Knife Skills – The Finer “Points”

The importance of knives to a chef cannot be overstated. High-quality, well-made, well-maintained knives are fundamental kitchen tools that form the foundation of kitchen work. The best tools make it easier for the beginner to learn cutting skills properly, right from the start. It is well worth spending the time and money necessary to get a good knife and become comfortable with the skills involved in sharpening, steeling and using knives for a variety of cutting tasks.

WHAT IS IT MADE OF?

STAINLESS STEEL – stainless steel doesn’t stay sharp for very long because it needs a surface harder than the metal to sharpen it …

CARBON – high carbon content knives rust, pit and stain … it is a soft metal so it chips easily … it sharpens easily because it’s a soft metal but it looses its edge quickly … carbon is the complete opposite of stainless; carbon takes a keen edge and is razor sharp.

What’s the answer? A blend of metals that gives you the best of both worlds. High carbon stainless steel is produced by blending iron, carbon, chromium and other metals, such as molybdenum, in a specific ratio to form a blade that is stainless, resilient, and capable of receiving and holding a sharp edge.

FORGED VS. STAMPED?

Stamped knives are made by cutting blade-shaped pieces from sheets of metal of previously milled steel. In general, a stamped knife is inferior to a forged knife.

Forged blades are made by heating a rod of high-carbon stainless steel to around 1700 degrees. The heated metal is dropped into a mold, and then struck with a hammer to pound it to correct shape and thickness. One of the advantages of a forged blade is that its thickness tapers from the spine to the edge and from the heel to the tip, which gives it the correct balance. After the blade is shaped, it is tempered to improve its strength and durability. Forged blades are generally more durable, better balanced and of good quality.  Forged knives have bolsters (the “guard” pieces between the blade and the handle) … forged knives usually have a full tang (the piece of metal that is an extension of the blade the runs the whole length of the handle).

THE ANATOMY OF A KNIFE

In addition, to the blade and handle …

The bolster is the point where the blade meets the handle. The bolster gives the blade greater stability and strength. This is a sign of a well-made knife, one that will hold up for a long time. Some knives may have a collar that looks like a bolster but it is actually a separate piece attached to the knife (these knives tend to come apart easily and should be avoided).

The tang is part of the blade itself. It is the point at which the handle is attached to the knife. Tangs may be full or partial. A full tang extends the entire length of the handle, giving the knife a greater heft in the handle. Knives with a full tang are sturdy, well balanced and long lasting. A partial tang does not run the full length of the handle. Partial tang knives are not as durable as full tang knives.

SHARPENING AND HONING TOOLS

No knife kit can be considered complete without sharpening and honing tools because the key to the proper and efficient use of any knife is making sure it always stays sharp. Knife blades are given an edge on a sharpening stone or simply, sharpener, whereas knives are maintained between sharpenings by honing with a steel. Think of it this way: steels are used to realign the edge on your knife while sharpeners are used to put a new edge on your knife once it has dulled.

Tips on steels:

The easiest and safest length for a steel is at least 2 to 3 inches longer than the blade of your largest chef knife. Whenever you are using your knives, you should have a steel handy. Get into the habit of using a steel on your knives before you start cutting. Steels are NOT used to sharpen the edge; they are used to realign it, because with use the edge starts to roll over to one side. 

A word on electric knife sharpeners or “pull through” sharpeners … in general we do not endorse using either of these processes … because electric sharpeners operate at high speeds, there is a danger of over sharpening the blade. Even a short time can grind away too much of the blade, causing excessive wear and significantly shortening the knife’s useful life. “Pull through” sharpeners are sometimes not balanced properly and can put an uneven edge on your knife. The solution … taking care of your knives with a steel and a sharpener. If you care for your knives properly you will never need to take them to a “professional” to be sharpened.

CLEANING YOUR KNIVES

Hot soapy water and hand-dried – clean the entire knife including the handle. Knives are NEVER to go into the dishwasher – the high heat and harsh detergents can ruin your knives. In addition, there are too many opportunities for the knife to be jostled by the water pressure and either (a) damage the blade or (b) someone reaches into the dishwasher to empty it, doesn’t know where the knife is, reaches in and grabs the blade not the handle. NEVER IN DISHWASHERS!!

CUTTING SURFACES

Wood, only! Cutting directly on metal, glass, marble or plastic will dull and eventually damage the blade of your knife. Also, wood boards are self-healing – that is, small scratches close up enough to prevent bacteria from growing in them. Plastic boards retain bacteria (example: when chopping parsley or cilantro on your plastic boards you can never clean the big green splotch left by the herbs … now think of that as chicken juice … YUCK!!! – The fact is, once you make a cut into a plastic board you’ve effectively “gouged” the plastic and it never repairs and lots of scum and bacteria build up there … enough said?)

Tips on wood chopping blocks:

Wash them with hot soapy water with a bit of household bleach. Rinse with clean water and let air dry, standing up, so the air circulates around the board. Blocks do not go in the dishwasher. Treat the board with block oil every couple of months to keep the wood supple. Size … your board should be as large as the largest knife in your kitchen.