There are probably only 2 things I actually collect, knives and cookbooks. Anybody that knows me is very aware that I’m a knife fanatic, first and foremost.This post can be used as a buying guide, an instructional/maintenance guide, or just advice from what I’ve found works best for me in working with knives. I’ve recently started buying up knives through scouring the internet in my down time in the Arctic so here’s an inclusive look at knives, how to handle them, and anything else you’d like to know.
To start, here’s an introduction on a knife. First, there’s the butt, the handle, and the rivets or pins. The butt is the end of the handle and can have a metal strapping holding the handle material in place or can be the same material as the handle. The handle is actually the most important part of the knife when you’re considering buying a knife. It can make or break a knife when considered into longevity, feel, bacteria resistance, etc. Most prominent chefs will tell you that metal is general about the same in nice knives but the handles are all different makes, shapes and material.
Inside the handle is the tang. This is the metal part of the blade that extends into the handle, efficiently holding it in place. There are several different kinds of tang consisting of a full tang, 3/4 tang, attached blade (non-existent tang), hidden tangs, etc. Most chefs would never spend a decent amount of money on anything less than 3/4 tang and a lot of people prefer hidden tangs encased in it’s handle.(Pictured left) It makes for a stable blade and assures the owner that rust or corrosion won’t splinter the rivets from the handle material. Also, the tang could narrow towards the butt, giving a more balanced knife or be full tang throughout. The tang and the handle are held in place by rivets or pins going directly through the metal and handle material. Generally, pins or bolts are a much higher quality than just a plain cutler rivet. They usually have a female and male part. One goes the length of the handle and the other screws in or is squeezed in securely. The material is usually brass, nickel silver, or stainless but other material is also used.
There’s the bolster, mainly to provide weight and balance. It’s the thick metal between the handle material and the actual blade. It’s also there to provide slippage and blisters but most cooks I know hold a knife past the bolster on the spine, effectively developing a thick callous on the first knuckle of the pointer finger. A knifes bolster is also a sign of if the knife was forged or stamped. Stamped is relatively inferior to forged (though not always) since it’s “stamped” from a giant sheet of metal. A handle is thrown on after it’s stamped out and is made for the masses in a factory. A forged knife is a solid, thick piece of metal ground down and tempered.(Pictured above, notice the full tang, the 3 rivets, and the thick metal bolster above the pakkawood handle.) The bolster shows you the general thickness that the metal started at. Though a bolster can also be made out of different woods and shaped metals in higher-grade material that’s not practical to shave from a metal block. They’re then attached to the handle and blade. These are also good, too. There’s 4 types of handle materials in a chef knife. Wood is where most knife enthusiasts lean towards because it protects against bacteria and can be softer on the hands. It’s definitely not the most long lasting handle, though. It’ll give you a decade or two. The other three are composite, stag, and metal. Stag is the least effective in the kitchen but is beautiful. Composite and metal will definitely outlive wood, is much more durable, and is resistant to corrosion but can be tough if you hold your knife for long periods at a time. The handle can be made out of different kinds of woods and plastics. Make sure it’s a waterproof handle that can resist varying temperatures. Just do your research on what handle type fits your hand the best.
Next, the blade is made out of the heel, the edge, the tip, and the point. The heel is for chopping hard items, the edge is used for the majority of chopping and slicing, the tip is for soft herbs or onions, and the point is for piercing and should be used sparingly since it’s the most delicate part of the knife. The blade can be made out of several different metals with their faults and weaknesses. Blades made from carbon steel (meaning less than 1% of carbon content in the metal) can retain an extremely sharp edge but rusts much easier if not sufficiently cared for, generally making it a much higher maintenance knife. Some of the higher grade carbon knives can even be stamped out of old lumber band saws but is a labor intensive process. You also have to develop a nice patina (reaction of carbon between acids and proteins alike, a natural protection from corrosion, Pictured left) in a carbon steel knife before it’s protected from corrosion and rust. The patina is only useful on a carbon or high carbon, as high carbon stainless steel doesn’t need protection from corrosion or the added color. A different metal they can use is stainless steel but is brittle. Not ideal for a kitchen and incredibly cheap. High carbon stainless steel is ideal for most cooks. High carbon just means that there’s more than 1% carbon in the steel, making the metal much more stable. This will run at a higher cost, depending on the producer. I suggest this metal for the beginner. There’s also metals that are more exotic, such as a powdered metallurgy. They combine very high carbon counts along with other elements that would never mix naturally. They can be extremely expensive, upwards in the thousands. You can probably find a good knife for 200-300 bucks in a powdered metal, though. The last one I’ll talk about is ceramic. It’s a process that combines advanced ceramic techniques with the best features of cutlery. Some purists use these knives for the fact that metals can oxidize on certain foods, leaving a very faint metallic taste and because it’s one of the hardest edges in the world, right below diamonds. The problem with them is that they can chip off into food if not used properly and if the knife chips, there’s no saving it. Just stick to metal.
There are also different ways to form the knife. Two of them I’ve already mentioned, stamping and forging. They both have there merits and faults. There’s also damascus, which is a pretty high grade process (Pictured above). The original process has actually been lost and attempts to reverse engineer middle-eastern damascus swords haven’t been achieved yet. It’s generally classified as a very hard base metal core wrapped with several other layers of softer metals, giving it pliability. It’s generally said that the higher the damascus layer count, the better the give on the metal. It’s been described as super forgiving yet incredibly hard. The look of a damascus knife is gorgeous, though the layered look is purely aesthetic. You could technically buff the layers out so it looked like a solid metal but there’s definitely a market for pretty knives so win-win for most companies. Many companies also claim damascus in their knives even though it’s only double layered steel so just stick to a reputable seller so you don’t get screwed. Stamped knives also have there upsides and can be higher quality. In fact, some Globals are stamped, but still ground down quite a bit. This helps with how light they can be. It’s very nice to have a knife that’s not going to fatigue your hand while chopping vegetables for hours at work.
The pricing on a good quality knife can definitely vary, depending on where you buy it and who made it. For instance, a good no-name hand-crafted knife can probably run you around $150 and be just as good as one of the top of the line Shun’s or Wusthof’s. I’d say if you’re a beginner, go out to a name brand distributor like Sur La Table to check all the different types of knifes out. These stores usually have large varieties of case model knives that you can try out on softer vegetables right there in the store. It’s a great way to get a feel for what you really want in a knife. Do you want a heavier knife that’ll do most of the cutting for you but can easily wear your wrist out? Or would you prefer a light, nimble knife that fits in your hand but takes more pressure to cut things with? I’m not going to say specific brands that I prefer because generally, they all do the job. What knife brand works best for me may not be best for somebody else. Check out the usual factory knifes, such as Global, Mac, Tojiro, Shun (Picture left), Miyabi, Wusthof, Henckel, or Mercer. Then when you get comfortable with them, you’ll know what works best for you. Maybe you could venture into hand made knives later on.
Now, there’s probably only about 3 to 4 knives you’ll probably ever use. That usually consists of a chef’s knife, a paring knife, and a serrated/bread knife. If you do a lot of raw meat butchering, a smaller 4”-5” utility knife would also be ideal for more precise cuts. The knives I use the most are the Mercer 9” chef’s knife, 5 1/2” Global utility knife, and my Victorinox 10” meat slicer. The last one is because I cut up so much carved meats so it would probably be my Kai 9” scalloped edge serrated knife after that. Go for just the chef’s knife if you are on a budget at first, though. That’s the “go to” knife for pretty much anything you need in the kitchen. Starter knife kits are usually a good deal and they come with the 3 most popular knives that are used in a kitchen. The picture on the left is of the Global 3-piece starter kit. It was the first knives I bought and they’ve definitely faired well for me. It’ll run about $180, well worth the money.
Knife accessories can be a good thing, too. Buying a knife bag if you plan on traveling with your set it probably smart. I wouldn’t spend more than $50-$60 bucks on them, though. Get a steel or honing rod so you can quickly get the sharp edge you want on your knife back. The brand of honing rod doesn’t necessarily matter, it’s your preference, but don’t look for diamond rods or oval shaped rods. Diamond rods are studded with industrial shaved diamond that strips metal from your knife every single time you use it, just like a stone. An oval shaped rod makes it hard for a lot of people to get the angle they need to hone their knife. I enjoy the 10 1/2” MAC black ceramic honing rod that costs $55 but I use it excessively so it’s a good investment for me. You can pick one up for around $30 bucks and feel confident it’ll last you years and years. Sheaths or covers I think are valuable while storing them. These protect your blade from getting dinged up when in a bag or a cupboard. It’ll run you 3 or 4 bucks a piece so they’re not expensive. Granted a lot of people just wrap their knives in clean kitchen rags to save money.
A sharpening stone is also essential. When you can’t quite get the sharpness back to your knife from honing it, you need to put it to a sharpening stone. I use strictly water to lube my sharpening stones instead of mineral or oil bases. They need to be soaked in water a few minutes before use. The only difference between these bases is what you first use on the stone, water or oil. It’s not a good idea to switch between water and oil on a stone because oil stays in the stone permanently and you can never use it for water again. There are also different grits to a stone. Grits are how fine of material the stone is made out of and drastically change. A 150 grit stone is for getting really dull knives their edge back. A 1000 grit stone is about medium, making the edge on the knife much more smooth and consistent. Grits upwards of 4000-6000 are basically polishing your edge even more, not necessarily needed in a kitchen. Buy a combination stone which has 2 different grits. I use a 300-1000 grit stone for pretty dulled knives and primarily use a 1000-3000 grit stone for quick touch-ups on my better knives that keep an edge. About 1000-1500 grit is perfect for general kitchen use unless you make A LOT of sushi or delicate work like that. I sharpen my most used knives once or twice every 2 months but that’s constant, everyday use. Most people should only stone their knives 2-3 times a years so it can be hard to spend money on something you’re not using that often. Another option is to get it professionally sharpened at a knife shop or in a major restaurant supply chain. It’s a good option, running one or two bucks an inch once a year is considerably cheaper than buying a $40-$80 stone, which is what it’ll cost for a decent one. In Salt Lake City, Sur La Table does a yearly sale for half off their sharpening service so it’s nice to wait for that.
This link is a fantastic tutorial on how to hone or stone a knife. It’s done by the legendary knife maker Bob Kramer, which is really cool that he took the time to make tutorial videos. Listen to what Bob has to say 🙂
I have a few knives for sale so feel free to ask if you’re looking for one. Also, if you need advice or just want a really good knife that could last a long time, let me know and I’ll tell you what other things I can share. If you want help shopping for a knife, I’d love to tag along, too. I love any kind of kitchen shopping as much as girls love shoe shopping so feel free to ask!
Update on me: I’m coming home in a week! It’ll be an adventure getting home since I’m traveling throughout the night. I’m hoping I get into Seattle with an ample enough layover to eat at Anthony’s Fish Bar. I haven’t had the chance to eat there in the last couple times I’ve been through SeaTac so we’ll see. Also, I’m very excited to start work at my summer job in the mountains of Alaska. I’ll be working a lot of hours but my boss is letting me take 2-3 day sabbaticals so I can see the Arctic Ocean and fish on the Yukon River. My friends from working in Prudhoe Bay will be around the same areas during the summer, too. It’ll be fun to see them again. I’ve also found possible employment for the 2015 summer season already, right by Mount Mckinley or on the Yukon River in Alaska. I could also take my Executive Chef exam and take my butcher course when I get back from Antarctica in February if I can find a good job. Options, options. We shall see!