This guide is intended to cover the basics (and specifics) of kitchen knife selection, care, and terminology. The goal is to provide a guide to purchasing the right knives for your budget and uses.
Before getting on to a discussion of the knives themselves, it is important to understand the terms that will be used to discuss them.
- The bevel is the actual angle of the sharpened edge of the knife (not the angle of the flats of the blade!). Bevels on western-style knives (German and French) tend to stay around 20°. Bevels on Japanese knives tend to be shallower, usually around 15°. Most knives available today are double-bevel, meaning that they are ground and sharpened on both sides of the blade, but some traditional-style Japanese knives are single-bevel (ground and sharpened on only one side of the blade). The bevel angle is the single most important piece of information when having your knives sharpened or sharpening them yourselves.
- Grantons are small, oval-shaped hollows ground out of the blade near the edge. They reduce surface tension which allows for easier cutting through certain foods. They are optional on most knives.
- The rivets - Hold the handle and tang together. Generally seen in groups of two or three.
- The point, the blade, and the handle - If you don't know what these are, you probably shouldn't be in a kitchen.
- Forging - Most high-quality western style knives are forged. That is, the material is brought to high temperatures and then hammered into shape. For most modern mass-produced forged knives, this is done by using machines to hammer the metal into die forms, a process known as drop forging. Hand-forged knives are pretty much relegated to blacksmiths turning out custom knives or small runs of popular designs.
- Stamping - Also known as blocking, stamping is the process of cutting the knife profile directly from rolled steel, which is then ground and sharpened. Most inexpensive western style knives are stamped. Oddly, some high-quality mass-produced Japanese knives are also stamped, and have the bolster pressed or welded on. Stamped knives tend to be thinner and lighter than forged knives, but with high-quality steels can equal their forged brethren in edge-holding capability.
- Stainless Steel - The most popular material for knives by far, stainless steels are alloyed from iron and various other metals (usually chromium, nickel, carbon, and molybdenum) so that the resultant material does not tarnish or rust. Stainless steels are generally softer than carbon steels in the same price range, and the best carbon steels will always be harder (and thus hold an edge longer) than stainless steels.
- Carbon Steel - Carbon steels are generally alloyed from iron and carbon, with little else coming into play. Knives made of carbon steel can reach very high levels of hardness, but tarnish and rust easily, and thus must be oiled regularly and washed and dried quickly after use.
- Ceramic - A relative newcomer to the knife scene, hard ceramics have the advantage of extremely long edge-holding capability, at the cost of brittleness, expensive maintenance (when needed), and smaller available sizes. Expect further advances in the field of ceramic materials to expand their prevalence in cutlery.
Choosing Your Knives
Where to begin
Read below to figure out what style of knife you want. Do you want a large Chef's knife, or perhaps a smaller utility knife? Then, go to a kitchen store and try out all the knives of that style. Line them up on a counter and hold them all in your hand. Which feels best? Rank them from best-to-worst. Go with the knife that feels best in your hand. Go down the list if you can't afford the best knife. Special kitchen/knife stores are best, like Epicurean Egde or City Kitchens in Seattle, or Cooks Warehouse in Atlanta. But other kitchen stores work as well, like Williams Sonoma or Bed Bath & Beyond - the selection won't be as large.
Fit in your hand is very important, then quality, then price. You may find that the $17 Forschner feels best, or perhaps the $273 Blazen.
The Very Basics
- Chef's Knife - If you're going to spend money on a knife, spend it on this one. Ideally, you should try some out in a store. Comparing Wusthof or Henckels to Shun or Global at a Williams-Sonoma is a good idea; they'll let you handle the knives. This will also give you an idea if you like the heavier full-bolster German blades or the lighter and thinner Japanese style. Modern Japanese Gyutos are very similar to western chef's knives, with the main difference being a shallower belly. The following knives are recommended.
- Under $30
- Under $60
- Around $100
- More than that
- Cutco French and Petite
- Give David at http://www.epicureanedge.com/ a call. He'll be happy to talk for an extended period of time over what may be a good knife for you.
- Check out the RyuSen Blazen.
- Go nuts. Look at Hattori HD, Masamoto VG, and Misono UX10 over at JCK, or look at having something made by Takeda blacksmiths or Watanabe blades.
- Way more than that
- I don't know what you're buying here, but I'd be scared to use it to cut anything harder than a marshmallow.
- Paring Knife/Utility Knife - Mainly used for smaller work than the chef's knife can easily handle. You can go expensive or cheap here, depending on how often you think you'll use one, but having a cheap one on hand for random beating on crap with is a good idea. If you frequently peel things like potatoes or carrots, it's a good idea to invest in a better quality paring knife for safety reasons. The modern-style Japanese "petty" is equivalent. The recommended families for the chef's knife carry over here as well.
- More expensive Japanese pettys (Masamoto VG, Hattori HD, Misono UX10) can be found over at JCK, but are generally not worth the expense compared to a chef's knife/gyuto.
- Serrated Bread Knife - If you slice bread at all, you have to have one of these. Also useful for sandwiches, tomatos, and other soft fruits and vegetables. Since it is extremely difficult to sharpen a serrated edge after it starts to dull, it's recommended to just get a cheap (and thus disposeable) bread knife. The only alternative would be Cutco's Double-D edge, which resembles a serrated edge but is actually three small recessed cutting surfaces which can be sharpened for free. They do not dull as quickly as a cheap serrated knife does and are garunteed forever. Offset handles allow greater knuckle clearance to the cutting board. Longer blades are preferrable, in case of larger loaves.
Commonly Useful Knives
- Boning Knife - If you have to deal with cutting bone joints at all (like, say, sectioning chicken wings), you need a boning knife. They also make good general-purpose small/thin blade knives for other uses. Surprisingly, the best boning knives are stamped, as flexibility is a desireable quality for most boning tasks.
- Carver/Slicer - If you cut thin slices (of turkey, or ham, or some sort of roast), a carver or slicer is a good tool to have. They are long and relatively thin, to aid in making the long cuts with little downward force needed to get good-quality thin slices. Forged slicers are generally recommended due to their stiffness relative to inexpensive stamped models: straight cuts are important. A Japanese sujihiki, yanagiba, or takobiki can generally substitute.
- Santoku - Having gained in popularity recently, many people have replaced their chef's knives with santoku. They have a shallow belly, with a wide profile and the spine curving down to the point at the end. While santoku are quite useful, they are generally shorter than a chef's knife (topping out around 7.5") which can slightly limit their usefulness. Try both out in a store and get whichever you prefer. Recommended brands are the same as for chef's knives.
- Chinese Cleaver - The "chef's knife" of China and much of southeast asia, a chinese cleaver is not the heavy brute-force bone-breaker that western cleavers are, but are lightweight vegetable and meat slicers and choppers. They take some getting used to, and are limited for more delicate tasks (unless you're very skilled), but are highly capable chef's knife replacments. Most are carbon steel, and will tarnish over time. The Dexter Russell is the most common chinese cleaver in use in US restaurants at this time. Chan Chi Kee makes some wonderful cleaver bargains, although they can be hard to find (CCK does not ship online). More expensive Japanese cleavers by Suien, Sugimoto, and Masamoto perform excellently, but are probably not worth the cost unless you're a cleaver nut.
Most other knives are very specialized, and if you need one, you'll know it, and know where to find it by the time you realize you need one.
You have the choice of many different styles of cutting boards. Your first choice is size - a cutting board should be small enough to clean and handle properly, but large enough for your knife. Look for a cutting board that is, on the diagonal, larger than your largest knife. At least a factor of two will give you the most comfortable work area. Don't get a board you can't clean though.
Next is your choice of material. You can use (poly) plastic or wood. Anything else will dull your knives very quickly. If you select wood, try to get a soft wood of even hardness. Hinoki (a Japanese Cypress) is ideal. Other great choices are end-grain maple or cherry (like Boos End-Grain Chopping Block).
Wood boards feel great to cut on, but must be maintained with mineral oil and hand-washed only. Poly boards can dull you knives a little quicker, but can be thrown in the dishwasher.
Caring For Your Knives
There are several simple guidelines to ensure that your cutlery lasts and continues to perform at a high level.
- Always cut on a wood or poly cutting board. Never cut on glass, ceramic, or metal as these materials are harder or similar in hardness enough to permanently deform the edge or even chip it.
- Don't leave your knives in the sink. This can lead to harder materials (like most glasses or plates) banging into your knives and again ruining the edge.
- Steel the edge often. Get a sharpening steel and learn to hone the blade, ideally before each use. Knives shouldn't need sharpening (the actual removal of material to establish a new edge) very often, but they do need honing (straightening of the edge). Honing will only realign an edge that is still in good condition, so don't bother trying to hone out a chipped or bent edge.
- Keep your knives clean. Even if just rinsing off with water every so often during a prep session, a clean knife will cut more easily and surely than one all sticky with garlic.
- Keep your knives sharp. A dull blade is a dangerous blade, is more prone to accidental slippage, and makes nice gashes in your hands as opposed to clean cuts. Take your knives to a professional about once a year (depending on use). This runs about $2-3 per blade, and will keep them cutting sure and safe.
- Alton talking about steeling and sharpening your blades.
- Don't keep your knives in a drawer. Banging around inside a drawer with other cutlery will dull them quickly, and you're much more likely to cut yourself trying to find one. Keep them in a knife block or on a magnetic strip.
- Hand wash your knives. Washing knives in a dishwaser is a great way to get them dull, or ruin the handles.
- Oil your carbon steel knives. If you have them, keeping your carbon steel knives oiled when stored will considerably prolong the onset of tarnish (if you don't find patina attractive, that is).