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Guide to Kitchen Knives

Posted by on 2/16/2018

Knives come in many different varieties and it can be overwhelming trying to find what kind of knife you need. There are all sorts of things to consider from how it's made, what it's made from, and what is its purpose? Here is a compiled guide about kitchen knives and their uses in an effort to help make the purchasing experience less bewildering.

Knife Hardness

Knife hardness is a term used to describe how resistant a material is to changes in its shape when under different types of pressure or force. Materials with a high hardness won't change shape as easily as materials with low hardness. A knife's hardness factors into the performance and longevity of the blade. Hardness does not necessarily mean better even though it may seem like it. Hardness does not always indicate higher durability, only how "rigid" the molecular structure of the material is. Harder materials will naturally have less "give" than softer materials when subjected to pressure, impact, and other types of stress. Even though there are obvious benefits to having a knife with high hardness, there are also downsides: they are more rigid thus making them more brittle and susceptible to cracking and chipping. Another negative feature is that they do not show any preliminary signs of stress or damage. Softer materials show early indications of damage by warping, bending, or twisting, so you are aware of the damage and can have it fixed or replaced before it completely tears up. The knives made of a harder material will remain rigid until the pressure is too much for the knife to handle. This means that the knife can break unexpectedly, which is not a good thing to have happen mid food preparation.

The challenge lies in having a knife that balances the hardness and softness of the metal. Hard materials hold a sharper edge for longer periods of use than soft materials, but if the knife is too hard it is likely to chip and crack. Soft materials make for a more resilient structure that is less likely to break and easier to fix, but if the material is too soft, it won’t stay sharp and it is not likely to be particularly effective against other hard materials. So, when shopping for a knife, look for knifes that place emphasis on their edge holding ability rather than their hardness. All-purpose kitchen knives should incorporate a balance of hard and soft material properties.

Forged vs. Stamped

Forged blades are created through a long, multi-step process in which the metal is heated to a high temperature and then beaten to form the shape of the blade. Once the metal has cooled, the blade is then ground and sharpened. Stamped blades on the other hand, are cut, by stamping, from a sheet of steel. The stamped blades are then heat treated for added strength before they are ground and sharpened. The primary difference between stamped and forged blades is that forged blades tend to be stronger. The impact from the hammer during forging creates localized compressive forces around each impact site. This results in a stronger and more resilient blade than the stamped blades. However, forged blades tend to cost a lot more than the mass produced stamped blades due to the highly skilled physical labor that goes into making them.

Full Tang vs. Partial Tang

Another thing to consider about your knife is the tang. Tang is the portion of the blade that extends down into the handle. A full tang knife has a tang that extends through the full grip of the handle. Typically, the tang of a full tang knife is actually the backbone of the handle, with pieces of wood, plastic, or composite affixed to either side of the tang to complete the grip. A partial tang knife features a shorter tang that does not extend the full length of the handle. The handles of partial tang knives are manufactured separately, and are fitted around the tang of the blade and held in place by adhesives, bolts, or screws. Because full tang knives are made of one continuous piece of metal, they are going to be stronger than partial tang knives. The additional metal in the handle also helps to balance the weight of the knife, making them much easier to control. Because full tang knives last longer, they will be more expensive than partial tang knives.


While other materials like ceramics are sometimes used, the majority of knives will be comprised of carbon steel, stainless steel, or laminated steel. Carbon steel blades are made of iron that has been alloyed with a high amount of carbon. They high carbon content creates a strong blade that is easy to sharpen and will hold an edge for longer periods of him than a stainless steel blade. The increased sharpness of carbon steel blades makes them a popular choice among professional chefs, but the high carbon content makes the metal more vulnerable to rust, stains, oxidation, and corrosion than stainless steel. This makes carbon steel knives a more maintenance oriented investment. Stainless steel is the most common material used in most kitchen tools, especially in commercial kitchens. Although they are harder to sharpen and will need to be sharpened more frequently, the alloying materials in stainless steel produce a blade that is highly resistant to rust, stainless, and corrosion. Stainless steel requires less maintenance, making them ideal for everyday use. A laminated knife is a blade made of a layered composite of both materials. Soft, resilient steel is typically used to form the backing and exterior of the blade to resist wear, while the edge is formed from a harder, more brittle steel to maintain sharpness.

Chef’s Knives

Chef knives are the most versatile knife that one can have in a kitchen. The long, gently curved blade gives the chef’s knife a sort of “generic” versatility that allows it to be effective in most situations. While it may not be quite as well equipped to chop hard foods like a cleaver, or offer the precise maneuverability of a paring knife, the chef’s knife is still typically the go-to tool for all-purpose chopping power in the kitchen. Most standard chef’s knives measure at about 8 inches long, and are usually about 1.5 inches wide at their widest point, offsetting the handle from the knife’s edge for extra leverage and grip. The shape of the chef’s knife allows for it to be used to chop, slice, mince, and even crush ingredients with little need for the user to change his or her grip.

Meat Cleavers

Cleavers are rugged, rectangular-bladed knives that are most commonly used for quickly chopping through bone in large cuts of meat. They can also be used for chopping up large fruits and vegetables that would otherwise be difficult with a regular kitchen knife. The broad side of the knife also makes it a handy tool for crushing garlic or ginger during food preparation, or the blunt, flat back edge can be used for tenderizing meat in the absence of a regular meat tenderizer. Even though it can be a versatile tool, the primary function of a cleaver is to break large, difficult pieces of food into smaller, more manageable pieces of food.

Hacking through bone and dense vegetables requires a significant amount of force and momentum. This makes the cleaver (along with the meat tenderizer) one of the only kitchen tools that are designed to be swung like a hammer. The cleaver has to be a tough knife to withstand repeated blows against the chopping block. The edge of the blade is offset very far away from the handle so that the user does not hit her hand on the cutting surface when performing forceful cuts. Also, because of the edge's width, it absorbs more force so that it is not as likely to break. The blades are also wider and heavier to help generate the momentum needed for cutting through thick meats. Because cleavers are used more as a wedge than a slicing tool, their edges do not need to be kept particularly sharp. In fact, most cleaver blades will be relatively blunt compared to most knives. Although a cutting edge should be maintained, the edge should resemble an ax or hatchet instead of a carefully honed chef's knife. If a cleaver is too sharp, it is more likely to buckle under the forceful impact to the chopping block. Harder metals do not absorb impact very well so good cleavers are made from softer metals. Hardened steel might seem appealing at first, but it will not withstand long term, forceful use. Because it is one of the most abused tools in a kitchen, it wouldn't be very economical to purchase an expensive and high end cleaver seeing as it will need to be replaced. Mid-grade cleavers will do the job and when it comes time to replace it, it won't break the bank.

Paring Knives

Along with the chef's knife, paring knives are one of the most commonly used pieces of cutlery in most home and professional kitchens. Although small, the paring knife is one of most versatile food preparation tools that a chef can have; it can be used to chop, peel, slice, and carve foods more accurately than larger knives. Because of their size, paring knives are used for small, detail work such as removing seeds from peppers, de-veining shrimp, cutting garnishes, and more. A paring knife can be manipulated so you can achieve precise and intricate cuts that a large blade just can't do. Paring knives tend to be one of the smallest items in your cutlery drawer, with blades typically ranging from 2-1/2 to 4 inches long. Most paring knives have a straight blade that gradually curves to a point. Some feature a downward curving "Tourné" design that makes peeling easier. Unlike chef's knives, the blades of paring knives are usually not much wider than the handle. This lowers the overall chopping power and hand clearance, but the payoff is that there is increased control and the knife can be held in a variety of different positions making this knife highly maneuverable. Even though they are small, they will see a lot of use in your kitchen so be sure to invest in durable paring knives. Because these knives are less likely to be used in high impact scenarios, they are not at a high risk of a quickly dulling blade. Because of this, stainless steel is probably the best offer for the average user, even though it needs to be sharpened more, because it is durable and easy to clean. However, if you are using your paring knife frequently and are willing to take the time to maintain the blade, then a carbon steel blade might be the better choice.

Fillet and Boning Knives

These kitchen knives are used to debone and break down meat like fish and poultry. While often used interchangeably, there are some differences in these types of knives. Both knives are made from thinner material so that they are flexible, but fillet knives more so. They are designed to bend and conform to the meat they are cutting, making them ideal for removing the skin from flat cuts of meat. Non-flexible boning knives are well-equipped for cutting tougher meats like pork or beef. While you could use a chef's knife, the thin but sturdy blade allows for more precision cutting. Most boning knives feature straight blades with pointed tips that aide the precise removal of bones and other unwanted portions of meat, especially those in deep cuts and crevices. Common fillet knives also feature a similarly long, straight shape, although some fillet knives curve upward toward the end of the blade to improve their capability for removing skin from a fish in a single pass cut. Because boning and fillet knives are used for precision cuts and careful deboning, they are generally not subjected to the same levels of stress as other types of kitchen knives, and therefore do not necessarily need to be quite as robust as the rest of your cutlery. Most chefs, both professional and amateur, will probably want to keep at least one boning knife and one fillet knife in their cutlery collection.

Knife Maintenance

Any chef will tell you how important it is to maintain your knife's blade. Dull knives will not cut effectively and can be tiresome or even hazardous to use in situations that require precise and careful cuts. Keeping your knives sharp is a necessary routine, but it is also critical to your knives' longevity that they are sharpened properly. Although they are used for all sorts of heavy-duty tasks in the kitchen, knives are actually fairly delicate implements, and improper or overzealous sharpening of a blade can harm the knife more than any amount of use. The sharpening process can be broken down into three steps: sharpening, straightening, and polishing.

Sharpening is the most extreme step in restoring the edge of your blade. A hard, abrasive material, usually stone, is used to grind away metal from the blade of the knife to form a new cutting edge. Professionals often use a rotating grinding wheel to sharpen knives quickly and efficiently, but the same effect can be accomplished by using a whetstone. Grinding is the most direct method of sharpening a blade, and is often the only way to restore heavily worn or blunt blades. It should only be performed a few times a year; otherwise it will reduce their life span. Each sharpening removes bits of material from the blade, so sharpening too often will wear it down quicker. With a routine straightening schedule, most knives can be maintained for longer periods without the need for frequent professional sharpening.

Straightening, often referred to as honing, is the second step in the knife sharpening process. The knife blade is rubbed against a sharpening steel or honing rod to realign the edge of the blade without removing a significant amount of material. Most knives are made from steel which is a very malleable material, so the edge of the knife will tend to deform even after a few uses. Although the blade might look contiguous to the naked eye, the edge is actually made up of countless "micro-serrations." These microscopic teeth will begin to bend and curl under the forces of repeatedly coming into contact with various types of food and ultimately reducing the overall efficiency of the knife. A knife with such a deformed edge is referred to having a "turned" blade. Using a honing rod or sharpening steel to straighten your knife before or after each use realigns the material on the edge of the blade and will prevent the blade from turning significantly between sharpening. Frequent straightening will reduce the necessity for excess sharpening by grinding. The ultimate goal in preserving the sharpness of your knives is to minimize the amount of pressure exerted on the blade of the knife. The easiest way to keep your knives in check is to make a habit of honing and rinsing your knife immediately before each time you use it. A good test to see if your knife is in need of honing is with the "bite test." A knife's bite is a measure of its capacity to begin cutting an object without any downward pressure exerted by the user. A properly sharpened knife will, when drawn across the surface of a tomato, begin to cut under the force of its weight alone. Tomatoes are the most common food to use due to their uniquely resilient outer skin. Effective knives should require little effort from the user to cut most ingredients. If you knife requires excessive or uncomfortable force, give the knife a quick but careful straightening.

Polishing a knife is the last step in blade sharpening. This step is optional, and often skipped when sharpening knives in less demanding environments such as residential kitchens. Polishing is usually performed using a leather strap that has been treated with abrasive compound, but other more common materials such as paper or cloth can also be used. Polishing the blade further straightens the edge of the knife without removing material to ensure that the highest possible amount of edge contact is being made with the surface to be cut. Polishing can also restore the smooth mirror finish to a used blade, making it easier to keep clean.

Well-kept knives are one of the most important tools in any kitchen, and those who cook as a profession or a serious hobby are likely to run up a significant bill buying strong, high quality knives. Keeping your knives properly sharpened does require a fair amount of attention, but it is necessary if you want to get the most out of your investment. With time and care, your knives are sure to become the most trusted part of your kitchen toolset.

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