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Kitchen Knives

 

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About Kitchen Knives

Before one spends $600 on a knife set, it is nice to have some understanding of why. Quick advice? Buy the best quality knives you can afford. Think what you are willing to pay, multiply by two. And if you can only afford one good knife, get a Global, Wusthof, or Henkels Zwilling chef's knife. If you can afford two knives , add a paring knife. If you can afford three, add a carving or bread slicing knife. For the normal utility stuff of everyday living like slicing a bit of cheese or cutting a sandwich in half, fairly normal, mundane knives will suffice. I use Farberware full-tang forged knives bought six to a pack for thirty dollars at the local supermarket. But when I want to make food heated up, with meat and vegetables I insist that having good knives helps turn a chore into a pleasure.

The knife is the second most important category of kitchen tool, after heat. Knifework is so important that it is the first thing a classically trained chef must learn. If one is cooking things with precision, the size of a piece of food can be of crucial importance. If it is too large it can be undercooked, too small it is overcooked. Precision in knifework is rarely a make-or-break proposition in most cooking, but a good knife can make the the cooking task much easier and more pleasant.

Each cutting task is best suited by a particular style of knife. And each knife maker has construction practices that lead to particular advantages in quality or economy. Understanding all of these interrrelated issues can help one choose the right knives for the kitchen.

 

The Right Style of Knife

The number of knife styles is dizzying. My mother had a chef's knife and a paring knife. If the job was paring or cutting up small things, the paring knife was the right tool. If the job was slicing or carving large things it was the big knife one used. This method of division of labor between knives is completely workable.

When I was young I purchased a set of knives. It contained:

Each knife is ideally suited to its task. When I broil a chicken I butterfly it using the butcher's knife. Then when it gets to the table I carve it with the smaller carving knife. Each knife does its task better than any of the others, and I do not have to worry about cross contamination ( I know that 90 minutes in the dishwasher will do a much more thorough job of cleaning that knife than I will ever be able to do in the sink.)

Long ago my paring knife failed from being dropped on the floor. Now we have a not-too-terrible set of 'steak knives.' We eat steak about two times a year, but the steak knives just happen to be the knives of choice for those quick little jobs that involve single-servings and snacks. We use three or five of these in a day, and we do not have to keep rewashing them.The boning knife has gotten a great deal of use for its convenient size and perpetual sharpness, but truthfully, its popularity has waned with the rise of the dozen steak knives.

The Chef's knife is still the workhorse when meals for multiple people are being prepared. It is mostly used to chop vegetables. This may seem a prosaic and mundane use, but chopped carrots, celery, onions, and peppers can really be the 'essence' of a lot of cooked meat, rice, or bean dishes. The Chef's knife is also ideal for chopping nuts or making thin, parallel slices in large fruits such as melons.

The spatula is the odd-man out. Few sets offer one of these, but I really like it. When one is building a sandwich and wants to spread mayonnaise and then cut the sandwich with the same knife it is ideal. It is not perfect for slicing cheese because if one starts the knife at the wrong angle, the cut will be crooked.

Before I took up baking with a bread machine, the bread knife seemed irrellevant. I could, I imagine, get by with the large slicer, but the bread knife is a little longer and it really is the right thing for slicing bread. So my recommendation is, if you get a bread machine, get a good slicer. It might also be passable for the task of separating a salmon filet from its skin - a task that requires a long, slightly flexible, narrow blade.

The Construction of a Knife

It turns out that cutting is a very diffcult thing for a tool to do well and for a long time. The stresses on the cutting surface are astronomically high, and these tend to dull an edge quickly. Several factors impact the sharpness and durability of a knife edge:

  1. Material of construction i.e. high carbon stainless steel or ceramic are good. Other stuff, bad. Not all knives have good metallurgy. Some have downright bad metallurgy.
  2. Construction process (i.e. hot working, heat treating/tempering and ice- hardening in the case of steel knives)
  3. Sharpening

You can find knives today made of carbon steel. They keep an edge better than stainless steel, but one has to be very careful that they do not react with food. And they look ugly. Oxidation is so fast that some token sharpening is required daily.

Today most good metal knives are constructed of high carbon stainless steel. Nickel and chromium in the steel alloy prevent corrosion which, in regular steel knives will discolor food and give it a bad flavor. Corrosion can also dull the cutting edge quickly. High carbon makes the surface hard which makes it more resistant to wear. Some stainless steels will contain vanadium which also hardens the surface.

It turns out that how an alloy is treated during the manufacturing process plays a great role in how well a knife performs later on. Samurai swords and damascene swords are worked from steel that has been folded over and over on itself. The process destroys the grain boundaries giving the material extremely high tensile strength. It is rare today to find this painstaking process practiced in the making of a knife. Made this way, a knife would cost as much as a small car.

In another instance, certain stainless steel alloys go through a physical transformation at temperatures far below freezing which hardens the steel. The process is sometimes known as ice hardening; one company uses the term 'friodur' to refer to the process. But a number of companies perform the process. Unfortunately, understanding the metallurgical nuances of blade-making requires graduate studies in material science. Most people who understand it thoroughly can afford to hire someone to cook their meals. Ironically then, nobody who uses a knife understands the nuances of its metallurgy! This is a great temptation for knife manufacturers to ship cheap knives. And if one sees knives that seem to be priced unbelievably well, this might account for it.

Metal knife blades are typically made using one of three processes. The least expensive process is known as stamping. Huge presses with metal dies stamp blades out of sheet metal like a pastry chef cuts Christmas cookies from rolled dough.

Then the stamped blades are processed into knives using heating, cooling, hammering, grinding, polishing, honing, and host of other processes. Stamping is the least expensive method of making a knife blade. And if great care is taken in the heat treatment and sharpening, it can result in knives with very sharp and durable edges. If your knife must be flexible anyway, buying a stamped knife with full tang construction is a good way to save money without compromising quality.

Thicker knives cannot be stamped; they must be made by forging, a more expensive process that involves hot-working the metal. A forged blade, if made using the most advanced metallurgical craftsmanship be the basis for the most durable of metal blades.

This is because hot working of the metal can impart a host of superior mechanical properties -as samurai and damascene swordmakers knew. In practice, not all forged blades are hot worked enough to make a big difference, so the chief benefit of forging is that the blade is thicker than it can be if stamped. This is chiefly an advantage for chef's knives and for cleavers. When one uses a chef's knife one frequently wants some heft, so a forged blade can be an advantage. In a slicer, boning knife, or parer heft is rarely an advantage.

The third method of making a knife blade is sintering. Metal or ceramic powder is pressed together at high temperatures to make the blade. Knives using certain high-temperature alloys such as vanadium are easier to construct this way, but they cannot accrue any of the advantages that might come from hot working. This is not a serious disadvantage since vanadium and molybdenum strengthen the steel more than the hot working does. The blades may end up being less flexible, but they retain an edge better.

Sintering is the method used for constructing the blades of ceramic knives. I believe the technically correct term is 'hot isostatic pressing.' Powder is put in a mold at high pressures and heated until the powder fuses together.

Ceramics have a big advantage over steel in that they are much, much harder. The blades stay razor sharp for a much longer period of time between sharpenings. But ceramic blades also have disadvantages. They are very expensive to make. They are less durable when dropped onto hard surfaces where they can shatter. They can breakif one uses them in certain prying and hacking operations typical of dealing with some difficult cuts of meat. And when they dull they must be sent to the factory for sharpening.

If you routinely have to make very thin and intricate cuts in highly elastic foods the edge that a sharper knife brings can be a worth the money. Ten years ago ceramic knives were quite dear, but today they are reasonably priced. It is unknown how long one can expect a ceramic knife to escape the hazards of being dropped or of dulling, but while it does it will almost surely charm its owner with its razor-sharpness.

Making Knife Choices

If you tend to treat knives well and must have a perfect cut every time, get ceramic. It's what the most demanding chefs use. But you must be prepared to pay nearly $100 per blade for knives. You cannot hack and you cannot drop them on your ceramic floor or granite counter. Also, you have to scupulously use a good, soft cutting board.

My knives are stainless and have been re sharpened only once in twenty years. So it is reasonable to assume that given modest home use and good care a ceramic knife will stay acceptably sharp for decades.

But if you work a knife hard, you may have to be mentally prepared throw away a $100 knife some years after buying it because it cannot be sharpened. Even serious cooks in well appointed kitchens will not find this an easy decision to make. This explains the popularity of high carbon stainless steel blades.

If you wish to beat the living daylights out of your knife on a daily basis and can live with a 'pretty sharp' blade, get a metal blade and a sharpener.

If you just want good cuts, and cheap price, get a good stamped blade such as Forschner Victorinox or Cutco.

The blade is much more than half the story, but a knife blade is useless without a handle. I've spent too many hours of my life struggling with metal instruments whose wooden or plastic handles were falling off. I will have only knives whose handles are virtually fool-proof. Fortunately, most reputable brands offer knives in which the blade, or tang, extends the full length of the handle and is fully visible. The handle, then, is made of two parts that bracket the tang and these are fastened to the tang via brass or bronze or silver-nickel rivets.

This full-tang construction assures that the handle never falls off. And if it ever did, it can be repaired temporarily with duct tape. It costs a little more to make a knife this way. But a knife constructed this way is almost certain to be ready to cut things when you are.

A third important issue is how a knife feels in your hand. We really want you to buy your knives here, but it would be best if you actually held the knives you wish to buy - and this requires a trip to a good store. You will not find prices there to be as good as those here, so we look forward to seeing you on your return.

Which Brand to Choose?


A review of knives a year or two ago in Cooks Illustrated gave Forschner Victorinox knives the highest rating of any stamped metal knives (though Cutco was not in the list). These knives performed as well as or better than a number of forged knives. And they were significantly less expensive. I'm not sure they have full tangs, but they do have low cost.

There is a general concensus that Global knives are sharper than other metal knives when they ship. So for some months or years you have the sharpest commercially available metal blades in your kitchen. And that sharpness persists longer than it does with many other metal blades thanks to the super hard molybdenum/ vanadium alloy. Global knives have the additional advantage that the handle is stainless steel welded seamlessly to the blade. This makes them extremely durable and hygenic.

Global blades are ground and honed in a way that requires special sharpening tools or skills. If you are a chef and you live and die by the sharpness of your knives these can be the best choice. But you may have to add knife-honing to your long list of kitchen skills. We assume Global will resharpen them for a nominal fee, considering the cost of the knife.

The Wusthof classic knives are the heavyweights. I mean this figuratively and literally. If you want a serious chef's knife for home use this is probably the first place to look. Then you can sharpen it with a Chef's Choice electric sharpener whenever it seems appropriate. You have a simple, robust solution for sharp knives that you can hand down to your great grandkids. Wusthof classic knives have a no-compromise 'built to last' sensibility.

Henkels is another big name, offering a dizzying (and confounding) number of permutations of high quality forged knives as well as stamped ones. And Henkels appears to have good customer service when needed. One gets the impression at Amazon.com that some Henkels lines require a higher level of service than perhaps is common among other knife brands.

At least one Henkels' line promises "never needs sharpening." In my opinion and that of several dissatisfied customers it should read "can never be sharpened." See also, "don't buy this knife."

Point of Comparison

My own knives come from Cutco. The stamped blades are ice hardened high carbon stainless steel with full tangs. The riveted resin handles always feel comfortable, and the knives usually feel balanced. They represent a pretty decent level of performance, though I am convinced they might be sharpened better, and I am perplexed that some knives lose their tips when landing on the floor and others get bent tips - this suggests rather significant variations in metallurgy.

They are nearly thirty years old. Most look as good and cut almost as well as they did the day I bought them. The company offers to re-sharpen them yearly for free, but I've had them re-sharpened one time.

I keep my knives all in a block bought at a garage sale. And I highly recommend a block because the knives are there when you need them.

I fantasize about having a ceramic knife or an expensive forged knife. But when it comes to serious, heavy duty work most of my cutting, chopping & slicing today is done by the food processor or mandoline. And I peel fruits and vegetables with a $10 Oxo peeler.

Could I get by with four sharp knives? Yes. A Chef's knife with a seven inch or eight inch blade, a boning knife with a five inch blade, a paring knife with a three inch blade and a slicing or carving knife with a ten inch blade and with serrations. And a shears.

Remember that the knife is the one tool that you use in the kitchen that requires effort. Most other tools are self-powered. So if you want to make your life easier, the first thing to do is get a good knife.

Mandoline, Shears, Chopper

It is not a knife, but it does the knife-work better, faster, more uniformly: it is a mandoline. The first task a mandoline does is to produce slices of uniform thickness from up to a quarter inch thick down to paper thin. It doesn't matter how good you are with a knife, you cannot cut this fast or this uniformly. You could use a food processor with a slicing attatchment, but clean-up is more of a chore and you don't have much choice of thickness.

You could use that old hand-grater with the 'slicing' slot. But I've found that best for bringing a cook to tears. If you make scalloped potatoes just twice a year, a good mandoline is a must. If you thinly slice any vegetable (not tomato) regularly, a good mandoline is a must.

Most mandolines ship with tools for producing julienned vegetables and french fries. I find that the extra effort required to set up the mandoline and to push the vegetables through rarely warrants the effort. It think the knife wins out for doing small batches and the food processor is better for doing large ones.

You could buy a V-slicer, but my preference is for a mandoline since the built-in stand puts the cutting surface at the perfect working angle, and balancing a V-slicer on a bowl is too tricky for me.

If you chop garlick or herbs very often and you find that this fine work can be painstaking, buy a chopper. For peeling, an OXO peeler is the thing. And for roasting whole chickens, get a poultry sheers.

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Whatever your cooking style might be, choose a good set of knives early; you'll thank yourself for decades.

Eat Well, and Prosper!

 

 

 

 

Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.