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 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, most high-quality mass-produced Japanese knives are also stamped, and have the bolster 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
The Very Basics
- Chef's Knife - More than 90% of what you're going to be doing in the kitchen can be accomplished with a 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 to see whether you like a full bolster or not. 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 heaver forged German blades or the lighter stamped 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
- 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. 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. 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. There's no reason to get any boning knife more expensive than the recommended Forschner Fibrox 6" flexible boning knife for the vast majority of people.
- 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 [url=http://www.acemart.com/merchant.mv?Screen=PROD&Product_Code=RSH5178 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.
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 you 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.
- 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).