What is a Kitchen Knife?
A kitchen knife is any blade designed to prepare food. While all knives are made for cutting, not all are created equal. Different kitchen knives are designed for particular cutting work. For example, a paring knife is best for peeling fruits or vegetables, and a tough cleaver is made to withstand work on large bones and meat.
A chef knife is designed to be a cook's comprehensive tool that they can use comfortably for various operations. With kitchen work, most cooks will find themselves gravitating 90% of the time towards a chef knife to do the leg work. In this article, you'll learn the correct way to choose quality kitchen knives and ways of maintaining a razor-sharp edge that will last for years to come.
History of a Kitchen Knife
Blades have always been a crucial part of man's history, from humanity's dawn to the modern era. Spears and swords were used primarily to hunt down prey but were too bulky to carve and slice food into edible parts. Smaller knives thus came to be, and the first kitchen knives were conceptualized. With the discovery of fire and the arrival of more complex materials like bronze, copper, iron, and steel, sharp-edge technology covered much more ground and many outstanding bladesmiths elevated the profession into an art form.
A considerable demand for quality blade work gave rise to places like Solingen, Germany, and Seki, Japan, as weapon makers bloomed first and foremost. Gradually, this transitioned to more domestic products like high quality kitchen knives. Even so, most of the qualities you can touch and see in modern kitchen tools are a nod to the traditional and more violent metalwork of ages past. Today's kitchen knives are being manufactured rapidly, designed to produce massive amounts of blades while minimizing labor costs.
Why You Need the Best Quality Kitchen Knives
To cook successfully, you need three essentials: fresh ingredients, proper techniques, and basic kitchen tools. Whether it's your mom's decades-old Henckel Pro S or your grandpa's Opinel paring knife, a reliable instrument in your hand will make any kitchen session a pleasant experience.
A good knife gives you the control you need to finish an intensive ingredient prep effectively. You won't need to sweat about your vegetables if you have an array of cutlery at your disposal. Knives are indeed a cook's best friend.
Buy a Quality Chef Knife
Sharpness may be the first thing that comes to mind when it comes to knives, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. As you gain more and more kitchen hours, you'll come to appreciate all the subtle details you'll find on an ordinary kitchen knife. From getting the right julienne to slicing perfect beef cubes, you'll realize that one size does not fit all. If your blade has the sharpest edge in the world, but the handle feels awkward in your hand, you'll never be able to get the most out of it. Below are some things to know when looking for a quality kitchen knife.
The material used plays a huge part in the quality of your knife. Most knives come with an edge right out of the box, but it takes a quality chef knife to hold adequate sharpness for a considerable amount of time. =A $20 knife may cut a tomato as quickly as a MAC MTH-80 on the first day, but you might find yourself with a dull edge after a few weeks of use. Trust us. A dull knife is as good as no knife at all.
With a dull edge, you’ll have to rely more on your arm strength to cut through food, leading to increased strain and fatigue. A high-quality kitchen knife may come with a hefty price tag. Still, if you're serious about your kitchen journey, it will more than pay for itself by providing you with a long-lasting edge, excellent resistance to corrosion, and a better performance overall that holistically supports all of your cutting agenda. Various materials are available for knife construction, from ceramic to metal—each with its own merits. Here are the most common materials used for top kitchen knives:
- High-Carbon Stainless Steel
The leading knife brands in the world like Henckel, Wusthof, and MAC lean on high-carbon stainless steel to forge their famed blades. Each company has its own secret cocktail mix of the alloy, differentiating in hardness and strength. High-carbon stainless steel knives are the pinnacle of knife materials since they don't rust easily, are easy to sharpen, and hold their edge for a long time.
- Carbon Steel
Many high-quality chef knives are forged out of carbon steel, a material made from a metal alloy consisting of two main elements: iron, and carbon. The carbon component gives the steel strength and durability, so it won't break easily and will hold an edge far longer than most metals. Carbon steel knives are a common sight in professional kitchens. However, there is a downside to this material in that it rusts relatively quickly and may impart a metallic or "iron" flavor to acidic foods.
- Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is one of the most widely used materials in knifemaking. It is an alloy of iron, approximately 10–15% chromium, possibly nickel, molybdenum, and with only a tiny amount of carbon. It is a much cheaper alternative to carbon steel but can still hold its ground in the kitchen. It's easy to sharpen and chops powerfully, and unlike carbon steel, it doesn't undergo rust and corrosion as quickly. Stainless steel is also relatively softer than carbon steel, and it may bend and require more sharpening. Some stainless steel knives are made with serrations, which slows dulling and allows them to cut well even as they grow dull.
- Damascus Steel
Damascus steel is not a specific material but a complex forging process of layering different steel types through heat or force to shape the layers into repeated folds. Most manufacturers use carbon steel for the internal core—so you get the same strength and durability—and stainless steel for the outer part, to protect against corrosion. Even so, artisans can get highly creative with what alloys they're using with each output combining the metals' strength.
Damascus steel is favored for its aesthetic. The two metals folding over each other create a unique and distinctive pattern. Real Damascus steel commands a hefty price tag in the market due to the expertise that goes into making it.
Ceramic knives are outstandingly sharp, lightweight, and cheap, plus they won't rust and require little sharpening. However, ceramic knives easily chip or break, and they're complex to sharpen because of their characteristic hardness. Ceramic knives are suitable for smaller blades, but for a real chef knife, you'll want to stick to the basics like carbon steel.
As we mentioned before, one size doesn't fit all. The right knife size is a function of the type of knife you're using, the amount of work, plus the kind of food you'll mostly be facing daily. Choosing the right size will ensure the perfect fit and a better slice. Here are a few examples of different knife sizes:
- Chef knife: The go-to size for a chef's knife is usually 8 inches, which allows you to work on just about anything. If you're feeding an army, a 14-inch knife will let you prepare the ingredients faster.
- Paring knife: These knives are much smaller than chef knives and are perfect for tasks requiring much precision like deveining shrimp or cutting fruits. Paring knives usually come in 3.25 to 4-inch sizes.
- Bread knife: To efficiently cut even the widest sourdoughs, a bread knife should be in the 8 to 10-inch range, so you can ideally cut all types of bread.
Weight and balance refer to the "feel factor" you would typically look for in a knife. Since others may prefer different knife weights, it is always ideal for cooks to audition a physical specimen before even making a purchase—feel the blade in your hand and handle it like you would in the kitchen. Is it too heavy or light? How's the balance? Some prefer knives a bit blade-heavy, so it tugs toward the food, but most people prefer the weight to be evenly distributed from the blade to the handle.
In the end, it's subjective to the person's cooking style. To choose the right weight for your knife, you need to rely on your senses. What works for Gordon Ramsay might not be suitable for you. A lightweight blade is optimized for speed and precision, whereas a heavy knife will do most of the work in cutting more complicated ingredients like fresh ginger, nuts, and more. When you go with a name brand like Wusthof or Messermeister, you can be assured that extensive research has gone into evenly balancing out the weight between the handle and the blade so that the knife will feel like an extension of your hand.
4. Forged or Stamped
In the past, forged blades were the only way to go and were a tell-tale sign that a blade was of the utmost quality. A piece of steel is forged by heating to a high temperature; the blade is then pounded into shape. This results in a change of the steel grains, which gives the material excellent hardness. Meanwhile, stamped blades are cut out directly from cold-rolled steel like a cookie and then ground down and sharpened. Although they do lack the benefits of hardness brought by forging, they are cheaper to produce and often perform very well.
The absence of a bolster often identifies stamped blades. In the modern knife era, with the accessibility of high-caliber steel and complex heat treatments, the difference between forged and stamped knives has slowly narrowed. You may find high-end stamped blades and low-quality forged blades in the market. However, most high-end quality kitchen knives will still fall in the forged category.
5. Design and Material
The basic outline hasn't changed beyond the blade-and-handle in a thousand years. What’s drastically changed are the type of materials used, which have gradually become more sophisticated and tailored, and the kind of treatments used. The handles have also come a long way from the past's wooden handles, with plastic and metal rapidly becoming the norm.
Most quality knives fall into three general categories: German-style, Japanese-style, or a mix of both. These countries have fostered knifemakers with centuries of experience, even dating back to the ancient wars that spurred this tremendous growth in traditional knife making that persists even to this day. German knives usually lean on the heavy side and are designed to withstand abuse. Japanese blades are thinner, lighter, and harder. However, this hardness makes the knife more brittle, and expect your Japanese Santoku to chip if you let it fall on your tile floor.
Tang and Bolster: Do They Actually Matter?
A full bolster accompanied by a full tang were markers of master-quality forged knives in the past. The tang refers to the blade's portion that extends into the handle, ranging from a full tang to a partial tang. A full tang usually equates to greater tensile strength, meaning the blade can handle high amounts of force without fracturing. While this may be useful for combat weapons like swords or spears, you won't necessarily be prying off blocks with your chef's knife, so in reality, a tang isn't all that important in considering your knife purchase. However, many renowned kitchen knife companies incorporate a full tang, giving you a more robust and tough-as-nails knife.
A bolster refers to the junction between the blade and the handle, providing a smooth transition while supporting the user's grip to lessen slippage and fatigue. It also helps the balance of the knife. A bolster signifies that the blade was forged out of one chunk of steel instead of a stamped knife. Nowadays, a full bolster or a partial bolster is usually a matter of preference, with most German knives sporting a full bolster.
In contrast, Japanese knives usually come with a partial bolster. They both come with their pros and cons. A partial bolster means the blade's entire length is available to cut and is easier to sharpen, whereas a full bolster provides better balance and a more comfortable grip.
Caring for Your Knife
Great quality kitchen knives will last you ages, but they’re delicate instruments that need periodic maintenance. To keep your knife at its best, you'll need to know the dos and don't of knife handling. Here are a few standard practices you can implement to keep your instrument always cut-ready:
Cleaning: Some knives are dish-washer-friendly, but we always recommend washing them by hand with soap and water and letting them dry thoroughly. The high temperature, strong detergents, and increased dishwasher movement aren't too good for your knife's health.
Sharpening: No knife will hold its edge forever. To keep your knife razor-sharp, having a whetstone handy is a convenient way to get your edge in top-notch form. But if you're a culinary whiz who's using dozens of good quality kitchen knives and don't have the time to sharpen them manually, you can always send them out to a professional sharpening service.
Storage: Chucking your high quality kitchen knives in the drawer proves harmful over time as the blade will keep getting knocked about by other materials in the drawer. This may lead to nicks and scratches that you wouldn't want on your precious carbon-steel metal. Our best suggestion is to cover the edge with a blade guard or invest in a top-rank knife block. Make sure your blade fits well in the knife block, or else it'll just move around, resulting in more damage to your knife.
Cutting Board: A good quality cutting board will help your knife keep its edge longer. There's debate going around whether to go with a wooden or plastic one. End-grain wooden cutting boards are generally considered to be the best due to their durability, minimal wear and tear on the knife-edge, and aesthetics. However, plastic cutting boards are merited for their easy handling and quick maintenance compared to wooden boards, which require more upkeep. As a consensus, marble and glass cutting boards are considered a no-no due to their hardness which can be too harsh for the blade's edge.
Different Types of Knives and Uses
When you ask what are the best kitchen knives, most people quickly picture a chef knife in their mind. The truth is, a chef knife is more of a comprehensive tool that will be able to accomplish many kitchen tasks, but that doesn't mean that it's the best tool for some jobs. As a cook, you need to identify what knife best suits a specific job. Doing so enables you to gain versatility and avoid delegating 90% of the workload on your poor chef's knife. Here are different types of knives you'll most likely start with in building your kitchen empire:
Chef or Cook's Knife
The creme de la creme of your cutlery pack, the chef's knife, is one of the most widely discussed when it comes to cutting ware. It is designed for slicing, chopping, and mincing ingredients. They say a chef's knife is the foundation on where your kitchen knife collection is built. Some would even say that it's the only knife you'll ever need. A chef knife can be as short as 6 inches and as long as a whopping 14 inches, the size varying according to the volume of food you'll be working with. The longer the knife, the faster you can cut through a high volume of ingredients.
Serrated Bread Knife
Don't be fooled by the name. A serrated bread knife isn't only for slicing up your loaves of bread. This blade's teeth are designed to grip food and keep it in place so that you can easily cut through fluffy cakes or softer meats and fruits without damaging the overall shape. A serrated bread knife is an excellent knife to add to your cutlery and an indispensable tool for those who work a lot with soft products like chiffons.
A smaller and lighter sibling of the chef's knife, utility knives are used for light cutting chores and generally measure around 5–7 inches. Utility knives can come with a serrated or straight edge. This knife is perfect for miscellaneous tasks around the kitchen, from slicing a sandwich to opening a package.
A short knife designed for paring and trimming vegetables and fruits and usually comes with a 2–4 inch blade. It is the best option for precision tasks due to its lightweight and short, straight edges.
A boning knife is a slender and pointed blade designed for boning or breaking down significant meats and poultry cuts, usually with a 6-inch blade. Boning knives can be flexible or stiff depending on their use. The flexible boning knife is appropriate for deboning work, while a stiff one is well-suited for cutting down large slabs of meats into cookable parts. If you're handling large volumes of meat, a boning knife will make it easier to handle.
A flexible and thin blade perfect for prepping your boneless fish n' chips. The blade's unique shape and thinness allow you to make a slice just beneath the skin surface and get a clean slab of fish meat in a single sweep. A thicker knife would leave your fish in tatters. To get a professional cut, investing in a filleting knife is necessary.
The brawn of the pack, cleavers are made for heavy-duty tasks like cutting through bones, thick meats, and vegetables with ease. The choppers wide blade will have the most excellent chopping power in your cutlery collection and will cut down your prep time when it comes to challenging or bulky ingredients.
Anyone who aspires to do kitchen work will get to appreciate the joys of using a quality kitchen knife at one point or another. From an outsider's view, a $500 knife will look just about the same as a $50 one, but a kitchen connoisseur will know, and at a glance, be able to tell the quality only by holding up the specimen.
If you're walking through your first kitchen steps, it's important to remember that a kitchen knife can cut your finger just as quickly as it can a tuna slab, and how you hold the food while cutting is just as necessary as how you deliver the cut. Learning the proper techniques from a seasoned chef will not only help you work safely but will also assist you in making great leaps in your kitchen skills— enabling you to work faster and better to make a satisfying and heartwarming dish.
Knife skills are very subtle, and adjustments are made in the details that would otherwise go over your head can differentiate between a lackluster dish and a restaurant-worthy one. The market offers plenty of choices for the budding chef, from cheap and run-of-the-mill blades to stellar and hair-splitting sharp knives that will get the job done. You'll save more money by spending well on your first knife and saving yourself all the stress and frustration that a cheap blade will give you.