Your Good Knives
Posted by March 7, 2012 in Featured Articles, Homepageon
Your knives are central to your experience in the kitchen. If you haven’t had a chance to buy good knives before, there’s no time like the present to make an investment of a lifetime.
Generally speaking, there are small (paring), large (chefs) and medium sized (utility) knives; these are general knives for most everyday use and should be good quality. On top of these are specialty knives, which are made to suit specific cooking and food preparation tasks. You can create your own combination of general and specific use knives, according to how and what you cook, or you can buy a knife set or knife block to save some money off the final package.
A good knife block set will usually contain the three essentials: Chef, paring and utility, plus the two most popular specialty knives, the carving and bread knives. Beyond that is up to the individual set, some come with a pair of scissors or shears, others may have a sharpening steel or a carving fork. Of course, one of the main appeals of a knife block is how the actual block looks, but the knives themselves are what you’ll be using every day!
The language used by knife makers can be a little confusing for the uninitiated, so here are a few of the terms used and what they mean.
High Carbon Stainless Steel
There are literally hundreds of types of stainless steel, each with different proportions of the elements iron, carbon, chromium and other metals. Different proportions give different qualities, but generally high chromium and low carbon will be shiny and corrosion resistant, while low chromium and high carbon will be duller and more susceptible to rusting. There’s a twist, however, that means that low chromium/high carbon holds a keener edge than high chromium/low carbon. Hence, top quality knives are almost always made from a high carbon stainless steel formula, the exact elements and proportions of which vary from company to company.
Tang refers to the handle type, specifically how the metal of the blade interacts with the handle. In some knives, the handle and the blade are simply joined at their intersection point, this is called hidden tang. In other knives, the handle forms a casing over the same piece of metal the blade is made from, this is called full tang and is identified by visible metal in the rear of the handle, and possibly exposed rivets in the handle. The other type, a kind of half way point, is unattractively called a ‘rat tail tang’ or concealed full tang, where the metal of the blade extends into the handle, but only as a small cylindrical bar. The arguments for different types of tang are, simply, that a full tang will be stronger where a hidden tang may snap at the join point. In practice, however, the benefit of this is not so significant.
There are two ways to fashion a product from steel: forging the shape out from hot, raw metal, or stamping out a shape from a large piece of rolled metal. The main difference is that with a stamped piece of metal, its thickness and shape is going to be uniform. When a knife is forged, however, there is more control over the shape of the blade, so it can be thicker at the top than at the blade edge, and might have a wide bolster right near the handle. Typically, forged knives are better than stamped knives – they’re certainly more expensive – but there’s nothing inherently bad about a stamped blade. Some very high end knives are made from stamped metal, and sometimes the high price of forged knives is only indicative of the higher cost of manufacturing.
You’ve probably heard the name Damascus in the news lately – it’s the capital city of Syria. That swords made from Damascus steel were originally made in the Syrian city is one theory for where the name comes from (there are others), but what is a certainty is that it has incredible strength. Unfortunately, the original method for creating Damascus steel was lost by around 1750, but historical relics prove its existence and legendary sharpness. Besides its strength and sharpness, the most striking feature of Damascus steel is its incredible striped pattern. Modern ‘Damascus steel’ knives obviously aren’t made from historical Damascus steel, but they do mimic the beautiful banded design of Damascus and the same laminated fashion of multiple layers of different types of steel. Besides the appearance, there are real benefits to tailoring different types of metal (different proportions of elements, as discussed before) to different points in the blade, delivering soft and easily sharpened metal at the blade point, and more durable metal at the top. It might not be 18th century middle eastern steel, but it does look very striking.
One of the main things that distinguish knife designs are their points. This refers to how the top and the bottom of the blade meet at the end. A triangular point is where they meet in the middle, creating a sharp point. This is good for piercing, poking and separating – it’s very agile. Square points are where the top and the bottom stop abruptly, forming a tall, blunt end. These types of knives are likely to be up-and-down choppers and cleavers. Most notably on the bread knife, French Point types are where the bottom extends further than the top, met by a curved point. This allows the point to break gently into foods, while keeping the blade straight. There are lots of different variations here, the main one being a sort of ‘reverse’ French Point, where the top extends past the bottom, forming the very sharp tip seen on boning knives.
Looking after your good knives
When you spend a lot of money on your good knives, you want to ensure that they going to last a long time. Knives are one of those things where the better they are, the more care and attention they need. Unless you’re a chef, your knives shouldn’t be so demanding as to take up time every day, but a few general rules should help you to get the best from your good knives.
All types of bleach are oxidants, which mean they will corrode stainless steel. The same goes for any stainless steel sinks or taps you have in your house – they look great right after being bleached, but look terrible shortly after with splotches, bits of rust and discolouration. If you have to bleach your knife for food safety reasons, make sure it is diluted and rinse & dry thoroughly.
A contentious issue! Most knives will say they are dishwasher safe, but speak to any expert and they’ll recoil in horror. Dishwasher detergent is corrosive, to do the cleaning of the dishes without your scrubbing, and that can dull the blade. They also agitate water quite roughly, which can damage delicate items. The rule of thumb is that nothing will happen if you put your good knives in the dishwasher now and then, but don’t make a habit of it. After dishwashing, make sure they’re taken out immediately, and give them a bit of a rinse, polish and a sharpen. If that sounds like more effort than just rinsing them in the sink to start with, you’re probably right.
The main rule in keeping your good knives performing well is to keep them clean. Don’t let food dry on them – food acids and bacteria can corrode the stainless steel, causing discolouration and dulling of the blade. Obviously, for food safety reasons it’s important to clean the knife after cutting raw meat, but you should apply that same logic to all kitchen tasks. Rinse in hot water, wipe it clean and keep it on hand for the next task. That way, once you’re done in the kitchen, the knife should be clean enough to go back into storage without being washed again. Rinsing knives in cold water can cause oils and fats to stiffen and stick to the blade, so only use hot water with a soapy cloth or sponge.
Your sharpening routine will depend on how you use your knives, and how much you rely on your knives being in good shape. A butcher or professional chef will devote a lot of time to this, whereas the irregular home cooker doesn’t have to worry so much. The important thing is that you do have a routine.
- Honing: Use a sharpening steel or a fine sharpening element to give your knives a polish. You can do this as regularly as every day, and you probably should do it no less regularly than once a week. This smooths out any imperfections, and keeps your knives performing well between major sharpening
- Sharpening: When your knives start to become dull, even with regular honing, it’s time for a sharpen. This is achieved with a medium coarse sharpener, and requires a little work. You can buy a sharpener for this purpose, or take your knives to the butcher (or, sometimes, the manufacturer) to let a professional do it.
- Redefining: All knives will benefit from a heavy sharpening once every year or so, but this is mostly for knives that have been damaged or are severely blunt. Redefining the edge will forge a new edge and make the blade feel brand new again. Some consumer sharpeners will do this for you, otherwise see a professional.
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