A sharp kitchen knife is a cook’s best friend! And with care, a quality knife will last a lifetime. On the other hand, you’ll want to throw away a bad one inside of an hour. A good knife will slice cleanly and easily. A bad knife will tear the meat, and make you work twice as hard as you have to. Good knives cost more than bad ones do, and sometimes it’s tough to spend that extra money. But if you plan to do a lot of cooking, it’s money well spent. Just ask an old chef!
Make the commitment. Food processors have become commonplace in kitchens today. “Miracle slicing disks” are advertised every day on T.V., and cheap knives that “never need sharpening” are available at most corner stores now. Does anyone still use good knives? Well, if you don’t want to spend your life cleaning various appliances, changing accessories or buying new knives every year, you’ll want a decent set of knives at hand. Just keep them out of the reach of small children, O.K.?
Assess the two types of blades
There are two common techniques used to make a kitchen knife blade: forging and stamping.
A forged blade is certainly the more elegant blade. It’s generally used in the better knives available, and produces a heavy blade that’s narrow at the edge, and widens to form a strong, thick back. When a blade is forged, a piece of steel is heated, and then shaped. A bolster is formed to protect your fingers and, most often, a full “tang” that extends through the handle is created. A stamped blade, on the other hand, is cut from a sheet of steel. The lightweight blade is usually the same thickness from edge to back. Any bolsters are formed by the handle, and the tang generally does not extend through the handle. Although there’s at least one manufacturer of good quality stamped knives out there, for the most part you’ll find these blades used in cheaper, serrated “never sharpen” models. It’s obviously a less expensive way to make a blade. In the past, harder stainless steel was not as desirable as softer carbon steel, because it was very difficult to sharpen. However, carbon steel stains easily and tends to rust, so “high carbon” stainless steel was developed. This is a steel that is easily sharpened, yet stays nice and bright. It’s used in most high-quality knives on the market.
Learn what makes good handles and blades
These days, handles are made from either hard plastic, or wood. While a wood handle looks mighty fine, and provides good grip when wet, it can also deteriorate over the years. Once a wood handle pulls away from the tang, for instance, bacteria will have a lovely home. Splinters and cracks are common as well, which is why most handles are plastic these days (along with reduced costs). Plastic, as we all know, will last a very long time. It can be textured to provide good grip, and molded easily to conform to your hand. The edge is formed mostly by grinding. The “grind” can be a taper grind, flat grind or hollow grind. A flat grind is cheaper to produce than a tapered grind, which is used on most forged knives. A hollow grind can be extremely sharp, but can be broken more easily, as it’s thinner than a taper grind. An edge can also be very finely serrated, and the new lines of “never sharpen” knives have these edges. Serrated edges are terrific for slicing crusty bread and, oddly enough, tomatoes, but are not desirable otherwise. A serrated edge will often tear, rather than slice, and will catch bits of material in the serrations. Serrated edges are not repairable, and if the blade is damaged (which happens!) you have to toss the knife in the trash. The blade on a “never sharpen” knife is thin and flexible, rather than thick and stiff. This usually means that it takes more effort and care to get a good result. The big advantage that these knives have over others is their price, and that’s why so many are sold.
Put it all together
The best knife that you’ll buy will have a heavy, forged blade and a full tang. It will not have a serrated edge, unless it’s a bread knife. The three classic knives are:
A chef’s knife - for chopping, dicing, crushing(!) and lots more. This is generally the most-used knife in the kitchen, and comes in several lengths. An 8" model is an excellent choice. A slicing knife - for slicing meat it can’t be beat! This knife is generally about 10" long, and fairly narrow. A paring knife - is about 3" long, with a triangular shaped blade. If you need to peel fruit, vegetables or do other delicate tasks, this is what you reach for.
There are several other specialty knives that are nice to have around. These include:
A bread slicer, which has a long, serrated or “scalloped” blade. A Japanese chefs’ knife, which is similar to the chefs knife above, except with a dropped point, and wider blade. It’s extremely versatile, and transfers chopped food to the pan very easily. A Chinese cleaver, which is thinner and lighter than a meat cleaver. Quite a few people swear by this knife, as you can julienne scallions as easily as mince pork. Expect to find this knife in carbon steel, rather than high-carbon stainless. A boning knife, which is very thin, and slightly curved. It’s designed to separate meat from oddly-shaped bones, and is great for getting the most out of a chicken. When you buy any of these knives, take a look at the specific piece you’re buying. The blade should be straight, unstained, and without nicks or dents. The point should be cleanly defined, and the handle should not have any gaps where it meets the bolster.