Hardware & Software: Buying Knives
Whether you buy your knives from one of New York's many cookware stores or on the Internet, there's one essential step to take before you buy: do some in-person research and hold each knife you plan to buy. Your knives are among the most important kitchen purchase you'll ever make and you need to feel and handle each to make sure it's right for you.
This is particularly true when you choose a chef's knife. Its balance and weight will make a difference in your skill and the experience of cooking. That's because better balance means you work less with a looser grip, which translates into more control and less fatigue when doing lots of chopping and slicing. And it's safer.
The quality of the knife and the choice of metal for the blade will make a big difference in how long the knife stays sharp and if it needs any special care. Regardless which model you're buying, here are some guidelines that apply to them all:
The Blade and Choice of Metal
- Carbon steel blades are softer and therefore can dull more quickly; they're also vulnerable to rust, making them highly impractical for a home cook
- Stainless steel doesn’t rust or stain but it also doesn't sharpen well, making them a poor choice for a good knife. If a knife has a stainless blade it probably also has a serrated edge which doesn't need sharpening
- High carbon stainless steel is the best choice for a city cook. It gives you the best of both metals: a blade that can hold a sharp edge and no rusting or staining.
When a knife is forged out of a single piece of steel -- instead of being stamped out of sheet of metal and then attached to a handle -- it is said to have a "full tang." This is a sign of a better knife. With a full tang, the portion of the blade that extends into the handle is visible on all sides of the handle.
Forged knives with a full tang are usually heavier than ones that are stamped but that doesn't mean they're more tiring to use. Just the opposite. Forged knives typically have better balance. And better balance means you need less power, less pressure, and a looser grip to get the same result from one with less balance.
Some very high quality knives, including ones by Shun, do not have a full tang but their construction is still highly effective. Moreover, many Japanese knives have edges that are ground for left or right-handed users -- another sign that a knife is a highly personal tool.
The basic elements of most knives are:
- Tip or point: The pointed end of the blade
- Heel: The back end of the blade that's found in chef's knives, Santoku knives and some utility knives. This is the thickest part of the blade and is an area that is used for heavier work such as smashing a clove of garlic
- Spine: The top of the blade
- Cutting edge: The bottom, sharp edge of the blade that does most of the work
- Handle: Includes the tang and rivets that attach the handle
- Shoulder: Also called a bolster, this is the area between handle and the blade that has the most weight and contributes to the balance of the knife.
Korin is a New York City merchant in Tribeca that specializes in Japanese knives and tableware. Their website has more information about knife construction, including the differences between western style and traditional Japanese style knives.
There are many fine knife manufacturers and they all make excellent products. Shop around and handle the knives while you think about making one of your favorite meals. When you take hold of the one that immediately feels at-one with your hand, you will have found your knife.