Knives: Back to Basics #2


Butchers block

Er... how many knives?

For the sake of academic interest, walk into your kitchen right now, and count how many kitchen knives you own. My guess is that you’ll come up with a figure between six and 15, of which, you probably use only three or four (sheepish confession).

Some of us keep old knives so we can “sharpen them later”. Some of us are seduced by knife sets housed in attractive wooden butcher’s blocks (mea culpa). Some of us believe that we need a different knife for each and every task in the kitchen, from mincing garlic to carving chicken. The end result is a formidable – if redundant- kitchen armory. So how many is too many?

Here’s a truth that’s hard for me to swallow: as a home cook, all you really need is three knives. That’s right, three: a chef’s knife, with a blade between 7″ and 10″ long; a paring knife, with a blade between 2″ and 4″ long; and a serrated knife with a 10″ blade.

You’ll use the chef’s knife as a general purpose tool for everything from chopping to julienning, the paring knife for cutting smaller foods, and the serrated knife for slicing breads and cakes.

Hear that sound? That’s me, flinging all the other knives out the window. I hope no one gets hurt.

All About Blades

Knife-making has a long history.

When it comes to today’s chef’s knives, there are two kinds of blade – the “French” style  and the “German”, and you should opt for the one best suited to the kind of cutting technique you are accustomed to.

The French style of blade is straight, a bit thinner, and more triangular in shape. It’s best if you’re someone who uses a “slicing” type of motion while cutting, drawing the knife straight back toward you between strokes.

The more ubiquitous German style of blade has a more curved section at the front of the blade  that allows you to chop in a sort of up-and-down “rocking” motion, without lifting the edge of the knife off the surface of the chopping board. Many chefs argue that this is a faster, more efficient way of cutting – be warned, though, that it requires more skill and practice if you want to use it correctly.

Santoku

Santoku knife - note the indentations on the blade

Another tool in the chef’s knife repertoire is the Japanese santoku-style knife, in which hollow, beveled indentations in the blade create tiny pockets of air between the knife and the food you are slicing. This is thought to reduce friction and help the blade move smoothly through the food you’re slicing.

Whichever type of blade you choose, bear in mind that a longer blade lets you make longer single-stroke cuts while slicing.

Shopping For Knives

I have two words of advice: don’t skimp. Since you’re only going to own three knives (as opposed to that gorgeous wooden block containing 23 of them, more’s the pity), buy the best that you can afford.

Remember, a knife is a tool. This implies that you should always choose form over function. Given that, you need to consider two things while shopping for kitchen knives: material and construction.

First, material. For the blade:

  • Stainless Steel – Obviously, they don’t rust, so maintenance is a cinch. However, these knives need frequent sharpening.
  • Carbon Steel – Tough, and keep theirs its sharp edge. Downside –  tends to discolor on prolonged contact with acids (think tomatoes or citrus fruit). Will also rust if unused, so you need to care to clean and dry carbon steel blades after each use, and to store them carefully when not using.
  • High-carbon Stainless Steel – Best of both worlds. Tough, doesn’t require frequent sharpening, and doesn’t discolor. Downside: very expensive.

When it comes to the handle, it’s best to opt for plastic or rubber – or, if you can (heh heh) handle the weight, steel. Wooden handles can warp or crack during washing. Worse, since wood is porous, it can harbor bacteria. If you like the way wooden-handled knives look, you may be lucky enough to find some with handles made of a composite material – wood treated with plastic resin. This offers the aesthetic appeal of wood with the durability and hygiene factor of plastic.

Whatever you choose, make sure that the handle feels comfortable and fits your hand well. It shouldn’t feel slippery or cause you to grip it in a death vise.

Knife Construction

Tang

Knife tang

There’s a whole lot of information out there about how the blade of a knife is constructed. If I were to pick out one thing to look for, it would be the tang.

A knife’s tang is the part of the blade that extends into its handle. If it goes all the way to the end of the handle, it’s called a “full tang.” This is the only type of knife you should buy. Ever. I refuse to waste keystrokes on “partial-tang” or “half-tang” knives, in which the blade extends only part-way into the handle.

Full-tang construction is, obviously, structurally stronger, making the knife more durable. It also helps balance the knife better, making it easier for you to use.

If you’re buying a knife with a synthetic handle, you may not be able to see the tang, so buy a reputed brand. Or, if you’re anal about it, x-ray the knife at a diagnostic center and return it if it has a half-tang (of course, you’ll end up paying a bomb for the x-ray).

Knife bolster

Knife bolster

An additional feature you might want to look for in construction is the thick bump-thingy on the blade, just above  the handle, known as a bolster. Only the very best knives, forged from a single piece of steel, sport a bolster. The bolster indicates how thick the original piece of steel was (the thicker the better), contributes to better balance, and helps prevent your fingers from slipping while you work. If you won’t be wielding the knife for long periods of time at a stretch, you could possibly forgo a bolster.

Once you’ve made sure that the knife is well-made, it’s time to see if it suits you. Hold it in your hand and check that it feels “right”, that is well balanced, and that it is not too heavy for your hand. Yes? You’ve got a winner.

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5 thoughts on “Knives: Back to Basics #2

  1. Hi Suman –

    Great post. I have to go back home and start flinging my knives.

    So follow a four knife model – chefs, serrated, paring and meat cleaver. I find that for meatarian families especially, the cleaver is pretty indispensable. Helps me cut through bone with ease (that sounded pretty sinister).

    Question for you – can serrated knives ever be sharpened?

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