I’ve learned a lot about knives in the last few years. Knives are one of the most important tools in the kitchen. They can be your best friend or your worst enemy. And they can cost a lot of money. Knives, in my opinion, are an important investment for any cook but you need to know their uses, their construction and determine exactly what it is that you need and don’t need before making any decisions on what knives you should have. Again I need to add the disclaimer here that I work at Crate and Barrel. I learned a lot about knives by working there but I am not advocating for them or their products.
There are a wide variety of knife manufacturers out there and I am not recommending any brand. What I can tell you is there are certain characteristics common to all knives and you need to be aware of them in order to make informed decisions on what to buy and what to use.
The basics for all knives include:
- The type of steel that is used
- The concentration of steel in the knife
- The angle to which the blade is honed
- The types of knife/knives you need for your lifestyle and how you cook
- The way to care for knives
THE TYPE OF STEEL:
Basically there are two types of steel used in knife blades, standard and Asian. Standard steel, sometimes called German steel, is a thicker heavier steel. Asian steel is thinner. Looking at these pictures it is difficult to tell them apart, but when you see them and use them you will understand the difference immediately. So, why do you need to know this? For the burgeoning cook I personally would not recommend working with Asian steel knives. Because Asian steel is thinner if it’s not used properly it can pit or even break at the edge of the blade. Not that standard steel is exempt from pitting or breaking if not used properly, I just feel you have to be more careful with an Asian steel blade. Most cooks who are in a learning phase can tend to be a little heavy handed with their knives. Unless you really know what you are doing I would recommend, at least initially, staying away from knives made of Asian steel. They are very expensive and totally worth the money, but the edges can break easily if not used or cared for properly.
Even though I feel I know my way around the kitchen, I prefer German steel knives. This is simply my preference and has nothing to do with the quality or usefulness of either type. I know many cooks who prefer Asian steel knives. I like the feel of standard steel, it feels more substantive in my hand, and it works beautifully for how I cook and what I need. I will say, I do have a few Asian steel knives, namely a santoku and a boning knife. All santokus, whether German or Asian steel, are ground to the same fine edge (16 degrees). So I can choose whether I want the heavier feel of the German steel or the lighter feel of the Asian steel when I use a santoku (my knife of choice) and still have the finer ground edge. For boning I prefer the asian steel as I like the lighter feel and finer edge when I bone chickens and the like. Otherwise all the other knives in my arsenal are made of German Steel. The picture below is the blade of my boning knife. It is Asian steel, and even with the great care I give it you can still see some small pits in the edge of the blade. I hone it regularly (which I will get to in a minute) and use it carefully. The tip is also slightly bent. It still works beautifully but it reinforces my point of having to be very careful, or at least I do, using knives made of Asian steel. One thing I will tell you is the professional chefs I know tend to favor the Asian steel knives because of the lighter feel and the sharper edge. So don’t shy away from them if that is what you really want. Just remember not to hack with them and take good care of them.
Knowing the difference between the two, the other thing I recommend before buying knives is to go to a store where you can hold them in your hand. Everyone has a personal preference and you want to make sure the knife feels balanced in your hand and the weight and size of it works for you, especially if you plan to make a significant investment in cutlery.
THE CONCENTRATION OF STEEL:
This is so important and something that I did not learn until a few years ago. Inspect your knives carefully and look to see how much steel is in them. The price of knives is determined by two simple factors: the manufacturing process and the concentration of steel. If a knife is forged it will be more expensive than if it is pressed. A knife with a larger concentration of steel will be more expensive than one with a smaller concentration. Simple enough.
So why is this important? The amount of steel in a knife actually helps to balance it when it’s in your hand. There are some knives that only have steel in the visible blade and the entire handle is some sort of synthetic material like plastic. Those knives, although useful, will not be balanced in your hand as the weight of the blade is heavier than the weight of the handle. On the other hand, those knives will also be more affordably priced.
If you are looking to invest in some quality cutlery you need to look for a knife that has what is called a “full tang”. A full tang means that there is steel not only in the blade but also through the handle of the knife. There are various concentrations of steel in a full tang, but if a knife has a full tang, the way it balances in your hand will be significantly different than if there is no steel or only a little steel in the handle.
Knives should function as an extension of your hand and should ideally be balanced from the handle to the tip. The amount of steel in the tang will affect the balance you feel when the knife is in your hand. Below are two pictures that illustrate the concept of tang:
Both of these knives are exhibiting what is called a full tang – but you can easily see the difference of concentration of the steel in the tang. What you see in the picture to the left is steel that goes all the way through the handle, top to bottom. The synthetic material in the handle is riveted to the steel. The steel in the handle counter balances the steel of the blade resulting in a more balanced feel in your hand compared to a knife that does not have a full tang.
Now compare that to the knife on the right which also exhibits a full tang but with a much larger concentration of steel at the tip. That extra steel creates a perfect balance between blade and handle. The knife on the right is more expensive than the knife on the left. A burgeoning chef may not need a knife to be perfectly balanced in their hands but it’s good to know the difference. The knife to the right is my santoku. It is my go-to knife and so I felt it important to make the investment in this particular knife. All my other knives are like the one on the left, sturdy and nicely counter balanced.
THE ANGLE OF THE BLADE:
Standard steel is generally ground to a 20 degree angle, except for santokus made of standard steel. They are ground to the finer 16 degree angle. Asian steel blades are generally all ground to the finer angle of 16 degrees. For me, the angle to which a blade is honed really makes no difference. It tends to make a big difference for professional chefs who tell me they prefer the finer angle.
For me, the finer angle is prone to more blade issues like denting or pitting, especially the way I cook and how I work with knives. Just be aware of this before you make any decisions. The Asian steel knives may well be your preference and they are fabulous knives. What you really need to think about it how you cook and what you need. Most everyday cooks hardly notice any difference between the two angles of blades common in all knives.
WHAT KNIVES DO YOU REALLY NEED:
I am a big proponent of investing in knives that you really need and not necessarily buying a set of knives that look great on your counter but have knives in them that you never use. Let me show you what I have which I find suits my needs to a tee.
As I mentioned earlier, this is my go-to knife. A santoku is basically another version of a chef’s knife. This is my chop, mince, dice, slice knife. I use this knife more than any other to do a myriad of prep chores for my recipes. This particular knife is called a hollow ground santoku because of the scallops you can see about the edge. Those scallops help to easily loosen starchy things like potatoes from the blade. I prefer this to a santoku that is not hollow ground.
THE BREAD KNIFE:
Now who doesn’t need a bread knife? The scalloped edges of the blade helps to cut even the softest bread without ripping it apart. One thing to know about a bread knife is that you can get it in a right handed, left handed or both handed blade. Mine is a right handed blade. That means when you hold the knife the right hand side of the blade exhibits a noticeable grind to the edge that is not on the left side. If you want a left handed or full grind, ask for it when you’re buying knives. They do exist but may have to be ordered.
THE BONING KNIFE:
From my recipes in this blog you can see I prepare a lot of chicken. It’s less expensive to buy whole chickens or breasts with rib meat than to buy them prepared for you. I use my boning knife for this purpose. I also use my boning knife to remove the skin from fish. It is light weight and extremely sharp and with simple strokes this knife makes those jobs much easier.
THE UTILITY KNIFE:
I use this knife especially for carving meats and poultry before serving. You can also use this knife for some of the more basic kitchen duties, especially for slicing. I tend to use this knife the least but it is my go-to carving knife.
THE TOMATO AND PARING KNIVES:
The knife with the serrated edge is the tomato knife. It functions somewhat like a bread knife in that it’s designed to cut softer fruits and vegetables without tearing them. The other knife is a paring knife. This knife is designed for chores that require more agility in knife handling. I use my paring knife for deveining shrimp, cutting the skin off of apples, taking out the seeds of peppers and like kitchen prep chores. I use my paring knife almost as much as I use my santoku.
These are my knives. I made conscious choices to have knives that fit my needs and how I cook. There are a lot of different types of knives out there. I would recommend investing in the knives you will use versus buying a bunch and only using a few of them. Learn each knife’s primary function and determine if you really need that in your kitchen.
If there is only one tidbit of information you take away from the blog let it be this – never, never put a good knife in a dishwasher. First of all I will guarantee you it will annihilate an asian steel knife and even a standard steel if bumped and jostled will pit and break off at the edge. The best way to ensure that you will ruin your knives is to put them in the dishwasher.
It is also important to regularly hone your knives. By that I mean giving some tender loving care to the blade surface. It does not mean sharpening them. When it comes time to sharpen them, take them to a professional. I am not a big fan of electric sharpeners as you can wind up taking off more steel from the blade than you really want. If you pay good money for a knife, invest in maintaining it and you can have it for a lifetime.
Honing is a process of realigning the edge of the blade. When a blade is ground there are tiny steel fibers that run all up and down the edge. You can’t see them but they are there. When a knife seems to be a little dull it’s due to the fact that the fibers have separated, which happens naturally as you use a knife. Honing realigns those fibers so that you have a smoother edge resulting in cleaner cut. You can hone your blade with a honing steel like the one pictured above. Honing steels tend to come with knife sets or you can purchase them separately. I am not a big fan of a honing steel and here’s why. In order to use a honing steel properly you have to hold your knife at the correct angle of the blade (16 or 20 degrees) as you move the knife up and down the steel. Now I don’t know about you but I cannot perfectly eyeball 16 or 20 degrees or hold a knife perfectly at that angle the entire time I am honing it. I prefer a honing device like the one pictured below (which is mine).
I call this device the knife honer for dummies. If you look carefully at the choices, you can hone an Asian or a standard blade. Each notch is positioned to the exact angle for the steel in those knives. All you have to do is run your knife through one of the notches a couple of times and voila, your knife is honed to the exact angle.
In the picture below you will notice there are two honing choices for each type of steel, fine and course. Fine is for simple honing. Coarse actually takes a little steel off the blade when you use it. Look closely at the coarse notch for standard knives. You can actually see some steel shavings in the notch. When using a tool like this, primarily use the fine notches. I only use the coarse notches maybe once every couple of months. I used the fine notch after I use my knife about every 3 or 4 times. I find it keeps the blade edge nice and clean. I’ve had some of my knives for almost two years and using this maintenance tool I have not had to sharpen them yet. The rule of thumb here – use the fine notch after every 3-4 uses of the knife. Run the blade completely through 3-5 times and you’re done. The course notch use sparingly and when you do, run it through the same amount of times. You will keep your knives sharper must longer by maintaining them this way.
It’s also important to store your knives properly. I knife block is a great tool. I keep my knives in their original boxes in my knife drawer. I protect them so that they never jostle against anything else.
Many people are afraid of sharp knives. Actually sharp knives are much safer than dull ones. There are more accidents in the home with dull knives than sharp ones. Sharp knives are easier to work with but you still need to be careful when using them.
I hope you found this blog helpful in giving you the tools to make some informed choices regarding knives. They are definitely your best friend in the kitchen and can last forever if you know how to use them and take care of them.