More than you ever wanted to know about kitchen knives
Knives are the most important tools in the kitchen. You use them more than you use your cookware or your range. After a half century as a serious cook and many years as a knife dealer and knife skills instructor, I've had enough experience with kitchen cutlery that I thought I would share some basic thoughts with you here. Yes, I think it's probably more than you wanted to know but, if it isn't, then perhaps it will be useful in helping you choose knives for your own kitchen.
Parts of a knife (let's get some terminology out of the way.)
No two kitchen knives are exactly alike but, for the most part, we can divide the knife up into two or three "parts." The front part of the knife is the blade and it has an edge that cuts, a spine that is opposite the edge and (for most knives at least) a tip or point at the front of the blade.
The part of the knife that carries the handle is the tang. Sometimes the tang is the full size of the handle and the handle is actually hard scales that are riveted or otherwise attached to the sides of the tang. Sometimes the tang is narrower than the handle so that the handle can be attached to it and surround it for a more ergonomic feel. Full tangs are usually thought to be stronger and stick tangs are usually thought to provide a more comfortable handle. This is something you should decide for yourself.
Some knives also have a bolster which is a thick section of steel between the blade and the tang. It's purpose is to provide better balance to the knife and to make it heftier. We'll get into bolsters a little more in the next section.
Basically, there are 3 ways to make a kitchen knife. You can block it, forge it or sinter it. Well you could grind or file one to shape from a steel blank but knives aren't made that way commercially.
Blocked knives are cut from a sheet or roll of steel of constant thickness something like cutting cookies from a dough. The blades are then ground and edged and handles are attached to the tangs. Some blocked knives have a full or partial tang with riveted scales and some have a handle epoxied to a stick tang. These knives never have bolsters. They are light, inexpensive and usually poorly balanced. Examples of these knives in the Knife Outlet product assorment would be the Forschner.
Forged knives are made by heating a steel blank very hot and pounding it into shape with a drop forge machine. The purpose is usually to provide for that thick bolster. It wouldn't be practical or economical to grind the knife from a steel blank thick enough to produce a bolster. Forged knives, then, are made from a single piece of steel in this fashion. An example of forged knives would be the Wusthof Classic series.
Sintered knives are made by fusing together the blade and tang or, sometimes, the blade, bolster and tang to make up a complete knife from the various parts. This is done as an economy measure in some cases since it is less expensive than forging. In other cases it allows for construction that would be impossible without it. An example of sintered knives would be the Global G and GS series. They are sintered from a flat steel blade and a tubular steel handle. It would be impossible to block knives like this and forging would produce a heavy solid handle.
There are basically two styles or philosophies of making kitchen knives. We'll refer to them as Eastern and Western. Eastern style knives such as Japanese made knives like Global are made from harder steel, the blades are significantly thinner, producing a lighter weight knife and the bevel angles are more acute. That means these knives will hold an edge longer (and also take longer to sharpen or steel) and will be sharper, requiring more maintenance. They are wonderful for cutting where accuracy is necessary such as preparing Sushi or making decorative cuts. Western style knives such as European made knives like Wusthof are made from softer steel (less edge holding but easier to maintain) are thicker (heavier) and have more obtuse bevel angles so that they won't get quite as sharp but the edges will be sturdier requiring less maintenance. They are outstanding at chopping, as an example.
We have been talking about knives with similar blade profiles and dimensions such as the standard 8" chef knife. The Japanese also make knives that incorporate a chisel grind (bevel on one side with the other side flat or even concave) and made from sandwiched steels where a hard steel for edge retention is sandwiched between soft steel or even iron to provide better toughness. These knives have traditional Japanese blade shapes like the Yanagi, Deba and Usuba. They do require more care and maintenance but they cut wonderfully. It is hard to compare them to Western style knives but they do an excellent job with Japanese style cooking.
So you must decide between better cutting performance but more required maintenance (Eastern style) or somewhat less performance but easier and less frequent maintenance (Western style.) You must choose between light weight (Eastern style) and heftier, heavier knives (Western style.) Obviously a good cook will be a good cook with either style. It is a matter of preference and priority.
Basically, kitchen knives are available in three types of steel.
High carbon steel is actually the best performer providing more toughness and the ability to take a very sharp edge with less overall effort. However, high carbon steel is not stain resistant. It can rust and will discolor from use. After much use, high carbon steel kitchen knife blades will actually become black. This discoloration is purely cosmetic and does not affect the performance of the knife in any way. An example of this kind of knife is the Sabatier Au Carbone.
High carbon stainless steel is the best of the stain resistant steels. It has a high content of carbon for hardness and still enough chromium to keep it looking great. High carbon stainless will take a sharp edge and maintain it well. It is the most popular steel type used in high quality kitchen cutlery and most of the cutlery we offer is made of this type of steel. The Japanese knives use an alloy and heat treatment that produces a harder thinner blade requiring more maintenance (Global) and the European knives produce a softer thicker blade requiring less maintenance. Most of the kitchen cutlery we sell would fall into this category
Stainless steel or surgical stainless steel has less carbon and more chromium in the alloy. It is very resistant to rust and stains but not hard enough to maintain the best possible edge. This type of steel is used often in the less expensive cutlery you may find at a local discount department store. You won't find them here. We think the quality and performance of your cutllery is important to good cooking and we don't recommend this kind of knife.
Titanium is actually a matrix of titanium and carbides. Titanium is lighter than steel and more wear resistant. So a titanium alloy can hold an edge as well as steel. The carbides in the alloy allow the blades to be heat treated to a hardness appropriate for cutlery. Titanium imparts no flavor whatsoever to food. The blades are more flexible than steel blades so they aren't a good choice for some applications like decorative cuts but work quite well for boning, fileting, etc.
Ceramic is not a steel at all, of course, but a very hard ceramic material called zirconium oxide. These blades are so hard that they will maintain a sharp edge for months or years with no maintenance at all. Also they cannot impart any "steel" taste to the food. On the negative side, they are more brittle and cannot be used for prying (actually, no kitchen knife should be used for prying) and they require diamond sharpening tools to maintain. Also take note that you should use ceramic knives only on a cutting board. Don't use them as steak knives. They are hard enough to cut the glaze on your dinnerware. Examples of this type of knife are the ceramic bladed Boker and Kyocera knives.
You can choose between composition handles, wood handles or stainless steel handles. The choice is between the practical maintenance-free nature of composition or stainless and the beauty and luxurious feel of wood. Most professionals choose composition or stainless handles because they require no maintenance and wood handles aren't allowed in most commercial kitchens. Wood handled knives are attractive and work fine in a home kitchen where the cook takes care of the equipment.
The best kitchen knives are flat ground. The blade profile tapers from the thicker spine to the thinner edge in a straight or convex line. They are heavier and tougher than hollow ground blades which have a concave profile.
Serrations are the wavy type of blade edges. The purpose is to keep part of the edge from making contact with the cutting board which dulls edges much faster than the food. We consider this an outstanding feature on bread knives and recommend that your bread knives have it. As long as you keep your edges sharp, plain edges are better for all other kitchen purposes. A well sharpened plain edge knife should slice a ripe tomato cleanly and easily. Serrations are popular in lower priced knives because they will cut better when dull than a plain edge blade. We recommend plain edge blades for people who can and will keep their edges sharp. They provide more accurate and precise cuts as well as being easier or even possible to sharpen. Sharpening serrated edges is impractical because one would need the wheel from the factory with which the serrations were originally ground. It is possible to touch up serrated edges on the back side by honing them lightly. When serrated edges become dull, you should think about replacing them.
Some knives have what is known as a granton edge. You may have seen the large Kullenschliff slicers used to cut prime rib at a buffet. These knives have hollow oval areas ground into the side of the blades. They are used by professional chefs for slicing meat and fish as well as for other purposes. The advantage is that the food being cut with them has less tendency to stick to the side of the blade. They are maintained just like regular edges.