My Kingdom for a Knife: All About Knives
By Prof. Steve Holzinger
The Chefs knife is the most basic and important tool in the kitchen. One of the first questions I was asked on the eGG on AOL's "Ask The Prof" message board was this:
"Hello. My girlfriend and I are avid cooks and are anxious to upgrade our kitchen tools. We decided to treat ourselves to a new set of cooking knives, but we were hoping for advice as to which brand to buy. Can anyone guide us through the Henckels, Wusthofs and other spendy cutlery out there?" (nb 1)
I said, "Get one that fits. Fits your hand, fits your style of work, fits your pocketbook, but get a good one." In a discussion of knifes on the professional Chefs list, almost every brand was listed by one chef or another, as his or her favorite knife. What became perfectly clear to me is that no one knife suits everyone. This is not to say that there are not significant differences between similar designs of knife of different brands. I prefer Wusthoff for myself, and make no bones about it. You may quite correctly differ, and must choose for yourself. When you choose, there are very important differences that you need to understand about buying a knife that I will explain.
In my opinion, the worst mistake you can make is to buy a cheap knife. A good knife is a lifetime investment, and the few dollars more that you will pay is not as important as buying the right knife. You will also need to sharpen and maintain your knife and use it safely. I will do another article on how to use your knife soon.
To understand knives, you must first begin with the process by which knives are made, and their anatomy. Here from the "Well Tooled Kitchen," by Jean R. Tibbets (co-author), who has written the definitive book on kitchenware, and who is a partner in one of New York City's leading kitchenware companies, is a description of the two ways of making knives.
Stamped vs. Forged Blades
Knife blades are either stamped or forged, and the difference in quality and handling is evident in balance, as it is in any fine hand tool.
A stamped blade—which is die cut in a press bearing the basic blade configuration—is lighter and less expensive than a forged blade. Its steel is comparatively thin and flat to allow for stamping and reduced production costs, but the final product—after numerous processes including grinding and polishing—is a simple, clean-edged tool that is back heavy in the hand. More forward pressure is needed to cut and more forward gripping to compensate for the weighting.
The better-balanced forged knife begins as a steel blank that is heated to a high temperature, set into a die, and struck with a multi ton hammer to form the basic blade. The metal is then hardened through heating to temperatures up to 1700 degrees F and cooled in a caustic chemical bath to contract the steel and make it dense. This produces a brittle blade, so a second heating and cooling treatment relaxes internal stress and makes the blade more flexible. Successive coarse to fine grindings create the taper and impart the desired amount of flexibility. The greater attention creates a heavier, tougher, more front-weighted blade with a distinct bolster, a thick band of steel that lies flush against and perpendicular to the handle. (nb 2)
If you talk to older chefs like me, they will extol the virtues of carbon steel knives. Carbon steel takes and holds a cutting edge easily, and sharpens quickly. I love my 25 year old carbon steel knives and would not trade them for anything. True, they get rusty and discolored if you let them, but I take care of them, like good and trusted friends. They only get rusty if you leave them wet, so I dry them. If they get discolored, I can shine them with a little scouring powder on a cork, or brillo. I don't often do this, as the dull appearance does not effect their use at all. I don't use them for cutting acid fruits like lemons, as this does discolor them badly. I don't put them in the dishwasher, either, as the wood handles will crack.
Of course, the newer designs have plastic handles, and in white or black, with dishwasher safe handles, and totally rustfree blades. Old guys like me had a prejudice against stainless steel knives. We used stainless steel knives for garde manger work where we worked with citrus fruits, oranges, grapefruits, lemons and the like, that would blacken our knives and rub off on the work if they were carbon steel. We didn't like them because stainless steel was too hard, and was therefore difficult to sharpen. I even had a glass knife once. I say once, because like all glass, it was brittle and broke. Talk about sharp! It had a razor edge. I haven't seen one in years, and wish I could find one.
The new rustfree blades are a new kind of stainless steel that sharpens easily. The ones I am buying to replace my 25+ year old carbon steel Wusthofs, as the handles get cracked, are the new hot-drop forged high carbon no-stain steel. It is surgical quality steel, with small proportions of carbon, chromium, molybdenum and vanadium added. They even write the formula on the blade! If anything, these blades are sharper and just as easy to sharpen, and hold the edge longer. The reason I like them now is the same reason I liked them then, and the reason you should consider first. I like them because they feel comfortable in my hand. You may never spend an entire day with a knife in your hand, but I have spent many, and I can tell you that the feel and balance of a knife are as important as its steel A well designed knife feels comfortable in your hand, and like any good tool, does the work for you the way you want it to, with ease. Ask any craftsman who uses an edged tool. Most people buy too big a Cooks knife the first time. I have big hands, and yet my first choice of knife is an 8 inch regular design cooks knife. I use an 8 inch wider design cooks knife for heavy work. The regular design is 1-3/4 inches at the heel, weighing 7 ounces, and the wide design is 2-3/16 inches at the heel and weighs about 10 ounces. If you are a person with small hands, a 5 or 6 inch cooks knife may be right for you. Many of my students found it made a big difference to them. I'm afraid most experts disagree with me, but thats the way I see it. Twelve and fourteen inch cooks knives are virtually useless for the home cook. Don't make the mistake of trying to use a paring knife, however good, to do the work of the cooks knife. I find the 4-1/2 inch utility knife more useful than the 3 inch paring knife, but I still won't use it to chop, slice or julienne. It is too short and light for that.
When I was explaining the difference between two knives of very similar design, I mentioned the heel of the knife. You may ask, "What is that?" An anatomy lesson on the knife is in order. While I'm at it, I'll be telling you how to recognize a well-made knife.
A knife blade starts at the point and ends in the Tang, which is the part that is hidden in the handle. A full tang, running the length of the handle to the butt gives the knife better balance and strength. Three rivets hold the handles on the blade in better knives. Cheap ones use only two and a 3/4 or rattail tang. Where the handle is molded around the knife with no rivets, chances are you have a short tang and poor balance. A nicely curved butt on the knife makes it easy to hold and less easy to slip out of the hand. The handle should be virtually indestructible, hi impact resistant plastic, unaffected by moisture, acids or dish washing water, chemicals or temperatures. The handle must fit perfectly to be hygienic, safe and durable. Wood handles are beautiful, but alas, not as durable as modern plastics. Even with good care, mine are starting to go after twenty years or so.
Does anyone know someone who can replace handles? Probably costs more than a new knife!
The blade, (spear type point shown here) from tip to bolster must be precision ground to create the ergonometrics of the blades geometry. Perfect tapering from the bolster to the tip, and from the spline to the edge, with a smooth satin finish, free of any minute imperfections is the sin non qua for a knife that must last a lifetime. The edge, where all the work is finally done, must be honed with uniform cutting angles so that it is sharp and will stay sharp. Scalloped or wave cut edges are OK on a carving knife, where they don't take heavy use, but on a cooks knife I don't like any kind of a fancy edge. I especially don't like serrated edges. The blade must have a gentle uniform curve that allows the easy rocking motion of the knife when chopping. The solid, balanced bolster must put the balance of the knife where the chef's hand needs it, so that precision work can be done at the point, and power strokes at the heel. Look at the spline of the knife from above. This will show you the difference between a stamped and forged blade. A stamped blade will be the same thickness the length of the knife, and have no bolster. A forged blade will be thickest at the bolster, and taper to the point, just as the knife will be thickest at the spline, tapering down to the edge. Look for a change in color of the spline near the bolster. This indicates that a tang has been welded to a partially forged blade. This is not the same as a fully forged blade, and I have heard of cases where the knife breaks at the weld when dropped.
Well, that is almost it about the basics of knives, although there is lots more to tell you. I should however mention the two worst things you can do to a knife.
- Cut on a hard surface not meant for knives.
- Throw the knife in a drawer with other cooking utensils.
This means you need two more pieces of equipment. A sanitary cutting board and a knife rack. There are magnetic knife racks and wooden knife blocks. I prefer the magnetic racks, as they are easy to keep clean and the knives are fully visible. Add a carrying case if the word gets out that you can carve. Comes the holiday season, I never visit anyone's house without my carving and sharpening tools in the back of the car. As a matter of fact, I often buy a few Wusthoff paring or utility knives for house gifts. It is the most welcome small gift you can bring. Friends still show me their "favorite" knife when I visit years later. I re sharpen it for them.
By the way, Chip Fisher and Jean Tibbetts of Lamalle Kitchenware were most generous in their time and help to me in putting this article together. You can get everything you need from them. Mike Lomanaco, Chef of the "21" Club calls Lamalle, "Disneyland." and I drool over the Lamalle copper pots. You won't beat their price or service on Wusthoff knives! They have them all. (nb 3)
Hans R. Rathsack of Wusthof-Trident of America was also very generous in providing illustrative materials for this article. I guess he knows an old customer when he sees one. Wusthoff knives have been my personal favorites for thirty years and longer. Ninety-five percent of the time, if I'm cutting something, it's with a Wusthoff knife.
1. NevStein 95-05-05 AOL, The eGG message baord, Ask The Prof, question.
2. The Well-Tooled Kitchen, Fred Bridge and Jean F. Tibbetts, Hearst Books, New York, 1991
3. Lamalle Kitchenware, 36 West 25th Street, NY, NY 10010. Customer Service 212/242-0750 or order line 800/660-0750. Don't be surprised if Jean herself answers the customer service phone, as she enjoys giving her expert advice to customers.
©1996, Steve K. Holzinger. All rights reserved.
This page modified February 2007