ABCD's of Kitchen Knives

Kitchen Knives 101
Knives come in all shapes, sizes, weights, styles, and price points. Though it can be daunting to think there is one "perfect" knife for your uses, you can narrow your choices quickly with a bit of information. This guide will help you understand the basic differences between knife lines and why you may want to choose one knife over another. It's as easy as A, B, C, D!


A for Alloy 

It's not just for car rims anymore! Simply put, "Alloy" refers to the blend of elements that compose the steel a knife is made of. Just like a cake, you can create lighter, denser, harder, or softer alloys depending on the intended purpose. Below are some of the most important elements found in common knife alloys.

  • CARBON: Allows steel to be tempered harder and sharpened to a keener edge.
  • CHROMIUM: Provides steel with corrosion resistance. The higher the Chromium content, the more resistance to rusting and staining.
  • MOLYBDENUM: Adds toughness and strength and gives steel the ability to hold its edge.
  • VANADIUM: Makes steel resistant to wear and provides resiliency and flexibility.

In the old days (think knights in shining armor, horse-drawn carriages, and a general lack of proper hygiene), "Carbon Steel" was the be-all, end-all steel. It stayed sharp incredibly well, was resistant to hits and strikes, and was easy to manufacture. The only issue: rust. Years later (think horseless carriages, bowler hats and handlebar moustaches), a new type of steel was created: "Stainless Steel." This steel stayed shiny even after use on acidic foods and the like. However, the original stainless steel did not stay sharp nearly as well as the carbon steel blades of old. There had to be a solution!

Enter "High Carbon Stainless Steel." This magical steel has the ability to stay both sharp and shiny! Although not quite as stain-resistant as the original stainless steels and unable to hold an edge quite like the carbon steels of old, the high carbon stainless alloys used in modern knives offer an excellent compromise between stain-resistance and edge retention. This is ideal for our current society, which is geared towards low-maintenance tools.

  1. Edge retention - How long it will hold an edge.
  2. Corrosion resistance - How well it can resist staining and rusting.
  3. Ease of Sharpening - How easy it is to keep sharp and to re-sharpen.
  4. Toughness & Durability - How long the knife will last.


Knife Balance 

Like a painter's brush or a construction worker's hammer, a well-balanced tool makes chores enjoyable. Balance can be quite subjective but generally speaking, a knife that feels neutral in the hand is ideal. The blade should feel like an extension of your hand, acting in unison with your forearm all the way up to your shoulder. It is important to try different knives to see which feels the best in your hand. Remember, the steel quality and other details determine a knife's quality, but a knife that isn't comfortable in your hand is a knife that doesn't get used.

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Knife Construction 

The way a knife is constructed has a tangible impact on how it feels, how it cuts, and how long it lasts.

  1. STAMPING - This is the most affordable means of manufacture. Knives are punched out of a sheet of steel, much like a cookie cutter trims shapes out of dough. These knives tend to be lightweight and manageable, but may not have the heft that some people prefer in a kitchen knife.

  2. TRADITIONAL HOT DROP FORGINGThis is how it all began: heating up steel and mashing it into shape under tons of pressure. It's a bit more precise than hot coals and sledge hammers these days, but the result is the same: heavy weight, refined grain structure and excellent edge retention.

  3. PRECISION FORGING - Blending old with new is how precision forging came to be. Using modern steel with no carbon flaws, a blank of steel is heated in specific locations to create thicker portions such as bolsters. This method ensures consistency in a product, so #1 off the assembly line is exactly the same as #367.

  4. LASER CUTTING - Like stamping, but using much higher grades of steel. Instead of cookie cutters, think laser beams. The result is still a lightweight knife, but one that generally holds an edge better due to higher carbon content in the blade compared to stamped counterparts.

  5. LAYERING - Yes, we're talking about the ones that look like the blades are wood-grained. It's not actual grain, but instead different layers of steel surrounding a hard, higher carbon core. Similar to how some samurai swords were originally formed, these blades are exceptional at holding an edge and have excellent resiliency due to their softer outer layers of steel.



Knife Design and Durability 

Ultimately a knife can be constructed properly, formed using the right alloys, and balanced like an extension of your hand, but if it isn't the right size or shape for your desired use, it simply will not perform to expectations. For instance, a chef knife will chop and slice to your heart's content, but when you need to peel an apple or take the eyes out of a potato, you'll be wishing you had something smaller.

Along with actual knife shapes, the edge is also crucial. These are some of the most common edge configurations you'll find.

 

PLAIN EDGE: Offers superior performance and ease of use for all foods when chopping, mincing, slicing, or dicing. This type of edge requires regular maintenance but can be re-sharpened over and over again for many years. Recommended on chef knives, paring knives, and boning knives. plain_edge

 

SERRATED / SCALLOPPED EDGE: These sharp teeth quickly break through the hard outer crust of breads or the tough skins of tomatoes, while not cut as cleanly as a plain edged knife and cannot be used for dicing or chopping. A good quality serrated edge can be re-sharpened. Recommended on bread knives and tomato knives. the scallops do the actual cutting. A serrated knife will  serrated_edge

 

FLUTED / GRANTON EDGE: Designed for slicing meats, fruits, and vegetables, the Granton edge creates an air pocket between the blade and the food being cut, allowing the food to fall away from the knife with less sticking to the blade. This edge can be maintained and re-sharpened like a plain edged knife. Recommended on Santokus (see "How to Select a Kitchen Knife") and carving knives. fluted_edge

 

SAWTOOTH EDGE: This type of edge cuts best when simulating a sawing motion. Saw toothed edges feel sharper than plain or scalloped edges because the teeth do the cutting. Unfortunately, this aggressive edge is unsuitable for raw meats, fish and other soft textured foods as it tears food. Once dull, most saw toothed edges cannot be re-sharpened again. Recommended on steak knives, especially when cutting medium-well or well-done meat. sawtooth_edge

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