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Essential Knives

August 5, 2013

Other than the chef holding it, a knife may be the most important tool in your kitchen. Knives are used for so many critical tasks that owning a substandard set of them can create a world of frustration. But how many knives do you need and how do you choose the ones that are right for you?

For the moment, we’ll set aside knives that are used in the consumption of food rather than in the preparation of food—like steak knives. And we’ll save “specialty” knives for tomorrow’s blog.

And, before we delineate the essential knives, let’s look at knives in general and what makes a good knife.

Forged vs. stamped

Stamped: Stamped knives are cut out of rolls of steel by a machine that is a sort of “cookie cutter” for knives. They have blades that are ground down and honed to a fine sharp edge, with attached handles.

They do not have a bolster (see diagram) that connects the handle to the blade and are lighter because they contain less steel. Stamped knives generally cost less and can be harder to sharpen.

Forged: Forged knives tend to have thicker steel and a solid steel bolster that joins the blade with the handle. The bolster protects your hand and gives you a safe place to rest your fingers.

The tang, the part of the knife that goes into the handle, may be the full length of the handle or partial. Forged knives are heavier because of their extra steel and forging makes them stronger and less flexible. As a result, these knives keep an edge longer and are easier to sharpen. Forged knives generally cost more.

Anatomy of a Knife at CHEFScatalog.com

Six steps to choosing your knives

  1. Consider the type of knife you need. Kitchen knives come in many shapes and sizes. Consider your cooking style and habits. A good basic kit for an average domestic kitchen might include: A utility knife, a chef’s knife for chopping, dicing, mincing, and cutting, a paring knife for peeling, cutting, and trimming small items, a bread knife (serrated), and a carving knife for getting thin and even slices of meat from roasts.
  2. Feel the knife’s weight. A lightweight knife is good for speed and precision. A heavier knife is better for harder ingredients.
  3. Examine the balance of the knife. Quality knives have very good balance with not too much weight either in the blade or the handle. A well-balanced knife makes any cutting action easier and will mean less strain on your arm.
  4. Look at the handle. It should be solid, easy to clean, and well joined. The handle is often made of wood, plastic, toughened resins, or another strong material.
  5. Consider the blade. This is where you decide on forged vs. stamped.
  6. Look at the width of the cutting edge. Also consider the thickness and smoothness of the blade. The cutting edge should run the full length from tip to the handle.

Three ‘Can’t Live Without’ knivesZwilling 6-inch Utility Knife at CHEFScatalog.com

I could fill my kitchen with knives—there isn’t a specialty knife I don’t long to have. But if you’re wondering what are my “Trapped On A Island” knives, I’d narrow it down to three:

  1. Utility knife: A multipurpose workhorse for chopping, slicing, mincing, or dicing, my 6” utility knife is perfect for medium-size produce and smaller cuts of meat and poultry, chopping leafy herbs and trimming crusts from sandwiches (forWusthof 3-Piece Paring Knife Set at CHEFScatalog.com picky eaters). I reach for this one constantly to chop onions, dice potatoes, peel and slice fruits for salads, and mince garlic or herbs.
  2. Paring knife: I’m cheating a little here, because I’m putting Wusthof’s 3-piece paring knife set here. But I think you’ll see why: This set includes a 3” flat paring knife (the basic), a 3” clip point paring knife, and a 2 ¼” bird's beak peeling knife. I love the precise control of the paring knives, while the bird’s beak is ideal for use with rounded produce.
  3. Chef’s knife: My “go-to” knife for so many reasons. Perfect for chopping or slicing on a cutting board, the chef’s knife has a rigid blade with a slight curve that enhances balance and prevents food from clinging. And it’s available in a variety of sizes and styles, including the Wusthof Gourmet 8-Inch Ridge Chef’s Knife—my choice. The deflecting ridge pushes food away, while holes allow air between blade and what I’m chopping, enabling the food to release and significantly reducing drag and friction. (See a product review of this knife in Friday's post. Can't wait? Click here.)

A la carte or a set?

One other thing you may want to consider is whether to get your knives one at a time or to purchase them in a matched set. There are benefits to both ways, so the decision is yours. However, if you want to buy them in sets there are a couple different ways they are available.

  • Wusthof 36-piece Knife Set in Block at CHEFScatalog.comIn a block: Knives in a wooden block look great on (or under) the counter in your kitchen. Knife sets are available in several sizes: 5-piece, 7-piece, 10-piece, 12-piece, 23-piece, up to 36-piece. Already have the knives? You can find empty blocks to store them in.
  • Rolled sets: Knife rolls are often used by professional chefs who so value their knives that they carry the roll with them. For home chefs, a space-saving nylon knife roll securely stores your knives for easy transport to cooking classes, outdoor cookouts, and vacation homes.
  • Magnetic knife holders: This option gets your knives off of the counter and can be a real space saver for smaller kitchens. Magnetic holders come with or without knives. Just be sure you install them where the kids can’t accidentally knock them down or get a hold of them.

Tips for caring for your knives

Other than the chef in the kitchen, knives may be the most important tools you own—so how do you choose them wisely? Check out our blogs on knives here at CHEFS Mix.

Your turn: Do you love your knives? Which knife is your favorite—your 'go-to' knife?

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Tags: Cutlery, Knives

Categories: In The Spotlight, Tips & Advice