Kitchen knife confidential – Knives are quite simply at the heart of a Chef’s tool chest. Whether you do food for a living, for fun, or out of necessity, they should be at the center of yours, too. There are a lot of myths and misconceptions about cooking knives, and a few solid truths. First, in answer to the question most asked, ‘Do Chefs really always carry their own knives,’ the answer is a resounding yes. Were you to attend any serious cooking school, you’d be required above all else to have your own knives with you from day one – No knives, no school…
In any serious kitchen across this world, the same rule applies – while they’ll be stocked with cookware, hand tools, and the like, you gotta have and use your own knives, period, end of story. And yes, when we travel, we bring our own knives with us, without fail. Knives to a Chef are like a glove to a pro baseball player – Personal, bordering on sacred. Many professional Chefs are truly knife obsessed, and many are collectors. Buying a new knife when changing positions, venues, or promoting is quite common. The kit a Chef uses daily and brings along with them when they travel vary from extremely simple to foot locker complex.
The power of the knife, at least from the male perspective, surely stems from its roots as a weapon of war and personal defense. Just as a soldier would pamper and never be found without a sword, so it goes in the kitchen, (This is my deba! There are many debas like it, but this one is mine!”) That sort of heavy stuff generates some fairly hefty superstition around the tool as well, some of which might surprise you.
How much of this weighty chef emphasis translates to the home kitchen? A fair share, if you’re savvy and serious about your cooking. There are solid reasons why you should buy, keep, use, and properly maintain a decent set of your own; efficacy, safety, and performance first among them. That said, this does not imply the need for expensive, by any sense of the word. My Sis, Ann Lovejoy is an inspired and extremely talented chef, and she uses an inexpensive set like these here – they serve her well, and when they get too dull, she buys more – If that seems like blasphemy, it ain’t. Sharpening isn’t for everyone, especially if that process gets between you and the joy of cooking.
My friends Christy and Lissa have between them some pretty nice quality knives that get sharpened, I’m fairly certain, once a year, when I visit northern Minnesota to play music and cook.
And then there’s me, with a set built up from a core of custom knives forged by a local maker, (every aspect of them chosen by me, made to my exact specifications), augmented by a few specialty varieties I use occasionally. Where you lie on the spectrum depends on a bunch of factors, wallet, willingness to perform maintenance, and expected performance chief among them. What’s best is what works well for you, so let’s explore that.
First off, which knives do you really, truly need? The answer is, not many. There are a bunch of opinions on this, so I’ll add mine – A kitchen can get by very capably with a full sized chefs knife, a smaller derivation thereof, and a parer. That’s it- seriously. Nine times out of ten when I cook, some variation on that theme is all I use. Often enough, it’s two of those three.
A chefs knife could mean the traditional western shape and size, usually found in anywhere from 7″ to 12″ lengths, (there’s also a Japanese variant known as a Gyutou, which is almost identical in shape to a western chef knife). The chefs knife is the workhorse of your kit, so the length depends on what wields most comfortably for you. For most of us, that’s going to be an 8″ knife, with which you can do almost anything. If you watch food porn on TV, you might see a whole episode of Chopped or Iron Chef wherein a chef or Sous uses nothing but their big blade for everything they do – That kind of dexterity depends on thousands of hours of knife work in order to be accomplished safely – And that’s why there are shorter knives for folks who don’t do this professionally.
The eastern chefs knife, the Santoku, means ‘three virtues’, a nod to the fact that this knife is equally good at slicing, dicing, and mincing. Like a western chefs knife, there’s not much you can’t do with a good Santoku. They are generally lighter in weight than a western blade, which certainly speaks to their popularity. Of the two options, I opt for the Santoku; I like the shape and balance better than the traditional western blade, so that’s what I use exclusively. Since the shape, weight, and balance of chefs knives vary considerably, you’ll need to do some handling in order to determine what floats your boat.
While western chefs knives feature what I’d call a drop point blade shape, a Santoku has what’s known as a sheepsfoot tip – that difference can be a real key to comfort of use, (AKA how often or likely you are to cut yourself using one – One of the big reasons I favor a Santoku). Your chefs knife will do everything from cutting up poultry to chopping vegetables or slicing fruit; it’s only downside is its size, which means a smaller knife is prudent for more delicate work. Western chef knives sold commercially are most often stainless steel, while the Santoku is commonly made from high carbon steel – More on that in a bit.
The smaller derivative in western knives is often called a utility knife, while Japanese variants are the Deba or Nakiri – Again, shapes, points, and lengths vary considerably, and require hands on use for a proper buying decision. As you can see from the picture of my knife roll, I use a small Deba as my second knife. This knife does everything a chef knife will do, but on a smaller scale, and by the same token, can break into the realm of tasks usually assigned to a parer. The greater weight and length of this knife both advantage and disadvantage versus a paring blade.
And finally there’s a parer, called just that in western patterns, and either paring or Petty knife in eastern versions. A parer is usually around a 3″ knife with a thin and somewhat flexible blade. This is the knife to use when field stripping a chile, cutting supremes of fruit, or any other fine kitchen work requiring precise control. My personal parer has a somewhat thicker and more rigid blade than this design generally does – That’s my preference, and one reason I use knives that were made specifically for me.
As you can see from the various pictures here, and from any store that sells cooking knives, there are a bunch more variants in both western and Japanese styles. The truth of the matter is that most of these are highly specialized and intended for professionals who depend on their knives for their living. This does not imply that home chefs don’t or won’t need to get some of these over time. My personal quiver also includes a boning knife, a slicer, and a large, heavy cleaver, because I buy proteins in bulk and butcher at home. Filling out my kit are a thin, flexible clip point parer, a birds beak or tourné tip parer, a small, serrated slicer, and a serrated bread knife. That said, I’ll note that I’m not a guy who keeps kitchen tools around that I don’t use, and all of those have remained with me long enough to earn their places. It’s unlikely that either you or I will need an offset slicer, tomato knife, or a hankotsu, but if you ever do, have no doubt there’ll be somebody out there happy to sell, or make you one.
So, you’re ready to buy some knives – What kind they’ll be is a primary consideration, and in so choosing, you’ll need to decide what they’ll be made of. The primary decision in blade material is stainless versus high carbon steel. While there are many derivations and combinations, (including high carbon stainless, just mess with your head), the primary difference is the addition of chromium to the basic blend that makes high carbon steel – That chromium imparts enhanced resistance to rust and corrosion – stainless steel. Now, there’s some seriously hard stainless out there,I can tell you first hand – I’ve had some stainless knives that took a lot of work to sharpen – but when it’s all said and done, the truth is that high carbon steel will stay sharper longer than stainless and is notably easier to sharpen – As such, if you don’t want to fuss with a lot of sharpening, you should keep that in mind.
Next you’ll be picking blade shape and size, and finally, handle shape and material – As I mentioned above, choosing knives isn’t generally something to be done online; you’ll want hands on to know what feels right to you. All of these factors impact the cutting ability of any given knife for you, let alone balance, feel, and comfort. There are grips or handles made from every synthetic thing you can name, as well as a wide variety of woods. This too is an important consideration, impacting how sound the tool feels in your hand, how long they’ll last, and how much work will be required on your part to maintain them. Again, get into the custom realm, and you can and will pick not only handle material, but grip shape, wood, as well as bolster and rivet material. Whether or not all that matters is up to you.
Every variant from cheap over the counter, to decent, to very high end production knives, semi-custom to true custom, is out there. While Henckles and Wusthoff, and Shun to Khun make great knives, there are small batch makers in both schools, here in the states and overseas, that you can check out. And then there are the true hand-makers, like Andy Gladish of Element Fe Forge here on Washington State’s Guemes Island – The man who makes my knives. His knives combine artistry with the age old science of hand forging; they are a delight in the hand and a joy to use. As with many makers, Andy sells production knives, as well as semi and true custom work. His stuff is, frankly, probably cheaper than it should be, which is your gain. If you find yourself at a farmers market up here in the northwest corner of the state, poke around and you’re likely to find Andy. You can have production pieces from him for under $50 a piece, and you could easily do a very, very nice three knife set for under $300. For hand made knives, that’s amazing. Wherever you live, you’ve likely got an Andy close by – If you’re to the point where the thought of a handmade blade or two appeals, go find them. In my case, the chance to collaborate with the maker, choosing blade composition, length, weight, flexibility, adding some pretty rare ebony handles made from wood I’ve had in my stash for a long time, coupled with brass bolsters and rivets, was the heart of why I wanted to go custom – It allowed my personal experience and preferences to be translated to the tools themselves – My recipe, in essence.
Finally, a note on sharpening, and on choosing between western and Japanese knives – Japanese blades are traditionally sharpened on only one side, known as a chisel grind, and as such are made in variants designed for right and left handed chefs. Western blades are generally sharpened on both sides, most often in a straight V, but also found in compound, and hollow grinds.
Pay strict attention to what your buying if you’re going to maintain your knives yourself – You’ve got to be able to consistently and safely sharpen whatever you chose.
Whether you sharpen by hand, or mechanically, or have it done for you, depends on your level of comfort and willingness to fuss with things. Whether you have expensive or cheap knives, they need to be sharp. The reasons are simple and twofold – Dull knives don’t perform well, and they’re dangerous – The former leads to the latter – pushing extra hard on a dull parer has caused more hand injuries than you can shake an E.R. at, so don’t go there.
As a woodworker, I’ve always sharpened my own tools, from chainsaws to chisels, and that’s how I do my cooking knives. That said, I appreciate efficiency and maximum time in cooking, so I’ve tried many variants of the mechanical sharpener, from $19.95 hand held versions to the $180 electric, three-stage version that sits in my kitchen these days – While I’d personally never sharpen a chisel or plane iron with anything mechanical, I’m happy to do so in the kitchen, with the right tool, (and Andy uses a simple belt sander for the job); if hand sharpening appeals to you, check out Scary Sharp, the method I use for my hand tools.
Something like my Chef’s Choice unit, with diamond, hard steel, and leather stages, will make any blade shaving sharp in short order. That said, that device will enforce the only grind it knows how to do on your nice, new knife, either sharpening, changing it radically, or possibly ruining it, so be careful. Sharpening is as much art as it is mechanics. Putting a good edge on a knife puts you in touch with the feel of the metal itself – What it’s made of, how hard it is, and how it responds to the heat and friction of sharpening.
By the way, there’s nothing wrong with Chris and Liss having knives sharpened once a year. They’re both good cooks, and they know what they like. I, on the other hand, am kinda seriously OCD about sharp, so mine get far more attention. That said, I just handed a full set of Henckles that I bought in 1998 to my youngest son, some 18 years later. They’re far from worn out, and he’ll get decades more of good user from them, without a doubt.