We all spend a lot of time in the kitchen. It is the area of our house we naturally congregate and enjoying family meals. To make great food, we need the right utensils and tools. They need to suit the individual user and the tasks we want to achieve. One of the most important (and often undervalued) tools is the kitchen knife.
Whether you have been cooking for a long time, or just becoming a cooking enthusiast, generally the one tool that will improve your cooking more than any other is a good quality knife. The reason why? Here’s the short reason:
- Quality knives allow you to cut things efficiently, and safely
- If you are following a recipe, the right tools give you the right result
- Dull and blunt knives cause greater strain on your wrists and hands
Now here’s the longer answer.
There are three defining features of a quality knife that are important; the type of steel used, the weight of your knife, and the comfort of the handle. We will cover some of the main areas of each below.
"Picking the knife that’s suits the food you like to cook will save your wrists and your money, as better suited knives mean less knives needed."
Type of Steel
All knives are made of carbon or stainless steel, i.e. forged iron with small quantities of carbon, and other elements like chromium, manganese and vanadium. We would love to nerd out about all these intricacies, but for now we will keep it brief.
The ratio of carbon (and other elements) to iron, dictate whether your knife is carbon steel or stainless steel. A good rule of thumb is the higher the carbon content, the sharper the knife, but also the more likely it is to rust. Whereas stainless steel is less likely to rust, but is harder to keep a sharp edge. This doesn’t mean stainless steel isn’t sharp, nor that carbon steel will rust, instead it means we treat each knife differently.
Stainless steel knives are great allrounders and come in a range of different prices from cheap to holy-moly expensive. The cheaper they are, the faster they will dull and blunt. The more expensive they are, the better the cutting edge will stay sharp. The other upside is that you can use them on multiple ingredients with little to no rust occurring if washed properly.
Carbon steel knives are like Rolls Royce cars. Beautiful and high performing, but give it to a teenager and it might never be the same again. Carbon knives require care and respect to keep them sharp and free from rust. Introduce it to a lemon or tomato, and your expensive, beautiful knife will soon be cactus. Acidic ingredients will cause a chemical reaction with your knife, leaving a patina (distinctive rust pattern) on your once pristine knife.
We suggest starting with stainless steel for this reason. Worried you might buy the wrong knife? Don’t be alarmed, true carbon steel knives are quite rare to find these days. So unless you are buying from a dusty Parisian knife store or old town Japanese blacksmith, you won’t need to worry.
Weight of the knife
Lighter knives are easier to hold, but are more difficult to use when cutting larger vegetables and cuts of meat. Whereas heavier knives don’t require as much weight to cut through tough items, but may strain your hands with frequent use.
So what makes a knife lighter or heavier?
Whether the steel is the full length of the knife or not. Western-style knives have full-tang handles, meaning the blade steel continues throughout the handle to the butt (or back) of the knife. This makes a tougher, sturdier knife, with a slight increase in overall weight. Japanese-style knives have a different construction, with the blade steel finishing in the knife handle itself (known as a hidden or half tang).
The reason for the variation has to do with the cuisine of the country where the knife is created. Japanese cuisine is known for its intricate cuts and predominantly fish-based diet. This means knives must be lighter and designed for longer slicing cuts, like filleting fish for sushi and finely dicing vegetables for soups. Western cuisine is known for larger cuts of red meat and chopping vegetables and herbs for stews and salads.
Picking the knife that’s suits the food you like to cook will save your wrists and your money, as better suited knives mean less knives needed.
Comfort of the knife
This leads me logically to the final tip for selecting a great knife, comfort. The weight of the knife and the steel used should be well balanced to give you an enjoyable experience when preparing different parts of your meal.
Western-style knives give you greater weight toward the back of you knife (closer to the handle), which help when chopping larger starchy vegetables like potatoes, and allows you to do roll-cutting easily like cutting herbs and mincing onions.
Japanese-style knives will give you greater precision when carving a tenderloin of beef, slicing fish fillets for sushi, as well as thinly cutting vegetables for salads. This is due to the weight and balance generally being towards the centre of the knife, giving it increased control and comfort for these tasks.
Choose the knife that suits the way you love to cook, and regardless of price and country of origin, it will be your best friend in the kitchen.