option to consider is the Tojiro DP chef knife.
The Sakai Takayuki is a 9 inch chef knife made with 33 layers of Damascus steel with a VG-10 cutting core. The hammered body of the knife is not just for looks, it help reduce surface tension when cutting food thus helping to release the slices from the blade. The curve of the knife is great for rocking chopping motion. The drop point tip is great for precision work.
This knife is used to deal with cutting anything that has a hard outer layer. Crusty bread, pineapple, and watermelon are a few examples, but also a ripe tomato that presents us with a relatively tough skin and soft interior. This knife can also be a multi tasker and be used in pastry for cutting cake. As with the paring knife, don’t spend too much on this knife. Once the serrations wear off it is hard to sharpen them again. You can send them back to the factory, take them to a professional service or buy a new one every few years…
Utility knife (optional)
this is a slender 5 to 6 inch blade which is a great all-rounder. Use it to cut meat, fish, vegetables, or anytime that you don’t feel like pulling out the big chef knife. It’s only drawback? It is not great for chopping.
Extremely sharp slender blade. This MAC knife can be used as a utility knife and a paring knife. The classic design has a rounded tip which can make it unsuitable for fine butchery work.
This Tojiro Petty knife is a great utility knife. The blade has great edge retention. The fine edge and sharp tip allow for precision cutting jobs.
The Wusthof 6 inch utility knife is my favorite butchery knife. It does an equally perfect job on vegetables. The blade material can take more abuse than the Tojiro, making it suitable to cut next to bones.