Lesson 8: Chef Knives: Everything You Wanted to Know

Of all the equipaje in your damn kitchen, you really should make your most thoughtful investment in your chef knife. It took me a couple of months to figure out the importance, care, use and maintenance of this very important tool.

At first, I just wanted to know what knife was the best. I bent the ear of knowledgeable sales associates in Kitchen Kapers and in Williams Sonoma. Both experiences were very good and they both offered to let me "test drive" the knives. Well, in order to test drive, you need to know how to drive. So, in order to keep myself from looking like a damn idiot, I went home and watched a few youtube videos (luckily there are a great number of excellent instructional videos out there, so go explore!) on how to hold and use a chef knife. After watching more than one (it's ALWAYS good to see different perspectives on the same subject), I test drove with my own cheap chef knife that I had been using for years. What an experience! It's amazing how much more control and efficiency you have with your knife when you use it properly. You have to try it. Here's a great youtube video on How to Hold Your Chef Knife

However, when I held it properly and chopped a few onions with it, it didn't take long for me to notice that

the non-existent bolster caused some pain in the fat meaty part of my index finger. For some people, a thin bolster offers more control, for others, a larger one offers comfort and stability. One piece of advice I was consistently getting about purchasing a chef knife is that my criteria should be something that is comfortable for me. From there, you should seek out the style and size you like and then look for quality. It will be something you use every single time you cook and will last you a lifetime. Yes, they are pricey but if you think about it, it will outlast your lawnmower, tv, furniture, gas grill, etc. You can most certainly pass down a good chef knife to your grandchildren.

A good chef knife is forged of high carbon stainless steel. It is heavier and stronger and will hold an edge longer. Stainless steel also does not pit or rust or react to food.

I have found that the length is something of personal preference. Because you will be lifting the knife in a rocking motion for cutting, you don't want something too heavy as it will fatigue your hand. Also, if you are short like me, you will have to lift a 10 inch knife higher than you will a 6" or 8" chef knife. If you are a tall person, the longer knives may be more comfortable for you.

So, what's the difference between European, American and Japanese knife manufacturers? Well, fair readers, it all has to do with the metal they use and how they forge the knife. Let's explore each type.

Wüsthof Classic 6-Inch Cook's KnifeEuropean knife manufacturers create knives of lighter weight with a focus on comfort and reducing fatigue. Because the metal alloy used is a bit softer, they don't hold their edge as long and require more frequent sharpening. But if you make sharpening part of your regular kitchen maintenance, it's no big deal. They are sharpened on both sides of the knife and you can use traditional electric or manual knife sharpening devices. European knife manufacturers are: F. Dick, J.A. Henckels, Wustof, Sabatier and Victorinox.

Kitchenaid Chef Knife Red Professional SeriesAmerican knife manufacturers create knives that are bit heavier and made of stronger metal alloys, which hold a sharpened edge longer, while generally retaining the comfortable European knife design. As with European knives, they are sharpened on both sides and you can use traditional sharpening equipment. You will need to give the knife a few extra swipes in the sharpening machine. Some American knife manufacturers include: Cuisinart, Cutco, Ginsu, Kitchenaid and Spyderco.

2 Piece Japanese Samurai Katana Letter Opener w/ Stand  Japanese knife manufacturers have become very popular in recent years because of the extra thought and design that has been given to these knives. Older style traditional knives are prone to rusting and require extra care, handling and diligent sharpening. However, more recent productions have combined Western design concepts with traditional Japanese design and performance. For example, Global and Shun, two popular modern Japanese knife manufacturers today, use a very hard metal alloy and use a technique in the forging process called folding. The folding gives added strength and flexibility to the knife (and thus explains the wave pattern you see in the blade).

Also interesting to note is that Japanese knives are sharpened only on one side, called a single-beveled edge: this makes for a very precisely sharp edge and gives the cleanest cut, especially in the preparation of sushi, sashimi and other dishes where presentation is extremely important. However, the edge is sharpened on the right side only and is intended for use with the right hand. If you're left handed, you will need to special order left-handed Japanese knives. Also, you cannot use traditional sharpening machines with these knives. You have to buy a special sharpener made specifically for Japanese knives. Some Japanese knife manufacturers include: Global, Kyocera, Sakura and Kershaw (Shun).

Now, just a little more of my opinion based on personal experience (if you want to know). In my college days, I actually sold knives. I sold Cutco knives. At the time, college kids were being targeted to become side sales persons by Vector Marketing to earn extra income. I fell for it and found myself in an office for a witness of my first demonstration. And let me tell you, watching a Cutco knife easily pushing down through 10 layers of hard leather like butter was amazing. Also, a standard demonstration was to watch rope get chopped up like a carrot by a French Chef knife. In a matter of weeks, I was fully trained and going to people's homes and doing this very demonstration comparing their knives and my knives and giving them an education on the construction of a well-made knife. I did fairly well, selling a few expensive blocks of knives here and there. While Cutco is not really found in gourmet shops (they do sell by website and catalogs now), I have to say that I really enjoyed them when I had them. The handles are beautiful, the metal is made of high quality surgical stainless steel and for the entirety of your ownership, you can send them back to Cutco for a complete refurbishing/sharpening. But that's the kicker, because the serrated knives are constructed in an unusual pattern, you have to send them back to the manufacturer. However, I've had my trimmer for several years now without needing to send it. I love it and though Cutco gets a bad rap by chef knife snobs (only because they've never used one), I think their serrated knives are worth every penny. Everyone who has ever used my Cutco trimmer to slice a tomato says they want one. As for the Cutco chef knives; well, they are great for the untrained knife holder, they are hollowed a little to keep food from sticking, but since I've learned the proper hold, the handle, in my opinion, is not really designed for the proper hold.

To continue on a bit about my days as a knife sales girl, at the time, J.A. Henckels was Cutco's biggest competitor. We often compared the two knives at big Cutco sales meetings. So, in remembering that, I always said to myself that I'd probably go with Henckels if I found myself purchasing a chef knife from a store (but I never said it out loud at those big sales conferences ... shhh, our little secret!). But that was fifteen years ago. Since then, many more gourmet knife manufacturers have been born and I'm in love with my Shun Ken Onion chef knife simply because the handle is most comfortable to me and I like Japanese knife features. I've been hearing lots of great things about Global knives as well. Henckels, Wustof and the others that you see in a gourmet shop are all very excellent as well. Basically, if you're budget starts at about $100, you're going to get a great knife. The key is comfort and keeping it sharp.

So, what's the deal with the Santoku edge?
 Fifteen years ago, the "Santoku" edge wasn't really a common design being sold here in the U.S. So, it was something I had to ask about. Basically, the santoku edge (the hollow circular dents on either one or both sides of the knife) keep the food from sticking to the knife. If you chop a lot of garlic, onions (most chefs do), this might be a feature that makes chopping a more pleasant experience. It is, after all, annoying when garlic sticks to the knife when you're not finished mincing it. I'm used it to the sticking, so I deal, but I am hankering to try a Santoku in my next knife shopping outing.

Do I need every kind of knife?
Global 3-Piece Chef's, Utility, and Paring Knife Starter SetNo, you don't. You need four basic knives to get you through most of your cooking needs. Set yourself up with the basics and then you can shop for more specialized knives as you get into more specialized cooking tasks. The chef knife is essential for cutting of vegetables, herbs and meats. More so the vegetables and herbs. You need a good paring knife for peeling. A long serrated bread knife W?sthof SerratedBread Knife, 9-Inch(this doesn't have to be a really expensive one but it's much easier to slice french bread for croutons and crostini with one). And a nice serrated trimmer (something like a slightly big serrated steak knife) which is really excellent for cutting meats.

What the best way to store and care for my knives?

Farberware 3-Piece Wood Cutting Board SetFirst of all, it is important that you don't ruin your knives by cutting on glass or ceramic plates. This kills your edge faster than you can say smacked ass. Plastic cutting boards are better but will still dull your knife pretty quickly. Also, you get little bits of plastic in your food and eating plastic is much worse than eating wood (I won't even get on that soap box now but trust me for the moment). It is best to use your knife on wooden cutting boards. They are a much softer material and your knife edge will not be ruined or lose its sharpness as quickly. You do not need expensive wooden boards. You can go to IKEA, get some boards and mineral oil for under twenty bucks and you're good to go. Just make sure you wash with a mixture of bleach water after you've used the board to cut meats. It also helps reduce cross contamination to dedicate one board for meats and one for veggies. One more note (before I forget), a raised board with feet is great for tall people so if you are short and don't feel like holding your knife up to your face, just get the flat boards. 

J.A. Henckels 10-Slot Hardwood Knife Storage BlockAs for storing, just think about what you'll do to the edge when storing. A wooden block is better to protect the edge than throwing your knife in a drawer with other cutlery. It's also safer. There are also holders for drawers that you can get or you can create a sheath out of cardboard. just protect the edge and keep your family's fingers out of harm's way.

Don't put your good expensive knives in the dishwasher. The detergents for dishwasher are meant for scrubbing. Over time, dishwashers will ruin your knife's blade and edge. Don't even let them sit in soapy water in the sink or you'll cut your damn fingers. When you're done, just wash, rinse, dry and put away. It's not hard, just do it. Okay, thanks.

Sharpen regularly! Listen, the best thing you can do for yourself and your knife is to keep it sharp. You can make a quick run to your gourmet knife store and they'll sharpen it for you. It's not hard. You probably need to go shopping for an egg poacher or something anyway, so just take your knife with you and flirt with the nice man who does it for you. Okay, better keep the flirting innocent, but get your knife sharpened, ok?

Chef's Choice 120 Diamond Hone 3-Stage Professional Knife Sharpener, WhiteYou can also purchase a knife sharpener if you don't feel like driving to the store. An electric one is really nice and foolproof to use (I happen to also be very observant when I'm flirting, so I looked at the machine as well as the man, but I digress..). But, for me, it is a bit of drive to get to a gourmet kitchen supply store so an electric sharpener will probably be my next kitchen equipment purchase. A sharpening stone is a traditional method for sharpening. I have one but I'm afraid to use it on my Shun. The textbooks highly recommend it but you have to learn how to use it properly. 

You can also use a manual swiper sharpener, like the things you see in the back of your can opener, but without electricity churning, so, if you use one, you're gonna be swiping for a while. You can also ruin the blade by pushing down too hard. So, the manual is not foolproof. I tried one on my old knife and it took way too long to sharpen and was a pain in the ass to use (to be perfectly honest).

How do I get speedy?
Listen up buttercups, don't focus on speed! Speed comes with doing something over and over again, just like when you learned to type, count, read, talk, etc. the more you did it, the easier and thus quicker it became. But let me tell you something. It is EASY to cut your fingers off! DO NOT work on speed! Work on taking your time and doing it right! Even as you get better, just do it at a comfortable pace. If you chop three stalks of celery, that's faster than chopping only one. So work on that instead. If you want to be fast, then chop aromatics for forty hours a week like professional chefs do. You're only doing it for a max of about 15 minutes every other night in your home kitchen and you've probably been doing it wrong all this time, so don't be Greedy McSpeedy with your chopping skills until you've done the 40 hour chopweek thing. Don't cut your goddam hands off! Kapeesh?

So there you have it my Chef Ninjas, everything you wanted to know to get started with your knife shopping, usage, storage and care. Go forth and learn ye via the youtubes and discover a 90 percent more pleasurable cooking experience for rest of your life. And unfortunately, once you use a good knife and board, you'll find that when you try to cook in someone else's kitchen, with their under performing knives, you'd rather try chopping onions with your fingernails or hairbrush than deal. Don't say I didn't warn you! So, bring your knife and board with you to your friend's house or consider their next birthday and how much they would just LOVE to have a nice knife and board. (evil laugh) Happy chopping!

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9 Response to "Lesson 8: Chef Knives: Everything You Wanted to Know"

  1. Beautiful and informative post, you got all the right answers to the most popular questions, I remember getting my knives the choices I had gave me a headache I wish someone had compiled somthing like this sooner. Do you mind if I link this post in my blog? I think its a great post! Keep up the great work!

    - The Pantsless Chef

    Wow, this is great information. I have never had a good knife and was just thinking on this tody, then wound up here. Thanks!

    My husband is a big fan of Henkels, and I am not to use them, which is fine with me, he keeps them too sharp for my liking.
    Good post about knives, interesting information you have shared. Never thought about the right hand/left hand problem. And what is funny I am right handed and my husband is a lefty, I wonder if that is also one of the reasons I don't like and can't use his knives correctly.

    Oh wow! Got some comments! I've been out of touch due to work w/volunteer group but yes, feel free to include link in your blog pantsless. :)

    I'm so glad my article was helpful to you all. :)

    Medifast says:

    My husband and I have separate knives, he is a lefty and I am a rightey, and we can't share knives because of the sharpening direction. Didn't actually know this until we had purchased some beautiful knives and had issues with them, took them back explained to them why we didn't like them and they were the ones who pointed out what the problems was.

    prolix says:
    This comment has been removed by the author.
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    Out The Front Knives

    Can you sharpen a blade with a Santoku edge using the same techniques as a regular blade? I have a cleaver style blade with a Santoku edge and don't want to mess it up. Is there a good cleaver sharpener you would recommend?

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