Kitchen Knives 101 and Knife Buying

We carry the finest kitchen cutlery available.  Our hope is that the following will help you select a set of knives for you to enjoy and use.  With so many kitchen knives available it can be hard to choose which knife is best for you.  Don’t worry we are here to help.  Let’s break the kitchen knife down to it’s components of purpose, blade styles, materials & design, determine how many knives you will need, and finally dispel some myths. 

The knife’s purpose does not define how the knife looks, but rather what the knife is used for – such as choping vegetables, boning chicken or fish, slicing, or cleaving through a stack of ribs.

Blade Style
The blade style defines the look, shape, thickness, handle, and type of grind for a specific purpose. For example a traditional Chinese vegetable chopping knife is the Chinese Cleaver, in Japan the same knife is either the Santuko or Usuba knife, and in Europe and the US we think of the standard chef’s knife.  The look, shape, thickness, handles and type of edge grind have all evolved based on the cutting task and the ergonomics needed to accomplish the purpose and cutting requirements. Blade style also encompasses other features such as the Mac Knife’s safety rounded tip, which reduces accidents in the tight and cramped confines of restaurant kitchens. 

Blade style is important in determining the right tool for the right job. As a chef you may prefer to have several knives which accomplish the same purpose, but have different blades styles for different types of cooking.  If you tend to do more Asian style cooking, preparation for those meals and their related cutting tasks can be easier with Asian style knives.  Making sushi is a good example of this concept.  Although a standard slicing knife can do the job, the Yanagi Sashimi knife has evolved, over hundreds of years, specifically for this delicate task and will provide all levels from the novice to the expert much better results than any other style of knife.

Materials & Design
Materials are really where professional knives separate themselves from lower quality knives.  The better the grade and type of steel the better the knife.  The higher quality steel ultimately holds an edge and cuts better and longer than a comparable style knife with a lesser grade and type of steel.

Knife steels have advanced quite a bit in the last decade.  In fact, a steel called VG-10, a cobalt based steel, was designed specifically for the cutlery industry.  The pinnacle of knife steels are used in Damascus knives such as the Kasumi and Shun knife brands which have the VG-10 steel cutting edge core forged inside beautiful multi-layered stainless steel that adds strength – thin and strong.  The most common type of premium steel is Chromium-Vanadium (Chromova or CrV) which you will find in Global, Mac, Messermeister, and Bunmei.  Although, Chromium-Vanadium grades of steel will vary, even in its less optimal forms, it is still superior to many steels used in cutlery.  Swiss Inox steel is another steel which is a good but less expensive cutlery steel used in the Forschner line. Inox steel will not hold an edge quite as well as the other premium steels, but it re-sharpens very easily, and has a very high stain and rust resistance. 

Design focuses on combining the purpose, blade style, and materials with aesthetics.  Handle materials and the aesthetic design of the knife range from visual appeal to durability to price.  After the purpose and style of knife has been chosen, then decide on the various design options that fit your needs.

How many knives should I have?
This really depends on you and your cooking style, however most people will need at the very least a paring knife, a 5″-6″ utility knife, and a 7″-10″ chef/chopping knife.  If you slice a lot of bread, bone meats, make sushi, …then adding a dedicated knife for each purpose will make each task more enjoyable and a little easier.

Dispelling Some Myths
Contrary to popular opinion, a dishwasher is no place for your kitchen knives.The two primary reasons are: abrasives and heat.  Abrasives will dull the fine edge of your knife within one or two washings. The heat can crack the knife handle and will re-temper the knives over time to the point where they will no longer hold an edge with any amount of sharpening and will need to be replaced.

Many people have been mis-informed that German knives are always the best.  We see a lot of knife brands from a variety of countries and that statement would be a very bold statement regarding any country.  In reality we have seen some truly great German knives such as the Messermeister line of cutlery, which features all the best that German knives have to offer.  Conversely, we have also seen some other popular German knife brands which, in our opinion, have either let their quality slip and just don’t measure up to our standards of fit, finish, and quality.

We are asked frequently where to find a Solingen Brand knife.  Solingen is a town in Germany which was the epicenter of steel manufacturing in Germany much as Seki City in Japan is today.  Today manufacturers located in Solingen Germany typically make blades for other companies, you will see the word Solingen stamped on the tang of the knife, if it was made there.

Surgical grade steel is a broad term which really means very little other than that the steel is unlikely to form rust quickly. When a knife is advertised as Surgical Steel or Rostifre’ (Rust-Free), it usually indicates a lower grade steel and knife.  As an example, your everyday flatware is surgical grade steel, however it is very unlikely that they would either produce a good edge or maintain it very long.  As a result, all premium grade steels are surgical grade, however most steels are not premium grade.  Like comparing a Yugo to a Ferrari, premium steels do cost more to manufacture and finish and the end result is a knife that is more expensive but will deliver much better performance.

Ice Hardened is another relatively meaningless term that is mentioned quite a bit in marketing and advertising.  In truth all quality knives are heated and cooled in various combinations to strike a balance between durability (flex) and hardness (edge holding).

Cutting boards do matter.  With the exception of those pretty cuts a sharp knife will leave on your kitchen counter, it is a very bad idea from a knife’s perspective to cut on anything other than a wooden cutting board or a soft plastic cutting board.  A hard cutting surface does two things – artificially dulls the cutting edge on your knife faster than it normally would and a hard surface also can prevent a knife from completing it’s cut.  To do it’s job, a knife must pass through the food and slightly into the cutting surface.  Clean fast chopping is almost impossible on a hard cutting surface. As a general rule, if you can’t make an indentation or mark with your finger or thumbnail into the cutting surface it is to hard to cut on with fine kitchen cutlery.

The greatness and quality of those infamous knives as-seen-on-TV and sold door to door remains a great topic of debate.  Without a doubt everyone should have at least one of these serrated hand held chain saws to cut those things you would not think of using that brand new $80 knife on, such as; frozen food, wire or plastic turkey ties, hobby/household cutting chores, light pruning or even occasional aluminum can cutting. 

Although a good quality set of knives may be ill-designed for the destruction that can be wrought with a cheap serrated knife, they are perfectly designed for helping you prepare a lifetime of wonderful meals.

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