Humanity would not be where it is today if not for our tools.
And the knife was undoubtedly one of the more essential tools early humans created.
Think about it:
Could you cook dinner without a kitchen knife?
Butter a piece of toast?
No, you could not.
Interestingly, kitchen knives as we know them have only been around for a short time.
From multipurpose designs to highly specialized blades, you are sure to find the right knife for your cooking task.
History of Kitchen Knives
In 2009, a group of paleoanthropologists uncovered stone knives nearly half a million years old!
That means an entirely different species of humans were using these blades, long before us homo sapiens came around.
These prehistoric knives were essentially rocks with a sharpened edge.
Since then, though, we’ve improved on these early knife designs.
Eventually, bronze replaced stone as the tool material of choice.
Bronze Age knives
Bronze Age knives had a significant advantage over their stone age predecessors: they were more durable.
Unfortunately, they also dulled easier than stone knives.
Sharpening started with stone tools. However, scientists believe that the Bronze age is when sharpening became more critical.
However, when humans discovered iron, knife technology was about to leap forward.
Iron Age knives
Just as bronze had an advantage over stone, iron had an advantage over bronze.
Iron was strong, durable, and could hold an edge. However, adding carbon to the mix created steel.
Steel changed everything.
Credit for the first true steel goes to metal workers in India. They would trade their wootz steel all over the world, from Roman territories in Europe and westward to China.
Did you know?
Fabled Damascus blades started from wootz steel ingots imported from India!
The road to kitchen knives
Here's what we found out:
Solingen, Germany is also known as the “City of Blades.” Its unique geography gave it a unique advantage for producing, and trading, world-class knives.
The city of Solingen still produces some of the best German-made cutlery in the world.
Of course, the Germans were not the only ones to create high-quality kitchen knives.
The Meiji Restoration began in mid 19th century Japan.
This period saw the end of the shogunate era and the end of the samurai.
Japanese swordsmiths found that swords were no longer in demand.
Rather than let the Meiji Restoration be the end of their craft, enterprising swordsmiths turned the skills to knife making instead.
The town of Seki in Japan has been making samurai swords for over seven centuries. Like Solingen, the city still produces world-class knives, famous all over the world.
Did you know?
Every year, the town of Seki, Japan holds a Cutlery Festival. The 2018 festival featured an entire kilometer of master swordsmiths showcasing their craft.
Modern kitchen knives
Kitchen knives as we know them today owe their design to the 20th-century advancements in stainless steel.
In the 21st century, we have a vast selection of kitchen knives to choose from. Though many popular designs and brands come from Europe and Asia, there are great knife brands from all over the world.
While stainless steel blades are still typical, Damascus steel and ceramic blades are also very popular.
Looking to the future of kitchen knives
Kitchen knives have come a long way since prehistoric times.
But what does the future have in store for kitchen knives?
That’s anyone’s guess.
Could we be looking at possible smart kitchen knives that will relay information about our food as we cut it?
Or maybe we’ll have LASER knives to cut our food with?
Just think: you can cut it AND cook it at the same time! What a time saver!
Common Knife Materials
Modern kitchen knives are made from several different materials. However, most blades are made of some type of steel.
Watch the video below:
Stainless steel is by far the most common material used for kitchen knives.
This comes as no surprise when you think about the properties of stainless steel.
Compared to mild steel, stainless steel is:
- More attractive
- More resistant to corrosion
- Lower maintenance
Toughness is a key property to have in the kitchen. If you are going to spend money on a knife, you want it to last for a long time.
That's not the only thing:
How good-looking you want your kitchen knives to be is a personal choice. But there’s no doubt that stainless steel, with its shiny exterior, is a shoo-in for “most attractive.”
Between water and acidic foods like lemons and tomatoes, corrosion is a constant danger to any kitchen knife.
While stainless steel is not entirely rustproof, it is highly resistant to rust. That gives a serious home cook one less thing to worry about.
it is low maintenance. You do not need to do anything special to maintain stainless steel aside from cleaning it.
Damascus steel blades were prized in antiquity for their legendary sharpness.
Did you know?
Damascus steel is the inspiration for Valyrian steel in Game of Thrones
Source link: https://partsolutions.com/the-real-valyrian-steel-the-lost-secrets-and-science-of-damascus-steel/
We know that Syrian metallurgists crafted Damascus blades from the wootz steel ingots they imported from India.
To the wootz steel, they mixed in composites that gave in their blades the outstanding sharpness.
Sadly, the mix of what they put into it has been lost to history.
Luckily, the technique remains.
Thanks to this, you can find modern Damascus steel blades on weapons as well as kitchen knives.
One of the hallmarks of Damascus steel is the intricate, wavy patterns on the blade.
Not only that:
Modern Damascus steel uses a variety of different steel and metals, welded together to create a composite.
This technique creates a distinctive pattern.
Did you know?
Sometimes Damascus steel is called “pattern weld” for its forging technique.
Remember when I said that stainless steel is a shoo-in for attractiveness? Well, Damascus steel gives it a run for its money!
Since Damascus steel blades are a composite of different steels of varying hardness, the metal wears at different rates.
What happens is:
In high-quality Damascus steel blades, this creates micro serrations that keep the edge extra sharp.
Caring for Damascus steel
Here's what you should know:
Like carbon steel, Damascus steel blades do require more upkeep than stainless steel.
Always wash and dry your Damascus steel kitchen knife immediately after use.
Oiling the blade lightly will help keep moisture off of it, keeping it safe from corrosion.
Part of what gives stainless steel its corrosion resistance is the inclusion of chromium in its chemical mix.
While stainless steel undoubtedly has plenty of advantages, it also has one disadvantage: it is softer than carbon steel.
This is where carbon steel has the advantage. Its hardness means it keeps an edge better than stainless.
For seasoned cooks, being able to have a reliably sharp edge on your favorite knife is everything.
Furthermore, kind of like cast iron, leather, and well-worn denim, carbon steel knives get better with age.
Because it develops a patina. The patina is a type of oxidation called magnetite.
The magnetite type of oxidation protects against corrosion, aka rust.
Caring for carbon steel
Unlike stainless steel, carbon steel blades require a significant amount of care to ensure that they stay in good shape.
Remember: any moisture left on the blade can cause it to rust.
Keep your carbon steel in good shape by washing, cutting, and drying your blade as soon as you are done with your cutting tasks.
Before putting your blade in storage, carefully wipe it down and oil it. For best results, use food-safe mineral oil as these will not go rancid.
Right now, you may be wondering:
A ceramic knife?
Ceramic knives are indeed made of ceramic, though a different type than, say, your coffee mug.
The advantage of ceramic knives is that they are sharper and lighter than steel knives.
Also, like stainless steel, ceramic blades are relatively low maintenance.
Unfortunately, ceramic does have its downsides.
For one, it’s more brittle. You do have to be careful about chipping or breakage if you were to drop your knife.
Another disadvantage is that ceramic blades are hard to sharpen. When it does need sharpening, you are best off taking it to a professional.
Wood is the classic material for kitchen knife handles. It comes in all types of grains and finishes and is endlessly versatile.
Wood handles can come in two types of finishes:
Stabilized and not stabilized.
What does that mean?
A stabilized wooden handle is resin treated. This seals the pores in the wood, making them less susceptible to warping.
Unstabilized wood is not treated with resin. This allows the wood to retain more of its natural beauty.
Unfortunately, unstabilized wood is more susceptible to water and warping.
The main problem with wood handles is that they require upkeep.
Without proper maintenance, a wooden handle, stabilized or not, can rot.
Dos and Don’ts of Wooden Handle Knife Care
- DO wash and dry the knife by hand after every use
- DO NOT put a kitchen knife in the dishwasher
- DO keep the knife out of direct sunlight
- DO NOT soak the knife in water
- DO oil the knife handle regularly
Polycarbonate is also a very popular material for knife handles.
Why is that?
Unlike wood, polycarbonate is a manufactured material and is non-porous. This makes it less susceptible to water damage and requires less maintenance than wood.
Some polycarbonate handles can even withstand the rigors of a dishwasher.
You should never, ever put any knife in the dishwasher if you want it to last!
Anatomy of a Kitchen Knife
All kitchen knives have two basic parts: the blade and the handle.
Both of these basic parts have distinct features.
The blade is the part of the knife you cut with. A kitchen knife blade is often made of metal but can also be made of ceramic and other materials. (More on that later!)
The tip of the knife is the very end of the blade. On some kitchen knives, like a chef’s knife or a santoku, this tip may be pointed. On other kitchen knives, the tip may be blunt.
On a kitchen knife, the heel is the part of the blade right before the handle.
The belly of the knife is the part of the blade between the tip and the heel. The shape of the belly differs between different types of knives.
A chef’s knife often has a curved belly. This makes it easy to rock the knife back and forth on the cutting board.
Other knife styles may have little to no curve. A boning knife has little to no curve.
The spine is the top of the blade, opposite of the cutting edge. The spine on a kitchen knife helps balance the knife. Some kitchen knives may have a larger, heavier spine. A heavier spine on a kitchen knife can add to its weight, making it better for heavier cutting jobs, such as chopping hard vegetables and bones.
Others kitchen knives may have a thinner spine. This thinner spine makes the knife more maneuverable than a thicker spined knife.
The bolster is a guard piece, next to the heel. This piece keeps your hand from slipping too far down the handle onto the blade. Bolsters are normally found only on forged blades. Stamped blades do not have bolsters.
The edge is the sharpened part of the blade.
Most kitchen knives have only one sharpened edge though there are some double-edged kitchen knives.
Did you know?
An oyster knife is an example of a double-edged kitchen knife.
There are a variety of different types of edges available on kitchen knives.
The straight edge blade is the most common type of edge on kitchen knives. Also called a “flat ground,” the blade is ground in a straight line to form the cutting edge.
A straight edge on a kitchen knife can be used in a variety of different cutting methods, from slicing to chopping to filleting.
A serrated edge on a kitchen knife can also be called a wavy or scalloped edge. This is due to its unique shape, which has teeth on the blade edge.
So, what should you use it for?
Serrated edged kitchen knives are especially helpful when slicing through soft foods like bread and fruit.
This serrated edge is especially helpful to cleanly cut your bread. (Bonus points if your bread is super-cute!)
A Granton edge combines a straight cutting edge with hollow sections that run along the blade sides.
These hollow edges create air pockets, keeping the food from sticking to the blade.
What does it cut?
Granton edge knives are ideal for cutting thin slices of cooked meats.
Hollow ground edge
Hollow edge blades grind the edge from the blade’s midpoint, forming a concave side.
The resulting blade is very thin and very sharp but also brittle.
This makes for a blade that is ideal for very precise cutting tasks like preparing sushi or peeling fruits.
Also known as the “scales,” the handle is the part of the knife you hold. Some kitchen knives have unibody construction.
In these knives, the blade and the handle are stamped from a single piece of metal.
A knife handle may be made of a variety of different materials.
Common handle materials include wood, stainless steel, or polycarbonate.
The tang is the part of the blade that goes into the handle.
Full tang knives are knives where the blade extends into the full length of the handle.
Also, you should know:
Since the blade extends through the length of the handle, full tang knives generally have a better weight and balance.
Conversely, a partial tang is where the blade only extends into a portion of the handle.
A handle fastener is what holds the tang to the handle.
Keep in mind:
Some handles are held on with rivets.
Other handles may be held on with screws.
A handle may also be affixed to a tang with an adhesive, like epoxy.
The butt is the end of the knife handle.
Types of Kitchen Knives
When it comes to kitchen knives, there are a lot of different ones you can choose from.
Whether you want a knife that can do it all or have a specific use in mind, there is a knife for that.
Where in the world?
When you go shopping for a knife, you’ll probably notice there are two main categories:
- German or European-style
- Japanese or Asian-style
Both Germany and Japan have long-standing histories making sought-after, world-class blades for warrior and culinarian alike.
German vs Japanese design
German and Japanese knives have several key differences between them, construction wise.
German: Softer steel but holds an edge better
Japanese: Harder steel but more brittle
German: Thicker edge, double-beveled
Japanese: Thinner edge, single or double-beveled
German: Full tang construction
Japanese: Partial tang, tapered in the handle
German: More multipurpose knives
Japanese: More precision cutting knives
German / Euro-style kitchen knives
These are the typical types of knives used in a Western / European-style kitchen.
A chef’s knife, also known as a cook’s knife, is the ultimate kitchen multitasker.
Most chef’s knives range in size between 6-inches to 12-inches, though 8-inches to 10-inches tend to be the most popular.
The chef’s knife has a relatively large, wide blade with a sharp point and a curved belly. It is meant to be used in a rocking type of motion.
A chef’s knife can handle a variety of different cutting tasks in the kitchen including slicing, mincing, and chopping.
The wide blade makes it easy to transfer cut food between work surfaces, like from a chopping board into a pan.
This type of knife is primarily meant for cutting thin slices of large cuts of roasted meat.
Compared to a chef’s knife, a carving knife is longer with a straighter belly and a thinner profile.
A boning knife is a specialty knife, meant for cutting meat away from the bone.
That's not all:
There are a variety of different boning knives available. These knives come in lengths between 3-inches and 8-inches.
Compared to a chef’s knife, boning knives are typically shorter with thinner blades.
Some may feature flexible blades that allow you to get in close to the bones. Others may have stiffer, more hefty blades to allow you to separate joints.
A bread knife typically longer and thinner than a chef’s knife, ranging in length from between 7-inches and 10-inches long.
Bread knives typically have a serrated edge. This serrated edge makes it ideal for cutting through crusts without tearing or crushing the softer crumb underneath.
A butcher knife is a specialty knife.
Here's the facts:
Butcher knives are typically longer, thinner, and sturdier than chef’s knives. They also feature a slightly curved blade that allows the butcher to section and trim large portions of meat.
Other specialty knives, similar to a butcher knife include the breaking knife and cimeter.
A paring knife is a small, multi-purpose knife. They come in several different styles with either a straight or curved edge to the blade.
Paring knives are useful for handling small foods and making precision cuts.
Japanese-style kitchen knives
Two features distinguish traditional Japanese style knives from Western knives.
The first is:
Japanese knives are traditionally single beveled, meaning that they are only sharpened on one side of the blade.
This single bevel makes the knife extremely sharp, perfect for precision work like cutting sushi or decorative vegetables.
Modern Japanese knives may also be double-beveled. Double-beveled knives are sharpened on both sides.
Most Japanese knife designs are quite straight with little to no curve in the blade. This is because Japanese knives are meant to be used in a pulling, straight type of motion.
Did you know?
Single-beveled knives are sharpened at a 15 to 17-degree angle. Double-beveled knives are sharpened at a 30-degree angle
The yanagiba 柳刃包丁is the quintessential sushi knife. It has a long, thin blade that can range from approximately 9-inches to 14-inches long.
Did you know?
The word yanagi means “willow” in Japanese?
While most chefs use the yanagiba for sushi, it is also great for cutting meat and other ingredients.
Takobiki タコ引 is based on the yanagiba. It is longer and thinner, designed for the long, straight cuts favored for sashimi.
The fugubiki ふぐ引き is also based on the yanagiba. This knife is specifically designed to butcher the deadly fugu or pufferfish.
A deba 出刃 is a Japanese knife used primarily for cutting fillets as well as beheading fish. These knives are typically available in lengths ranging between 6-inches and 8-inches long.
While these knives can be used for many purposes aside from filleting fish, they are not heavy enough to chop through bone.
Usuba 薄刃 is the traditional Japanese knife used for making precise cuts on vegetables.
Check out the video below:
A kamagata usuba is has a pointed tip. A regular usuba does not have a pointed tip.
This clip shows a Japanese chef demonstrating a technique called katsuramuki using an usuba knife.
What does that mean?
In this technique, a chef cuts a continuous, paper-thin sheet from Japanese daikon radish.
A nakiri is another Japanese vegetable knife. It is similar to the usuba except it is thinner and longer, meant for cutting greens.
Nakiri knives are generally between 6-inches to 8-inches long and usually feature a double-beveled edge.
A Japanese gyuto 牛刀 is the rough equivalent to a Western chef’s knife in size as well as usage. The major difference between a gyuto and a European chef’s knife is that the Japanese blade is thinner.
Is that all??
The name literally means “beef knife” and as such, it is particularly adept at cutting meat.
A gyuto typically comes in a range of 8-inches to 10-inches long. It may be single or double beveled.
The santoku 三徳包丁 knife is a multi-purpose life. Like the gyuto, it is similar in use to a Western knife.
Santoku knives are usually double-beveled.
Chinese cleaver 菜刀
While Japanese knives are popular in Western kitchens, they are by no means the only type of Asian knife style out there.
When it comes to versatility, the Chinese cleaver (菜刀 Càidāo) is the ultimate multitasker.
Stay with me:
Need to slice and dice? Or maybe crush and mince?
A Chinese cleaver has all that covered.
Check out the video:
The wide blade on a Chinese cleaver makes it easy to move food from place to place, such as from a cutting board to a bowl.
There are two main types of Chinese cleaver:
The chopper and the slicer.
As the name suggests, a chopper is adept at chopping food. It is a heavy cleaver, with much of its weight in the heel of the knife.
This is great:
Especially for cleaving through large cuts of meat, bones, and hard vegetables like squashes.
The slicer is thinner and weighs less than the chopper, with the majority of its weight in the front edge of the blade.
How to Choose a Kitchen Knife
All right, I admit:
The sheer number of different knives out there is overwhelming.
So the question is:
How do you choose the right kitchen knife for you?
Check it out:
What tasks do you need to do?
Think about what kind of tasks you need to do in the kitchen.
For your average (or not-so-average) home cook, you will need to slice, dice, and chop your food.
Are you still overwhelmed by the number of knives you have to choose from?
Well, I have some good news!
You only really need three different knives to do most of what you need to do in the kitchen.
The Only Three Knives You Need
- Chef’s knife
- Paring knife
- Bread knife
These three knives will cover most everything you will need to do in the kitchen.
If you can only afford one knife, go with the chef’s knife.
The chef’s knife is the most versatile and will give you the most value for your money.
If you prefer Japanese style knives, try a santoku or a gyuto. Either of these knives is the equivalent of a chef’s knife in versatility.
How much maintenance are you willing to do?
Do you really want to spend a lot of time taking care of your knives?
Remember: different knife materials need different levels of care.
Carbon steel and Damascus steel need more care than stainless steel.
Likewise, a wooden handle also needs more care than a polycarbonate handle.
While that carbon steel, wooden handled chef’s knife may look appealing, remember you will need to care for it like a baby.
(Okay, not quite, but it does need a lot of care!)
If you are not ready for quite that much responsibility, stick with a stainless steel blade and a polycarbonate handle for a low maintenance option.
How much work are you going to do with it?
Think about how much cutting you anticipate you will be doing with your knife.
You want whatever knife you choose to not only be durable but also comfortable in your hand.
If you anticipate doing a lot of slicing and dicing, you will want a knife that won't be too heavy.
How to Cut Safely with a Kitchen Knife
Kitchen knives are sharp.
And of course, you want them to be sharp. But you also need to be safe while you are using them.
Here are three quick ways to make sure you are cutting safely with your kitchen knives.
Use a stable cutting surface.
Always use a cutting board or other stable, flat surface to do your cutting.
If you are using a cutting board on a slippery surface, put a non-slip grip underneath it.
Need a quick non-slip grip?
Use a damp towel!
Use a firm grip
Don’t be afraid of your knife!
A loose grip is a recipe for disaster
Curl your fingers
If you like your fingers (and who doesn’t?) you will want to pay attention to this.
When you are holding on to the food on the board, curl your fingers under, like a claw.
Keeping your fingers outstretched is a good way to cut them off.
And no one wants that!
Learn more in the video below:
Additionally, make sure that you are not raising the knife above your knuckles. This helps to keep your fingers safe.
Watch your motion
If you’re using a chef knife (or santoku or gyutoku), you want to use a sort of rocking motion., sort of like a wave, when you are chopping.
Bonus: study techniques
If you are serious about learning to cut safely, studying and practicing basic knife techniques will help you stay safe!
Caring for Your Kitchen Knives
Once you’ve chosen the best knife (or knife set) for you, it’s time you learn to take care of them.
Here are a few simple tips to care for your new knives.
Just say no to the dishwasher
So you see this dishwasher?
If you learn just ONE thing from all this, let it be this:
NEVER PUT YOUR KNIVES IN THE DISHWASHER.
I’ll repeat myself because it’s THAT important:
Knives never go in the dishwasher.
Even the low-maintenance, stainless steel bladed, polycarbonate handled knives.
Dishwashers use very hot water, harsh detergents, and strong sprays of water to get your dishes clean.
While this is great for your dishes it is NOT great for your knives.
All that hot, soapy water is a great way to ruin the edges on your blades. It can also warp your blade handles.
Even polycarbonate handles aren’t safe from the dishwasher. The hot water can still warp the rivets or the adhesive that holds the handle to the tang.
General care directions
So how should you care for your knives?
Start off by cleaning your kitchen knives with mild dishwashing soap and warm water.
Then, dry it off immediately using a paper towel or a dish towel.
If you have a wooden handle, be sure to dry the wooden handle thoroughly.
If you have carbon steel or Damascus steel blade, oiling your blade will keep it from rusting while you store it between uses.
Keeping Your Edge
After buying a great knife, you want to keep it sharp!
Even if you buy the best knife in the world, it will dull over time. It’s just a fact of life.
But a dull knife is a dangerous knife.
Learn to hone and sharpen your kitchen knives to keep them in top shape and safe!
Honing versus sharpening
People often confuse honing with sharpening.
These tasks seem similar but vary in important ways.
Honing is a process where you bring the existing edge back into alignment.
This can realign a slightly dull blade but won’t make a dull blade sharp.
Sharpening takes steel off of the knife to re-establish a worn down edge.
Types of sharpeners
If you need to sharpen your kitchen knives, there are a few different types of sharpeners you can try.
A whetstone is a flat stone that you can use to sharpen your knife. Whetstones are relatively cheap but they take some practice to use correctly.
A manual knife sharpener allows you to pull a knife through it at the correct angle to sharpen. Manual sharpeners are relatively inexpensive and often have several grades of abrasives.
The downside is:
Manual sharpeners cannot repair extensive damage.
Like the manual sharpener, an electric sharpener lets you pull a knife through to sharpen. These can repair extensive damage to a knife.
Electric sharpeners can be expensive. If you have a knife with a bolster, it may not fit through the sharpener.
A Cut Above
From prehistoric times to modern day, kitchen knives and their predecessors have helped to keep humanity fed.
While there are a lot of different knives out there to choose from, it is not hard to find the right knife for you.
Whether you choose to start out with a chef’s knife or you’re looking to collect a whole drawer full of top quality knives, there is something out there that will suit your needs.