A good set of kitchen knives is the most basic element of a well-stocked kitchen arsenal. If you are even remotely interested in cookery, an investment in good quality knives is money well spent. With a little research and careful shopping, the money you spend now will reward you with decades of carefree and pleasurable cooking. On the other hand, poor quality and blunt knives can make the most simple kitchen task tiresome and possibly dangerous. This brief introduction to kitchen knives will give you a grounding into what materials knives are made from and why, as well as an overview of the different specialty knives used in the kitchen. A section on care for your knives will explain the different tools used for sharpening knives and how to use them like an expert, and finally, a couple of quick tips on how you can save a few bucks when buying your knives
Historically, knives have been made from many materials. From humble beginnings as a sharpened flint, the modern knife found its beginnings when the Ancient Greeks and Romans perfected firstly bronze and later iron knives. Towards the later part of the 2nd millennium, kitchen knives were made from two main materials, carbon steel for most general tasks and silver for certain items such as fish and vegetables that a carbon knife would taint.
The more recent development of stainless steel meant that a non-taint knife was available to the masses without the cost of silver. If you go shopping for a knife today, carbon steel and stainless steel are your two main choices, with a few variants that I will discuss later.
As I have mentioned, carbon steel has the ability to taint certain foods, such as fish, acidic fruit and vegetables such as artichokes. These knives can discolour some food items and leave an unpleasant metallic taste in their razor-sharp wake. Keeping your carbon knife spotlessly clean and washing well between use on different foods can mostly alleviate this. The major advantage with carbon knives is not only their ability to achieve a razor sharp edge, but also the way they keep that edge.
Stainless steel requires much less care than carbon steel, and it won't taint any ingredients you are working with. They are also quite a bit cheaper than carbon knives. They do however, have a major drawback; they are notoriously hard to sharpen and do not keep an edge for long. If you are serious about the preparation of food, I would advise you to avoid stainless steel knives. In any case, many professional knives these days are made from a high carbon stainless blend, giving you the best of both worlds
Two other materials are becoming more prevalent in knife manufacture, one modern and one ancient. The Japanese company, Global has a range of knives constructed from a Molybdenum - Vanadium blend. They are becoming popular with both professional and amateur cooks alike. I have used Globals on occasion and personally I find them disconcertingly light. In addition they are a little hard to sharpen, but once they have an edge, they keep it well. There are also a selection of ceramic knives coming out of Japan, however I have never had the pleasure of using them. What I can tell you is that even though they are fairly pricey, they do have loyal followers.
So which material is right for you? My recommendation would be for a high carbon stainless knife. I use Wusthof, but F. Dick and Sabatier also have good quality professional tools that while expensive, will last you a lifetime. As an aside, I have personally never used them, but ascorbic, himself a fine professional chef, recommends Gustav Emil Ern knives, another high carbon German knife made in Solingen. Mundial also make a range of cheaper carbon stainless knives that are manufactured in Brazil, and could be worth looking at. In the end, you wont know until you pick the knife up yourself. Go to a reputable knife trader and ask advice. Feel the balance and weight of different materials to see which is right for you.
Apart form the handle and blade; a very important part of a knife is the tang. This is the section of metal that runs up between the handle. A full tang knife has a tang the same height as the handle itself. The handle is actually in two sections, divided by the tang. Pin tang knives use a thin piece of metal for the tang; it is just a rivet that bores into the handle. Always chose a full tang knife, as pin tangs eventually come loose and will result in a wobbly handle
There is a dazzling array of kitchen knife types available, as a trip to a good cookery store will prove. A lot of these are very specialist and have limited use in the kitchen. There are around 8 or 9 knife types commonly available, of which 3 would make a good start for the keen home cook.
Starting with the smallest, there is a selection of knives known as utility knives. The paring knife is small handled, with a short, straight edged blade, around 8 cm in length. It is extremely useful for all sorts of tasks. I use one for peeling vegetables, removing pith and seeds as well as fiddly tasks like segmenting citrus fruits. If it is a delicate job and it involves fruit or vegetables, a paring knife is usually the first tool to choose. A variation is the turning knife. This has the same dimensions as a paring knife, but has a rounded, downward pointing tip. This is more of a specialty knife, used mainly for cutting special shapes out of vegetables, such as turned carrots. It has limited use in the home kitchen. Next step up is a vegetable knife. This is also straight bladed, but is a little longer than a paring knife at around 15 cm. This baby is used for slicing and some limited chopping of fruit and vegetables.
Moving up in size, there is the boning knife. This is a flexible, thin bladed knife with a sharp tip. This is invaluable for all sorts of meat and some fish preparation. A super sharp Wusthof boning knife is my favourite piece of kitchen equipment. It makes short work of trimming lamb racks, denuding and portioning whole sirloins as well as trimming up whole fish. If you cook with meat and seafood, a boning knife is a good investment. A fish or filleting knife is a medium length (20 cm) thin, super flexible blade and is useful for removing fillets from fish, as well as delicate meat work, such as removing sinew. A ham or salmon knife has a long, flexible, very thin blade with a rounded tip. These are useful for carving very thin slices of ham and fish.
Next up is the most important knife of the lot. The cook's or chef's knife. This has a rigid blade varying in length from 16 - 36 cm. It has a sharp point that slowly widens down to its thickest part near the handle. This is the knife you will use the most. It is versatile, easily moving from chopping onions and mincing garlic, over to slicing portions of meat and fish. If you choose to invest in only one single high quality knife - spend your money here. A few other types are bread knives, with a serrated edge to slice through crusty bread with ease. Cleavers or choppers are handy to chop up poultry, meat and fish and chop through thinner bones. A carving knife has a similar shape to a boning knife, but is longer at around a 26 cm blade. These are used to carve roasted meat off the bone.
If you are considering starting to assemble a knife set, I would suggest a chef's knife, a paring knife and a boning knife as a start; adding others later as the need arises.
Keeping them sharp
If you have spent a fair bit of folding on your knives you will want to keep them in tip top condition and super sharp. A dull, blunt knife is not only a pain in the arse, it is also downright dangerous. I have had twice the amount of injuries from blunt knives as opposed to sharp ones.
You will need two items to keep you knives razor sharp; a steel and a stone.
A sharpening steel is a long, thin circular or oval shaped implement with a handle at one end. It should be at least as long as your longest blade. These are made from various materials and vary widely in price. Most steels are made from high carbon steel and either have a rough texture, which has a particle coating, or simple vertical grooves. These are the cheapest type of steel and are a good general-purpose sharpener. There are 2 other main steel types, known as diamond and sapphire steels. These use microscopic crystalline particles in their coating made of - yup, diamond and sapphire. They are obviously costly, up to twice the price - sometimes more - of regular steels, but they do a fantastic job, honing a slightly dull blade with a few swift stokes.
A steel will not give a new sharp edge; it merely re-hones it to its previously sharp state. You need to use these often, just about every time you get your knife out. All good steels have a magnet at the tip as an aid while honing. They help to keep the knife close to the edge of the steel as you slide it across. Choose a steel with a good thumb guard above the handle. I don't need to tell you what happens if you slip.
To use your steel, hold it firmly in front of you body with your non-dominant hand. Angle it slightly away from your body and take up your knife in the other hand. Place the base of the blade at the very tip of the steel and feel the magnet attract the knife. Slowly and gently drag the knife down the steel, running the blade from base to tip. Lift the knife up and place the other side of the blade against the other side of the steel, once again base of the blade to the tip of the steel. Repeat this dragging motion. Practice this maneuver until you feel comfortable, picking up speed and pressure applied against the steel. Be careful as it takes a while to get the hang of it. Remember to keep the blade at around a 20 degree angle.
Eventually your knife will become dull enough that a steel won't re-hone it to it's former sharp glory. This is when you will require a sharpening stone or oilstone (also known as a whetstone). These are small rectangular bricks made from silicon carbide and generally have 2 sides; one coarse and one smooth.
To use your stone, take a damp cloth and place it on a workbench. Place the stone, coarse side up, on the cloth to avoid slippage and dab it with a light vegetable oil. Take your knife and place the tip of the blade against the part of the stone closest to you body. Take care to ensure the angle is only slight - the blade should almost be flush with the stone. Grip the handle of the knife firmly with one hand and with your free hand push down the blade so it makes firm contact with the stone. Push the knife away from your body, grinding from tip to base of the blade as it runs the length of the stone. Repeat this several times until you have the hang of it. Turn the knife over and repeat this procedure with the other edge of the blade. Continue this procedure until you feel confident enough to grind with firm pressure. After a few minutes grinding, the blade should have a sharp, but coarse and unbalanced edge.
Turn the stone over to the smoother side and lightly oil once again. Repeat the grinding procedure, this time turning over the knife after each slide. Use less pressure at this stage, because you are not so much sharpening, but smoothing out the edge and balancing the sharpness of both sides of the blade. An unbalanced blade can cause a disconcerting drag towards the sharpest side as you slice. Continue until you feel the blade is nice, sharp and in balance.
Remember when sharpening knives with steels and particularly oilstones, which use the slippery medium of oil, to take great care. Be patient before you work too fast and build up a level of confidence and your own comfortable method, lest you lose a digit.
You should now only need a few drags across a steel each time you use your knife to keep it sharp for months.
Saving Money When Buying Knives
The price of high quality knives often varies widely depending on where you buy them. I have seen differences of up to 100% - That's right, a $75 knife sold across town at $150 for exactly the same thing. Follow these tips and hopefully you will avoid this kind of blatant rip off.
If you have the luxury of choice, try at all costs not to buy your knives from a big department store, unless you know what you want and they are on sale price. Without doubt, these stores offer the lowest value for money and on top of this they employ the least knowledgeable sales staff. Also try and avoid joints with a name like "Knife King" or "World of Knives". You know the sort of place - along with kitchen knives, they also sell hunting knives, Maglites and other outdoors-ey equipment. The staff here may be more knowledgeable than their department store cousins, but the prices are generally just as high.
The best places to try are dedicated catering supply stores, the type of place that cater mainly to professionals. Often these outlets will be for trade customers only, and you may have to do a bit of searching to find them. They always have the best prices, they have the biggest range, and they definely have the most informed sales staff. Don't worry if the place is trade-only. I have never seen a joint like this enforce this rule, and if they do - simply make up the name and details of an out of town restaurant for them to make out the receipt to.
That last point brings us to the grabber. A lot of catering supply joints will offer tax discounts for trade customers and this can mean big savings. If you are comfortable about it, and think you can sleep at night, try asking for a trade discount, using pre-researched details of a random restaurant if asked.