The Right Tool for the Right Job - Understanding your kitchen knives
This story is reproduced courtesy of Culinaire Magazine
If you’ve planned ahead and started your garden or containers in the spring, you’re probably harvesting the first fruits of your labour, picking spring radishes, lettuces and the like, and you feel invincible. After all, you’ve created food from seeds. Let the lay people buy their cherry tomatoes, yours are ripening on the vine, just steps away from your kitchen. You are ready to move to the countryside.
And, you might even be inspired to get some new kitchen tools and knives. After all, why shouldn’t you want tools that make your ingredients shine? Heck, if you’ve ever watched Forged in Fire, you might even have thought about learning to forge knives so strong that you can cut through whole animals like butter.
Alas, as fun as it is to watch, it’s reality TV, and beautiful knives require time, science and know-how, and a good one can last for generations.
So what’s a “good” knife?
It is fundamentally important to distinguish between a hard knife and a tough knife. A hard knife can retain a very sharp edge, but it’s far from indestructible. Conversely, softer steels are not delicate. They can handle a lot of stress, but they will not stay as sharp as hard steel.
Both the metal and the forging method affect the outcome of a knife. One of the determinants of the hardness of a knife, and one of the first considerations when buying a knife, is the steel that it uses.
“Stainless steel won’t rust, but it never cuts as nicely, and generally doesn’t stay sharp as long as carbon steel knives,” explains Kevin Kent, founder and owner of Knifewear stores across the country. “But carbon steel knives can rust.”
There’s also high carbon stainless steel, which was developed to achieve hardness without discolouration.
Another type of steel that achieves the best of both worlds is laminated steel, where a hard steel designed to be the edge of the knife is sandwiched between two softer and tougher steels.
Even with the same steel, different methods of knifemaking - stamped or forged - can create knives with completely different profiles.
With stamped knives, which is the most common, knives are stamped from sheets of rolled steel. “Think of it like sugar cookies,” says Kent, whose shops carry a range of both stamped knives and forged knives. “So you buy a sheet of sugar cookie dough and you have a knife-shaped cookie cutter and you punch it out.”
Forged knives are repeatedly heated and hammered by hand, until the steel takes on the shape of a knife. From there, it is quenched, tempered, annealed, ground, and polished.
While a stamped knife can be very strong and also goes through a heat treat process that hardens the blade, it doesn’t benefit from the hammering that forged knives do, which builds up the integrity.
Shun knives, made with VG10 steel, are an excellent example of an entry level, mass produced Japanese knife. They’re made with VG10 sheets, cut, ground, heat treated and sharpened, and by all measures, they are great knives.
“But if you get a VG10 steel knife made by a master blacksmith who’s hammered it,” says Kent, “that VG10 steel is tougher and will stay sharp longer than the one that was stamped.”
That difference is what makes stamped knives comparatively more affordable.
Zwilling J. A. Henckels, one of the most well-known knife manufacturers in the world, has multiple product lines that span across both European style and Japanese style, from the popular Twin series to the Kramer series that was developed with renowned Master Blacksmith Bob Kramer, all with different grades of steel and different hardening processes.
So what’s with the obsession with Japanese knives?
“I always say that a Japanese knife is like a Ferrari and any other knife is like a 4x4 truck, really rugged,” says Kent.
Japanese knives are typically made with much harder steel, like powder steel, which enables them to be sharper and to stay sharper longer.
In addition, Japanese blades are typically thinner, which contributes to them being sharper, but it also means they’re not as rugged as a German knives. Whereas European kitchen knives are ground to around 20° for their blade angle, Japanese single-bevel edges are ground to around 15°, with Zwilling’s Miyabi knives ground to a blade angle of 9° to 12°, according to Brad Prystupa, territory manager of Zwilling J. A. Henckels Canada.
Unlike in Forged in Fire or late night infomercials, the best knife isn’t necessarily the one that slices through military boots and a pile of bricks, or hacks through ice blocks and bamboo.
Regardless of the steel, the best knife is the one that feels the most balanced to you and does the job best, which means that you’ll need a range of knives to complete all the different tasks in the kitchen.
In other words, you’ll need knives, lots of knives.
Arguably the most important knife in your collection, or probably the first knife you’ve ever bought, this all-purpose knife is the one you’ll rely on 80 percent of the time. The one knife to rule them all, this multipurpose blade will get you through most of what you need to do: cutting, slicing, and chopping.
This type of knife generally has a wide blade, anywhere from 15 to 30 cms long, and has an edge that curves upward toward the tip.
Though cutting vegetables may seem boring, here’s where you’ll find the most variety of knives designed for the job. From the European chef’s knife, Japanese nakiri, to the Chinese chef’s knife (not to be confused with a cleaver), there’s something for everyone, and every cutting style.
Also called a cleaver, but different from a Chinese chef’s knife, butcher’s knives are big, hefty, and really the only knives meant to hack through ribs and other thick bones. Forget for a moment all the things you just read about sharp edges and thin blades. This knife is swung like a hatchet to cut through bones with force. European, Japanese and Chinese knife makers all make this heavy and sturdy rectangular blade.
Boning knife or filleting knife
Now that you’ve taken the big cuts apart, you’ll need something thinner to strip meat from bones with precision. While they’re not interchangeable, both are thin, narrow and meant to get into crevices with a small tip to remove flesh from bones. The filleting knife is flexible enough for the blade to get in parallel to the spine of the fish.
If you’ve ever attempted sushi making at home, you probably found it difficult to slice fish in one fluid motion like you’ve witnessed at the sushi bar. Experience and mastery aside, the knife makes a big difference in the ability to get thin, even slices. This is the kind of knife you’ll want for slicing turkey breast and prime rib, in addition to fish. Yanagiba and sujihiki both fall under this category.
Designed for small jobs like peeling potatoes and apples, deveining shrimp and slicing garlic for pasta sauce, this little blade likely isn’t going to kill anything but it will negotiate curves and bumps of knobby vegetables like a dream. Sometimes made with a curve and called a bird’s beak knife, these tiny knives are small, but essential to any kitchen.
Regardless of the knife, you need to take care of it to help it stay sharp for longer. Both Kent and Prystupa advise against putting knives in the dishwasher. This means you should hand wash them in soapy water and hand dry them well. Then, store your knives in a way that their edges won’t get banged around, such as in a knife block.
You’ll also want your knives sharpened regularly by a professional. Honing rods and sharpening steels will correct minor wear until the blade is simply too dull, chipped, or the angle is too far off to be fixed at home.
“Think of that honing rod like it’s a comb,” explains Kent. “It makes your hair look good until you need a haircut. That honing rod will make your knife sharp for longer until it doesn’t anymore.”
Diana is a co-founder of EatNorth.com, freelance food writer, and digital media strategist who will eat your food when you’re not looking.
In brackets if required:
You’ll need a range of knives to complete all the different tasks
Beautiful knives require time, science and know-how
A good knife can last for generations