Knife Types and Some Help Choosing

Arguably the most individual and most important part of any Chef’s toolkit is the knife. We take the tools so seriously that we even have rolls that we keep them in, and truck them back and forth. Any good chef’s roll can easily top $1,000. Like a carpenter, there are tools for every job, so that, logically, is a good place to start.

Let’s begin with a quick photo of some knives I use. Starting at the bottom..

  • 6″ Santoku
  • 8″ Chef Knife
  • 6″ Boning Knife
  • 10″ Slicing Knife
  • 10″ Serrated Knife

Now, what is each one used for? Well lets break it down a little farther. Each knife is used for something different, and I could very honestly use every knife in my collection preparing one meal. (Just ask my wife when she does the dishes!)

Buy from AmazonSANTOKU – This knife originated in Japan and is very light, thin and off balanced. It is characterized by the straight bottom blade, unlike the more curved blades favored by the French. This lends itself more to a chopping motion where the knife leaves the board while cutting its intended victim. It also usually has some dimples on the blade, and these help keep the products being cut from sticking to the blade. Usually this is used for vegetables. The light blade helps make it easy on the hands while cutting for long periods.

The set to the right is made by Global. These knives are made from a High Grade Stainless steel, and then hand balanced by hand. People actually will fill the handle with grains of sand to make sure the knife is perfectly balanced over the bolster of the knife. If you want to pick up a gift, feel free to pitch in for a set of these!

THE CHEF KNIFE – The traditional and versatile knife has remained unchanged in its basic design for years, for very good reason. The shape is the most versatile and offers the best leverage, ease of use and performance. (We will go into technique in a future post.) Usually a chef will even carry two or three different sizes. Traditionally I find an 8″ and 10″ are great to have in your kit. My 10″ Henckels 4 star has been in service for over 20 years and still holds a great edge. The blade is curved so you can rock the blade as you cut, and balance tends to be right on the “bolster” where the blade meets the handle.

BONING KNIFE – The most flexible of the knives, the boning knife is pretty much for the task it is named for. Its’ flexibility is designed to help get around bones, and to separate the skin of fish from the flesh. This also should be a very sharp knife, all the way to the tip. Again, one might have a few different sizes in their quiver, as you might find different sizes helpful. I love the 8 inch version of the Henckels 4 star pictured. I think this one is about 18 years old and I love having it around for Salmon or Chickens.

SLICING KNIFE – Again, aptly named this one is. A slicing knife is great when you have nice straight cuts that need doing. It is not used for raw foods or veg, but more for slicing roasts, breast of turkey, any time you need a thin slice of product. Longer tends to be better when it comes to slicers. One can usually find the slicers as part of a set with a matched fork, which I admit is a great way to buy one. I have two slicers, the one pictured is 10 inches and it tends to be used most of the time. I also have a 14 inch one which is great for very thin slices of roast beef. The larger the knife, the thinner the slice.

SERRATED KNIFE – Really there are only a few uses for serrated knives, cutting bread being the primary one, to be sure. I think you will find it sits in the holder but when you need the sawing motion it can provide, you will be very glad you have it. The more tender the bread, the happier you will be to have one. I won’t even go into Cutco knives here, but I will tell you I have a full set, and use ones my parents have had for 30 years. We will save that for a later day.

The Anatomy of a knife is an important part of understanding the quality of a knife. The only other important part of a knife, the blade, we will get to in a minute. The balance point of any knife should be the bolster. (Except Santoku knives) Holding the knife one should also feel comfortable. I like a rounded handle personally, and find the blocky style of, say, a Wustof, uncomfortable after a while.

The next piece where quality will manifest itself is in the tang. A quality knife should have a full, solid tang. This is to say the material being Stainless steel, Carbon, ceramic, will continue from the tip all the way through the tail of the knife. It will be one continuous piece. This helps you transfer the power from the tail all the way through the Bolster through the edge and up to the tail.

We touched on the materials available, and they, like the knives themselves, have many different uses. Carbon was the metal of choice about 30 years ago, but now the most common is Stainless Steel. Folded steel and exotic steels are very durable and will last a lifetime, unlike stainless which has many degrees of quality. Ceramics are a class unto themselves and tend to be very sharp and are usually very light knives and are usually found in the Santoku form. (I tend to like my knives with some weight, it makes the knife do more work).

A word on quality of materials. It really is important to choose quality, or else you will be replacing your knives. Take this one I picked up to replace my Henckels 4 star version of the Santoku that was stolen from my knife roll. It was a $40 knife, not necessarily cheap, but after only 4 years of service, mind you it is my go-to knife 80% of the time, it obviously has failed. Note the crack through the first dimple closest to the bolster, and the chips in the edge itself.

Any quality store will give you the opportunity to “test drive” the knives, and why would you not want to do that? Williams Sonoma, and Sur Le Table are great places to try before you buy, and when you are talking $100 for a knife, a wise use of time.

Happy Cooking!

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3 Responses to Knife Types and Some Help Choosing

  1. Pat says:

    Aside from taking knives to a professional sharpener … what do you recommend for home sharpening?
    I find it difficult to get the angle correct with a simple stone … and I think the motorized sharpeners cost way too much.

    • cwhitpan says:

      It all depends on the knives themselves. If you take them to a pro, he is going to grind them and that can actually hurt the knife. My 10″ I have had for years has only ever seen a tri-stone and will never see a pro sharpening. A tri-stone lubricated with mineral oil is the best way to go, start rough at about a 22 degree angle and work your way to the other two grades. Then just hone it with the steel before each use. I stone sharpen mine once a year for the majority, and maybe quarterly for my heavy use Santoku or chef knife.

  2. Pingback: Styles and Shapes of Cuts | The Kitchen Hacker

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