There are at least 14 kinds of knives a kitchen can be stocked with, which is 10 more than what is necessary for the average person. Most seasoned cooks really only need a chef ’s knife, paring knife, serrated utility knife and boning knife, but if you want one to do almost everything, make it a quality chef’s knife.
A chef ’s knife is typically between 6 and 14 inches in length and 1.5 inches wide, with a slightly curved blade. This size and shape makes it easy to cut meat, dice vegetables, slice herbs, chop nuts and even disjoint some cuts. As long as you’re not intending to cleave bones or slice bread, a chef’s knife can take care of it.
The French and Germans popularised this style but Japanese knife makers caught on after the Meiji era began, and came up with the gyuto knife. Unlike the more traditional santoku chef knives, which are larger, shorter and have blunt or rounded tips, the gyuto follows its Western counterparts by having sharper points that facilitate piercing.
Regardless of provenance, knives are usually forged or stamped. The former requires a craftsman to heat and pound steel into shape (by hand or machine), while the latter is made by cutting out the blade’s shape from a metal sheet, then honing and heating it for durability. While forged knives are more expensive and have a pleasant weight to them, beginners might prefer the ease of use that comes with lightweight stamped knives.
Personal preference factors heavily in choosing a knife, but the main points to consider are material, size and grip. Carbon steel knives are sharper but can be fussy to maintain because of a tendency to rust. Stainless steel knives don’t discolour, but can be harder to sharpen. Eight inches is the happy middle for beginners, but it’s important to find a knife that feels good in your hand, especially if you want to retain all of it after a chiffonading frenzy.
There is more to knives than their ability to cut things.
Handling a well-constructed knife is a tactile pleasure, but it can be visually stimulating as well. When it comes to beautiful knife finishes, Japanese craftsmen have the edge.
Note that these finishes don’t add anything to the performance of the knife. They’re just an aesthetic flourish that also acknowledges the hard work that goes into forging one. The most basic is called the kurouchi, or blacksmith’s finish (above, middle).
Steel blackens during the forging process so achieving kurouchi is simply a matter of polishing the edge and leaving the rest of it in its raw state. It has the added benefit of keeping production costs low, so it will also be more affordable. This finish can fade over time so wipe the blade down with a non-abrasive cloth to maintain its black colour for longer.
Taking this a step further will give you the nashiji finish (above, right). The whole blade is polished to remove the black, but some of the “dimples” along the spine are left to give it the appearance of Asian pear skin, from which the finish derives its name. Some believe that the rough surface helps food detach from the blade more easily.
A fully polished knife is categorised as migaki (above, left), but there are knife makers who will polish it until it achieves a mirror finish. Of course, regular maintenance will be needed to keep that level of shine.
Those interested in forging their own knives (complete with the finishes above) can sign up for a workshop with Tombalek, which offers classes on half-bolster, gyuto and nashiji gyuto knife making.
Then there are finishes that can be achieved only through specific processes. The tsuchime or hand-hammered finish offers a variety of styles depending on the type of hammer used, while the suminagashi or damascus finish requires repeated layering, pounding and welding of two types of steel to get its wavy pattern.
For more information on black-smithing and knife-making classes, visit https://tombalek.com/knife/.
Even within the chef’s knife category, there are a plethora of variations available to the most exacting of cuisiniers. Here’s the lingo to know.
The bit where the tip and spine meet is known as the point, and used primarily for piercing and scoring.
Useful for delicate cutting, fast chopping for slicing of larger items. It can also serve as an anchor during mincing.
The edge takes care of the bulk of the cutting and slicing. It can be ground to different profiles for various purposes. Hollow grinds are extra sharp but delicate, while an asymmetric grind, where the blade is sharpened on one side, can be used only in the right or left hand.
The part that comes just after the tip tends to be more curved in Western chef’s knives. Ideal for chopping vegetables.
Given its position near the rear of the blade, this is where you can exert the most force on. A sharp and strong heel allows you to cut through tough meat and vegetables.
The bolster adds weight and balance to a knife, and is a feature more commonly found on forged knives than stamped ones. Some even have a guard that keeps the hand from slipping forward. While a useful feature, it can make sharpening and honing the whole blade more difficult.
The unsharpened part that runs into the handle. The best knives have a full tang, meaning it runs through the entirety of the handle, offering more balance and durability. Japanese knives tend to have hidden tangs, where the tang is inserted into a hole drilled through the centre of the handle so no part of it can be seen.
Knives often consist of two scales that cover the tang, some of which are fastened with rivets for added security, and this is the part you’ll be holding. These can be made from wood, plastic, metal and even exotic materials, but look for something that feels comfortable and solid.
The end of the handle is sometimes indexed to serve as a reference point for the best grip position. Bigger knives can have metal-covered butts for increased stability and durability, but may prove too heavy for some.
Sharps And Flats
Proper knife care is essential to peak performance.
Knives don’t just lose sharpness after extended use; they also get bent out of shape due to microscopic dents. This will make even a freshly sharpened knife feel dull. Those new to honing can hold the handle of the honing steel with the tip planted onto the cutting board. Place the knife heel at the top of the steel at a 15 to 20 degree angle and draw the knife down the steel, pulling across its full length at a constant angle. Repeat this about eight times on either side of the blade.
Stones are the preferred method for sharpening knives as they won’t grind away too much of the blade. Whetstones come in a range of coarseness so start with a rougher one with a lower grit count before moving onto higher counts. Stones with a grit count of 3,000 or above are finishing stones used to refine and polish. Japanese water stones (pictured) are known for superior sharpening performance but the key to using any type is simply practice. Pro tip: Don’t count the strokes and let the feeling guide you.
Wash And Dry
If using a carbon steel knife, rinse your knife after cutting or chopping anything and wipe it immediately. Keeping it dry prevents rust from forming, which is why you should never leave it in the dishwasher – washing it by hand with a sponge and soap will suffice. If rust does form, simply scrub it off with the rough side of the sponge.
Cutting with dull knives is dangerous because the extra force needed to cut through food can cause your hold to slip, and you may slice through something unintended. To test a knife’s sharpness, take a sheet of paper and hold the knife perpendicular to its edge. If it can easily slice through the paper, it’s sharp enough. Store knives by keeping them away from things that can knick the blade, so use a wall strip or knife block.
Japanese and German knives are now considered the gold standard, but what are the differences between the two styles?