The best uses
for each shape and size knife:
How and of what it's made,
and what each part does:
High-Carbon Stainless Steel
it should feel:
How to keep it sharp
and at peak performance:
Care and Maintenance
How to Order Knives
This Guide is intended to teach you how to choose a knife based on the following criteria...
Of the numerous shapes and styles, made to perform every
the most useful include the Chef, Paring, Slicing and Utility knives.
Chef's Knife -
Also known as the French Chef's Knife, it is the work-horse of the kitchen.
It has a very broad blade (called the Flat) and can range in length from six
to twelve inches; the eight inch size being the most popular. The Chef's
Knife is used for all the chopping, mincing and dicing tasks and is
essential for vegetables.
This knife is generally used on a cutting board by rocking it on its gently curving edge, using the tip as a stationary pivot. Its broad blade keeps knuckles from hitting the cutting board.
Use its back to break chicken bones and scrape foods from the board. Use the flat side for crushing things like garlic.
Chinese Chef's Knife
- Frequently referred to as a Chinese Cleaver, because of its similar shape
to a meat cleaver, this is the Asian version of the French Chef's Knife.
The Japanese prefer a version with not as broad a blade, called Usuba, which most westerners find easier to handle, since its size more closely approximates the Chef's Knife.
Use only its back to break chicken bones, and also to scrape foods from the board. Use the flat side for crushing things like garlic.
Paring Knife -
Sporting a short blade, usually no more than four inches in length, and in a
variety of shapes and curves.
It is used to peel, carve and prepare vegetables, fruit and other foodstuffs that can be held in the hand. Handiest for close-up work like eyeing potatoes, and great for boning chicken. But it is unsuitable and possibly hazardous when used for large, chunky foodstuffs.
Slicing Knife -
Having a very narrow, thin blade, usually eight to twelve inches long, it is
used to cut very thin slices of foods, especially meats. The more flexible
it is, the easier it will be to get a thin slice.
Some slicers have a curving or scimitar-style tip to assist in tight spots, like between wing and breast of chicken.
Smaller slicing knives, such as for use in preparing sushi, are only sharpened on one side, so as to lessen resistance on the flat side and thus get a thinner slice.
Ceramic knives in general make excellent slicers because of their thinness and incredible sharpness.
Utility Knife - Just like the one grandma always used, this all-purpose knife is usually about six inches in length and narrow. Folks who feel that a chef's knife is too large and cumbersome will find this knife easier to use. Use it also when you feel that a paring knife is too small for a task.
Other types of more specialized knives may also be useful to you:
Bread Knife and Tomato Knife - This type of knife has serrated edges, enabling it to pierce a hard crust or skin without bruising or crushing the delicate insides. Lengths are available from about five to twelve inches. These cannot usually be easily resharpened, but because the primary cutting edge is in the curved part of each serration, they rarely need sharpening.
Ham Slicer - Also called Granton or Kullenschliff, it is differentiated from a regular Slicing Knife by its edge. What may look like a series of serrations are actually hollows along the edge of a flat blade, alternating in location between the two sides. The air pockets in these hollows keep food from sticking to the blade, consequently producing ultra-thin slices from most fish and boneless meats. This fragile knife is legendary for Roast Beef and Lox slicing, and a well-kept secret for crumb-less slicing of layer cakes.
Cook's Knife - This is a handy second knife, sized between a chef's knife and a utility knife. Many find it more comfortable to use because of its smaller size.
Cleaver - The very broad, thick blade of this knife and its heavy weight make easy work of cutting bone, splitting ribs and getting through gristle. Its thick edge will not chip easily. And the heavier in weight, the easier it is to use. (It should be noted that this is distinct from the Chinese Cleaver which cannot be used for cutting bone.)
Boning Knife - Generally five to six-and-a-half inches in length, it features a very narrow blade. A stiff boning knife is good for boning beef, but a very flexible boning knife is preferred for poultry.
Fillet Knife - Similar to a Boning Knife, its thin blade is six-and-a-half to nine inches in length and should be quite flexible. It is ideal for filleting fish or chicken.
Mezzaluna - This half moon-shape knife has a rounded blade (or blades) with handles at each end that are perpendicular to the cutting surface. A smaller version of this knife has one handle at the center of the blade. A Mezzaluna is used to mince foods on a cutting board or in a wooden bowl and is perfect for making quick, easy work of herbs and nuts.
Clam and Oyster Knives - Both have very short, broad blades, usually one to three inches in length. The clam knife is longer with a rounded tip and the oyster knife, with a protective hand shield, is shorter and has a sharp tip.
Other Specialty Knives include ones for grapefruit (serrated on both sides with a curved tip), frozen foods (with coarse saw-like teeth), cheese (with cut-out in the flat of the blade or a non-stick edge, and an upturned pointed tip for serving; short, wide and pointed for hard cheeses; or 12" or longer and with two handles for slicing large rounds of cheese), sushi (with only one edge sharpened to get a thinner slice - see Slicers, above), and a myriad of specialized cutting and shaping tools.
Among your kitchen cutting tools, you should also possess the following indispensable items:
Scissors - A good pair of kitchen shears should be made of stainless steel, to prevent corrosion, and the blades should come apart, to facilitate cleaning. They are handy for mincing and, if equipped with a notch and a serrated blade, for cutting small bones and the skin of poultry or fish. Be sure they are comfortable to hold.
- This utensil is a maintenance tool for every straight bladed knife in your
kitchen. For best results, it should be used every time you use a knife.
Contrary to the connotations carried by its name, a regular metal steel will not sharpen a dull blade. Rather than removing metal to sharpen, its purpose is to realign the edge of the blade, which dulls with the pressure and friction of normal use.
Diamond-studded and ceramic steels will do a much better job in sharpening a dull edge, but care must be taken to not overuse them, since they remove metal with every stroke.
Crock-sticks and other fixed-element tools make it easier to maintain the correct angle of the blade, but use them sparingly to avoid excess removal of metal.
Cutlery Sizes - Note that knife sizes usually indicate the length of the blade; scissors are usually sized from tip to heel; steel sizes usually exclude the handle.
Superior materials, flawless construction and a
are the qualities that go into making a good knife.
High-Carbon Steel - Also called Cutlery Steel, it is no longer widely available. Professionals agree this is the best metal used for cutlery primarily because it holds an excellent edge and is quite easy to sharpen. It is somewhat brittle, so care should be taken not to drop it. It has a tendency to rust if it is not dried thoroughly after use; just scour and keep using it if it rusts. And because of steel's reaction to acids and alkalis, it can easily discolor; but this does not affect the other good qualities of this type of knife.
High-Carbon Stainless Steel - This alloy has become the most popular of metals used in knife construction because of its rust and stain resistant quality. It does not hold its edge quite as well as high-carbon steel and is not quite as easy to sharpen; nevertheless, its convenience and ready availability make it the most popular choice in better cutlery.
Stainless Steel - This alloy is so hard that it strongly resists sharpening. Although it remains sharp longer, once it loses its edge it can become another disposable item. Recent advances in technology have produced some never-need-sharpening knives that do hold up for many years. Note that knives in this class almost always lack the quality, balance and feel of good tools. They remain a viable alternative for those who do not wish to care for or to sharpen their cutlery.
Titanium - The
better titanium knives are made with a sintering process on a matrix of
titanium (Ti) and carbides (carbon combination), using powder metal
technology (instead of metal casting). The sintering process melts the
elements and recombines them under great heat and pressure. The carbides in
the alloy allow for the blades to be heat-treated to a hardness appropriate
for cutlery. Very lightweight and durable, they stay sharper longer than
steel and are relatively easy to sharpen.
Titanium coated, or titanium edged, knives do not have the same quality as those made wholly of titanium or titanium and alloys, and have a relatively short useful lifespan, since the edge hardness is usually lost after a few sharpenings.
Ceramic - This
material is both strong and brittle. It is stronger than steel and has an
edge that is remarkably thinner than steel, so cutting is made considerably
easier, and the edge can last significantly longer with proper care. Because
of their brittleness, relative to steel, ceramic knives are best used for
slicing (not chopping), because they can be made very thin and with a
remarkably sharp edge.
Zirconium oxide, aluminum oxide and other ceramics, in pelletized form, are melted to form this very hard, very dense material. There is no chemical reaction between the blade and acidic or alkaline foods, unlike with steel blades.
Because of the lightness of ceramics, they do not have the heft you might expect of a metal chef knife, for example. Though not as fragile as one might expect, nevertheless care should be taken not to drop it, to avoid breaking off the tip. Sharpening and repairs are done on diamond hones.
Plastic - With the primary goal of keeping veggies from changing color as they're cut, plastic serrated knives have become more popular of recent. They are not very sharp and some force may be required, so we don't highly recommend them.
Forged - This is a process whereby metal is treated, in different steps, to enhance its hardness, density and flexibility. Forged knives are often heavier and better balanced. They are easier to keep sharp, and, with care, can last for generations. You can usually recognize such a knife most easily by the presence of a prominent bolster between handle and blade; a few forged knives are made without a bolster.
Stamped - Such knives are cut or stamped out from flat metal. They do not undergo the steps associated with forging and are thus lighter in weight, are usually not well balanced and not as comfortable in the hand. Because the metal is not as dense as that of forged knives, they don't hold their edge as well. Stamped knives with a high carbon content are usually easier to sharpen and to keep sharp than less expensive knives made of stainless steel with a high chromium content.
Other - Ceramics and some metals are sintered, that is, melted separately and mixed together to form a stronger alloy or component. Some forged knives have parts that are manufactured separately and sintered together to form a knife of good quality at a lower cost than forged knives, and which blades perform just as well as fully forged blades.
Sometimes the weight and handling of a particular knife outweigh the importance of other considerations and make a stamped knife a better choice in a knife. For most applications, we generally recommend forged knives, especially chef knives and straight edge slicers; perhaps complemented by some stamped metal knives such as steak knives and other serrated edge knives, as well as a spare paring knife or two. We recommend ceramic knives for delicate slicing and cutting tasks, and titanium knives for those who desire a good quality all purpose lightweight knife.
Bolster - An integral part of most good knives, it is a thick piece of metal between the handle and the blade, made to add weight to the knife, provide it with better balance and a comfortable resting place for the hand. It is sometimes called the shank.
Tang - This is the part that runs from the bolster back into the handle. The best knives have a full tang, and, except for some of the sealed-handled knives, it is visible on the top, back and bottom of the handle, held securely by multiple rivets. A half tang is the next preference, visible on top and back of the handle, but not on the bottom.
Handle - Usually
made of wood, plastic, a combination of the two, or metal. The handle
envelops the tang, and is usually fastened by rivets or encased in the
plastic or metal.
Wood offers an excellent grip but requires regular care; keep it out of water and rub occasionally with mineral oil.
Plastic may become somewhat brittle in time, and can be slippery in the hand.
Plastic-impregnated wood has properties similar to wood, but requires less care and lasts longer.
Some new materials, like polyoxymethylene, offer an excellent grip and comfort, plus they will last almost forever.
Metal lasts longer, adds extra heft, and can be slippery or firm; try them first.
And every manufacturer sports differing sizes and ergonomic designs. A handle that is perpendicular to the blade can be very comfortably used to overcome physical impairments.
Back - Opposite the sharp edge, the back, or spine, is thick on most good knives, except for carvers and slicers, to provide strength to the blade. It can also be used to scrape the cutting board after cutting. Note that, on forged knives, it tapers from the bolster to the tip.
Flat - This is the wide, flat part of the knife. It can be fully tapered from the back down to the edge, a quality usually found in better knives. In most lesser quality knives, it is hollow-ground to form a distinct inward curve toward the edge. The flat can be useful in crushing things like garlic.
Point - At the tip of the knife, the point should be sharp and relatively thin. It is used, in many knives, for incisions, for cutting small delicate items and for carving.
Edge - This sharp
part is either flat ground, hollow ground or serrated. In better
non-serrated knives you'll find mostly flat ground edges, though a few still
sport hollow ground ones with their thinner blade easier to keep sharp.
A good edge is made through a three-step process, ground at three different angles to give them a sharper, longer-lasting edge.
If you want to choose a knife that will be useful to you, the process might entail more than just picking one that is of good quality and that is supposed to perform the tasks chosen for it. Consider how important it is that the knife is comfortable to hold, use and to maintain.
Before purchasing it, ask to hold it and to use it on a cutting board as you would at home. Ask about the level of care required to keep its edge sharp. Ask for a demonstration on how to maintain the edge, and practice what you learned before leaving the store.
Knife edges should be regularly realigned using a steel, or a device similar to it, to keep the knife sharp and safe. A sharp knife is safer because of the effortless way in which it does your bidding; accidents can occur with dull knives because of the extra effort that it takes to push the blade through the food and the slipping that can occur.
A few easy strokes, alternating sides, holding the edge at about a 20-degree angle from the steel, is all it takes to keep it sharp. Remember, the secret is to be gentle; don't push too hard. If you find using a steel difficult or uncomfortable, there are small units with miniature steels or ceramic discs aligned at the proper angle for foolproof maintenance.
A steel ideally removes only a minimal amount of metal from the edge. Over a period of time, however, perhaps a year or two under normal household use, enough metal is removed that the edge requires sharpening by grinding.
Diamond studded steels remove a lot of metal from knives, and should be used sparingly as a regular maintenance tool. As should ceramic steels.
Utensils with sharpeners at pre-set angles, such as crock sticks and hand-held-sharpeners, should also be used sparingly, since they usually are made of ceramic or other hard substances that will remove a lot of metal. They do, however, make it easy to hold the knife at the right angle and are recommended for anyone who doesn't particularly care to steel their knives every time they use them.
There are several machines on the market that can be purchased for grinding, such as the Chef's Choice. Choose one of good quality that will not damage your knife. Or, better yet, take it to a reputable sharpening service. Like us, they should sharpen and repair almost any knife with the same care and quality that is given to restaurant and chef clientele.
We do not recommend sharpeners that comes attached to a can opener, or a heavy grinding wheel. These remove too much metal, shortening the life of your knife, and may create hot spots, indicated by bluing marks, that remove the temper from the blade, making it difficult to keep sharp.
If you have the time and inclination, you can use sharpening stones, preferably Arkansas stones, which are known for their consistent quality. Inexpensive stones are usually made of stone granules, glued together with epoxy, which interferes with the sharpening process and usually provides meager results, especially as they get older.
In sharpening stones, there are different grades of coarseness to suit each task. The coarsest stones are used for the first step, holding the blade at about a 15-degree angle, followed by medium and fine stones for the remaining steps, ending up at about a 20-degree angle. The final step is called honing.
Stones must be used in conjunction with a medium of honing (light mineral) oil or water, and, once you start with one, continue using the same medium for the life of the stone. And be sure to clean your stone regularly with a bristle brush, to remove metal filings.
A good quality knife should never be subjected to the harsh detergents and scalding temperatures of a dishwasher. Also, the thrashing of utensils, which is likely to occur, is likely to damage the sharp edge of the knife.
Certain food acids can stain even the most stainless of knives, so it is good practice to always wipe a knife clean right after each use. Don't let foodstuffs dry on the blade, because the knife then becomes more difficult and hazardous to clean.
We suggest that you get into the habit of cleaning it right away; simply lay the blade on a flat surface, carefully wipe one side with a wet cloth, then the other. You should, however, use soap and hot water to clean the knife after it has been used to cut poultry, meat or fish.
A knife is best stored away from other utensils that might damage the edge by contact. Keep it in a wooden or polyethylene block or in a sheath especially made for this purpose. In a slanted block with vertical openings, store knives with their edge up.
We recommend wooden or polyethylene cutting boards, which create the least resistance against the edge of a knife. Avoid cutting on ceramic, metal or other plastic surfaces, which would quickly dull a knife's sharp edge.
Wash your cutting boards after each use. Be especially careful to wash them and your knives with hot, soapy water immediately after cutting poultry, meat or fish products and before cutting anything else on them. Sanitize them by letting stand a solution of water and bleach on the surface for a short time.
For safety's sake, to diminish to likelihood of cross contamination, consider owning one cutting board for fish, another for poultry, and a third for other cutting tasks.
Plastic cutting boards can go in the dishwasher; wood boards should be carefully washed by hand. A thorough washing and air drying diminish the likelihood of germs remaining on the surface. Controversies around which is better, wood or plastic, have been somewhat inconclusive. It remains that if you keep different ones for meats and for vegetables, clean the boards well, let them air dry thoroughly, and store them in a well ventilated area, you won't have any problems with contamination.
For information on maintaining wooden cutting boards, please see our tutorial on Wood Care.
We want you to be happy with your new knives and we are always glad to show you how to properly use and care for them, for a lifetime of satisfaction.