Knives are among a chef’s most indispensable tools in the kitchen and are made for a variety of tasks from paring vegetables, to fish filleting and slicing a roast The two main styles of cutlery are European designs from Germany, France, and Switzerland, that are stocky and sturdy, and Japanese designs that are sleeker and lighter. Decidedly different in grip and feel each have their advantages. The metals used in cutlery vary in hardness and edge, and the handles are important for proper grip and and comfort during cutting. Because knives are so personal, and because so much in the kitchen is dependent on good knife skills, take the time to find a quality set of knives that works for you. Visit a cutlery store so you can actually feel how the knife is in your hand. A good knife will reduce physical stress on the hand and wrist, and make work in the kitchen go smoother and easier.
Types of Metal
Every manufacturer has their own recipe for the metals they use that includes ingredients like high carbon steel, chrome, molybdenum, vanadium and tungsten carbide. High Carbon steel is made from iron and 0.5-1.5% carbon. Carbon provides hardness and helps to maintain the sharpness of the blade. The hardness of the metal takes more skill to sharpen the edge, but also means that it can be more brittle. The hardness of the metal is determined by the Rockwell Hardness Scale with most quality knives in the 55-60 range. Japanese knives tend to be at the 60 hardness level requiring more maintenance, while German knives are in the 55 range requiring less maintenance.
Other additives contribute various properties to kitchen blade steel. Chromium adds hardness but also allows the knife to hold an edge longer and is resistant to tarnishing and rusting. Vanadium allows a knife to retain an extra-sharp edge, while Molybdenum and Manganese contribute hardness and wear-resistance.
440/440A/440B/440C – High carbon alloys with increased carbon content. 440A is a lower quality while 440C is better quality
Damascus Steel – Not a type of metal but an ancient process of creating wave or water patterns on the blade
Powder Steel (SG-2) - A relatively new process for Japanese cutlery which involves mixing very finely ground powders of various metals, compressing them into shape and then heating them so they bond together. It allows for very hard metals in the range of 60-65 on the Rockwell scale
VG-10 – Traditionally used in Japanese knives has superior sharpness, VG-1 is a variant but not quite as sharp as the VG-10
What's in a Chef Knife
Knives often are stamped with a series of letters and digits; here's how to decipher them.
X50CrMo15 - The two digits after the X indicate the percentage of Carbon in the steel (X50 means 0.50%, X75 means 0.75%, etc.). The final two digits indicate the percentage of all the other elements combined. Cr indicates the presence of Chromium, Mo indicates Molybdenum, while V indicates Vanadium.
Stamped or Forged?
Stamped knives are made from cut outs of rolled steel. The blades are machine tempered, sharpened, and finished. The steel used for stamped knives tend to be softer and lighter and the knives lack the balance of forged knives therefore requiring a firmer grip and more pressure when in use. Stamped knives are usually priced lower than forged cutlery.
Forged knives originally were handcrafted using a process of heating metals bars, setting them in a die and hammering them into a desired shape.
Today, modern forged knives are first stamped and then forged using a hydraulic hammer press to pound the steel using a die or mold. Once shaped, the knife goes through up to 50 additional steps that require heating and tempering at temperatures up to 2200°F to create the final product. Some of these steps are done through machines and others are done by hand. Forged knives tend to have more weight and balance which helps when doing a lot of dicing or chopping.
Anatomy of a Knife
A knife consists of two basic components the blade and the handle. A forged knife will have a one piece blade construction that includes the bolster and tang.
Bolster – A thick band of steel between the blade and the handle that is useful when gripping and also add balances to the knife. German made knives tend to have bolsters, Japanese commonly don’t
Butt – End of the knife handle
Edge - The sharpened part of the blade that extends from the heel to the tip
Handle – Handles can be riveted, cemented, or glued, ideally resist germs and water penetration, and are constructed in ways not break or separate from the tang
Heel - The heel is the rear portion of the blade and is most often used to cut through a thick or resistance product which requires more force
Point – The pointed top of the blade
Spine - The spine is the back side of the blade opposite the edge
Tang - The tang is usually found in forged knives and is an extension of the blade through the handle. The tang adds balance and durability
Tip - The tip is the front part of the blade that does most of the cutting and separating
Types of Edges
Cutlery is designed with various styles of edges that have subtle differences . Most Western-style knives produced in Europe and the United States have a double edge blade that is some variation of the V-edge. Japanese knives traditionally were ground to a single-edge, or chisel edge, and produced in right-hand or left-hand variations. Today however, Japanese cutlery routinely produces double-edge blades such as Shun or GLOBAL brands.
Double-Edge - Most Western made knives have a double edge
Single-Edge - Japanese knives commonly have a single edge
Straight Edge - Formed by grinding the blade in a straight line and tapering it to a razor sharp edge, also called flat grind
V-Edge is the most common type of edge found on western-style knives produced in Europe and the United States. The blade is ground at a 20 degree angle on both sides to produce a V-shape.
Bevel Edge, also known as a compound bevel, is a variation of the V-edge that has a V-stacked on top of a double edged blade
Convex Edge is a arcing blade that slopes to a rounded edge
Hollow Ground Edge is created by grinding from just below the midpoint of the blade to form concave sides that come to a very thin cutting edge
Chisel Edge is found on Japanese cutlery and is know as a single edge because one side is straight and the other side is tapered to an edge
Granton Edge is sometimes referred to as a hollow grind but it is actually a scalloped edge that keeps food from sticking to the blade when slicing.
Serrated Edge -Is a single edge blade with arcs that can cut through items that have a tough outer shell or skin including bread and tomatoes
Choosing a Chef Knife
Hold the knife and evaluate it for comfort, balance, and weight. Do you like the shape of the handle? How does the grip feel? Is there enough clearance in the handle to prevent your knuckles from hitting the cutting board when cutting? How is the weight and balance of the knife? A certain amount of weight is good because, coupled with gravity, it will make chopping or dicing easier so your hand, wrist, and arm will feel less fatigue. Does the knife hold an edge over prolonged use or does it get dull easily?
While a chef knife is probably the tool you will use the most in the kitchen, you will also need a variety of other knives for tasks beyond dicing, chopping, and mincing. Boning knives are useful for fabricating meat, poultry, and fish, while scimitars are used for portioning meats. A cleaver is useful for cutting or chopping bones. Paring knives are used for trimming and turning vegetables, carving and slicing knives are used for roasted meats and poultry.