A Primer on Blades

August 5, 2009

There was never a good Knife made of bad Steel.
~Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac

The plan, best laid no doubt, was to cover this topic in an earlier post entitled Into the Kitchen Window (01.21.09) well before launching into recipes and sharing cooking lore. But, because that entry became somewhat lengthy, I opted to postpone this discussion for another day when the focus could be on blades alone…maybe “procrastinated” is a more apt term. I was also admittedly eager to start writing about food. But, it is never too late to ramble about what may be your most coveted kitchen gadget—the knife. Please be patient as this may seem overly basic to some, but many have inquired and others need reminded.

Above all, with fine knife care as with surgery, remember the Latin maxim primum non nocere (“first, do no harm”). Respect your blades, keeping them razor sharp so you can slice and chop with celerity. Each knife should run through its prey with nearly delicate ease.

Point: where the edge and spine meet, often used for piercing
Tip: the forward portion of the blade which includes the knife point
Edge or Belly: the cutting part of the blade, extending from the point to the heel
Heel: the rear part of the blade edge, on the opposite end of the point
Spine: the top of the blade, directly opposite the edge
Bolster: the band that joins the blade to the handle
Tang: the part of the blade that extends into the handle
Scales: create the handle with two scales typically attached to the tang with rivets
Rivets: metal pins used to join the scales to the tang to form the handle
Butt: the very end of the knife handle

The Purchase
Most every home kitchen function can be accomplished with a chef’s knife, bread knife, and paring knife. However, if you are looking for a fuller complement of blades, the list would read something like this:

Chef’s (8”-10”)
Bread (8″)
Carving (8”-10″)
Santoku (7”)
Boning (6”)
Sandwich/Utility (5”-6″)
Paring (3”-3 1/2″)

A kitchen workhorse, chef’s knives sport a deep, solid blade, about 1-1 1/2″ to 2″ at the widest point. It should be nicely weighted, fairly hefty, with the blade wide and heavy at the butt end, then tapering to a triangle at the point. With chef’s knives, the search is for high quality, fully forged, high-carbon, bolstered stainless steel blades that hold a razor edge for quite some time. It is preferable that the tang, which is the metal that extends into the handle, courses the full length of the handle for balance and durability.

Forged is foremost. In a forged knife, the blade is formed from heated metal and is individually hammered. Forged knives have a collar-like bolster between blade and handle, a feature that only forging can create. The forging process involves pressing an ingot of red hot steel between “male” and “female” molds, known as a punch and a die. The alternative method is known as stamping, in which with the use of a template, knives are stamped out of a thin sheet of steel, producing a blade that displays the same thickness from one end to the other without a bolster.

At the risk of sounding suggestive, even ribald, good fit and comfort matter as much as any other feature—so, handle several blades before you chose one. Consider balance, grip, feel, weight, length.

A lighter supplement to a chef’s knife, the recently popular santoku knives are lighter, have a straighter lower edge, a more curved upper edge and does not narrowly taper to a minute point. Santoku translates as “three virtues,” given its multipurpose profile.

Bread knives have a serrated, scalloped-ridged edge used to slice bread (and tomatoes). The serrated teeth are sharpened on one side to pierce a hard crust, then tear the soft bread so it is not flattened or crushed. The recesses on the blade increase the actual cutting surface of the knife. The teeth of the serrated knife edge both effortlessly penetrate the food surface and protect the recessed edge from getting dull. They can even save wear and tear on your chef’s knife.

Precise and delicate paring knives are best for small jobs, such as mincing, trimming and paring vegetables and fruit. Unlike a chef’s knife, which is always used on a cutting board, you can cut with the paring knife while holding the food aloft.

A sometimes unknown or too often forgotten basic with chef’s knives. To maximize control, “choke up” by bringing your hand up the handle of the knife so it straddles the bolster with your index finger and thumb gripping the blade but away from the edge. Your index finger should rest bent on the side of the blade and not on the spine. Your middle, ring and pinkie fingers should grip the handle.

This gives much better knife balance and keeps fingers from slipping over the handle onto the blade. Holding the bolster allows more control over the blade than gripping the handle only. While choking up on the knife may feel awkward at first, with practice it will feel quite natural and definitely reduces hand fatigue on larger jobs.

The standard options are a magnetic strip, standing knife block, drawer knife block, or knife bag. Your choices tend to depend on kitchen layout, drawer and counter space, and accessible wall openings. If practicable, I vote for the magnetic strip for the look, space use, ease of access and cleanliness. (Do not store knives unprotected in a drawer as it is unsafe, and they become easily get scratched. If space demands that you store them in a drawer, protect them with sheaths or a knife bag.)

Pamper them like your babies. The immutable rules are: wash your knives thoroughly and promptly after your meal with soap and water and dry well. Do not place knives in the dishwasher, let them stand in water or allow knives to remain soiled overnight. You can walk away from dishes, glassware, etc. to spend the night dirty — but, never ever the cherished knives.

I would strongly suggest you do what almost all professional chefs do—take them to a reputable local professional knife sharpener. If your home use is rather heavy, sharpeners usually recommend that you take your knives in every 6 to 8 months or so. (A professional chef might take his to the sharpener once or twice a week or more.) Japanese knives tend to require more frequent sharpening than their German counterparts, which are manufactured with a particularly hard steel.

Yes, you can home sharpen your own knives on a series of stones with differing grits. However, that requires some skill, and you can also easily damage the edge if not done properly. So, I choose not to embark on this one as I am wholly unqualified. Support your local sharpener.

Honing is not sharpening, but it is critical to edge retention. If you cherish a sharp edge and care for the health of your little ones, regular honing (preferably before each use) is crucial. A honing steel, which looks like a short sword with a quillion and round blade, is used to realign the metal of the cutting edge so it remains keen. Although it will take a modicum of practice, the brief honing process follows:

1) Hold the honing steel firmly by the handle in one hand, with the tip pointing straight down and anchored on a cutting board or on a folded towel on the counter.

2) Grasp the knife in your other hand, sharp edge down and the point facing at an angle away from you.

3) Place the wide or back edge of the knife blade—as close to the hilt as you can get it—against the honing steel, as close to the top of the shaft of the honing steel as you can get it. Angle the blade at about a 20 degree angle.

4) Draw the knife blade down and back toward you while applying light pressure against the honing steel at the same time, always keeping the blade at the same angle against the honing steel all the way through each stroke. Use a light touch so as to not grind the blade.

5) Place the knife on the other side of the honing steel, blade at a 20 degree angle to the shaft of the honing steel, and repeat the down-and-pull back stroke to hone the other side of the blade.

6) Continue stroking the blade of the knife along the shaft of the honing steel, all the while maintaining the same angle to the honing steel and alternating sides, until the knife edge is toned. Test the edge very carefully and gingerly with your thumb across, not along, the blade.