Knife basics – what do you need?

From K., 12 December 2009, buying knives – the basics?

Q: What kind of kitchen knives do you recommend – for non gourmet cooks. I’d like to get my sister a set for around $100 and my daughter wants a recommendation as to which ones she sold put on her wedding registry. She’s registered at BB&B and Macy’s. Any suggestions.?

A: First, congratulations to your daughter on her upcoming wedding!

About knives … you asked about knife sets. I recommend that, instead of buying a set, you buy individual knives. Most knife sets contain knives that are not particularly useful, so your money will go further, and the knives will get more use, if you select them individually.

Which brings us to the next question (and the registry issue as well) … the knives to purchase. In my opinion, the home cook only needs three knives: a chef’s knife, which is a relatively heavy, all-purpose knife with a curved blade, usually 8 inches long but sometimes 6 or 10; a paring knife, about 3 1/2 or 4 inches long, used for paring and trimming vegetables; and a serrated knife with a straight blade for slicing delicate items like bread and tomatoes (and if you were looking for two knives, the serrated one is nonessential). You also need a knife steel for honing the non-serrated knives before each use.

You should look for certain features when buying a knife. Look for a fully forged knife, which has been produced by pounding metal, heat treating the knife, and tempering it to make the knife stronger. Fully forged knives usually have a bolster (see image at F below) and the length if the knife extends through the handle; the handle is not screwed to the knife. In comparison, stamped knives are formed by cutting or stamping from a piece of metal and then heat treating. With some exceptions (such as Global, which feature a single piece of metal that comprises the blade and the handle), in many stamped knives, the blade is screwed to a wood or plastic handle, which may detach with use and is unsafe.

The choice of chef’s knife in particular is fairly personal. Not every knife feels good in every hand, so I recommend your daughter go to Macy’s or BB&B and try out the chef’s knives to see which one feels right. She should pretend to cut on a cutting board, holding the knife as if she were cutting, to see whether the knife feels like an extension of her own hand. The handle should fit well in her hand; the knife shouldn’t be too heavy or too light. Generally, a shorter knife confers greater control and is better for smaller hands, although you can cut more product at one time with a longer knife.

If it helps you decide when buying a gift for your sister, my first knives – which I bought almost twenty years ago – were Wusthof Trident and I still use them today, although not that often since other knives get much heavier use these days (Sabatier and Misono, and some of the Globals). The Wusthof survived very heavy use and are in great shape; they have decent balance and always felt comfortable in my hand. They also are reasonably priced for a well-made knife.

A – Point: The very end of the knife, which is used for piercing
B – Tip: The first third of the blade (approximately), which is used for small or delicate work
C – Edge: The cutting surface of the knife, which extends from the point to the heel. The edge may be beveled or symmetric.
D – Heel: The rear part of the blade, used for cutting activities that require more force
E – Spine: The top, thicker portion of the blade, which adds weight and strength
F – Bolster: The thick metal portion joining the handle and the blade, which adds weight and balance and keeps the cook’s hand from slipping
G – Finger Guard: The portion of the bolster that keeps the cook’s hand from slipping onto the blade
H -Return: The point where the heel meets the bolster
J – Tang: The portion of the metal blade that extends into the handle, giving the knife stability and extra weight
K- Scales: The two portions of handle material (wood, plastic, composite, etc) that are attached to either side of the tang
L -Rivets: The metal pins (usually 3) that hold the scales to the tang
M -Handle Guard: The lip below the butt of the handle, which gives the knife a better grip and prevents slipping
N – Butt: The terminal end of the handle

3 thoughts on “Knife basics – what do you need?

  1. Pingback: Cutting remarks. « The Upstart Kitchen

  2. Sean Griffin says:

    What about a boning knife? (I tried to bone a leg of lamb with my chef’s knife, and it did not work out well.) Or is that the sort of thing that a paring knife can do?

  3. Ah, the boning knife. Since the reader requested knives for the “non gourmet cook” – which I took to mean the sort of person who would not bone out a leg of lamb – I did not include a boning knife.

    I don’t know that a boning knife is strictly necessary. That one does get a fair amount of mileage in my kitchen, but ultimately it comes down to two things: first, your knowledge of anatomy, and second, your comfort and skill with the knife. Anatomy is crucial because you need to learn where to cut. You don’t need a special knife if you know where two bones meet – you just need to know how to locate the joint so you can cut between them, and sever the tendons and ligaments that connect bone to bone to muscle and bone. Using your hands is important. You feel for the head of the bones, and the length of bones so you know what to pierce, and what to follow. When fabricating chickens, for example, you can simplify your cuts by snapping the joints, which will reveal the ligaments.

    The point and tip of the knife are the sharpest and thinnest part of the knife; the heel, being located under the bolster, can handle the most force. Even on a chef’s knife, the tip can perform surprisingly delicate work if you handle the knife correctly, know exactly what to cut, and are surgical in your approach. The flexible and very thin tip of a boning knife is really helpful in performing fine detail work, especially with poultry and fish, and I do use mine a lot – especially with small items like quail where a chef’s knife is just too large – but you certainly can get the job done with a chef’s knife in most cases.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s