"Because there are so many different varieties of knives, customers often ask which ones are essential for the home cook. Although there are many specialty pieces, one's first two investments should be a chef's knife and a paring knife. After that, you can begin adding knives such as a utility (slicing) knife, bread knife, boning knife, cleaver and any other specialty knife designed for a specific type of preparation," says Broadway Panhandler's owner, Norman Kornbleuth.
Most professional chefs consider their knives to be their most essential and personal tools. Since knives can be equally important for the home cook, Broadway Panhandler suggests considering the following factors when selecting knives.
Forged vs Stamped
Forging and stamping are the two major knife manufacturing processes. Stamped knives are generally stamped several at a time from sheets of steel. The blade of a stamped knife is fitted into its handle and is not considered one fluid piece of equipment. They are usually thinner, lighter and lack the balance of forged knives; therefore, requiring a firmer grip and more pressure when chopping, mincing, etc. Forged knives are individually made and the handle is riveted or molded around the tang. Their increased durability and balance compared to a stamped knife offset the higher required investment.
Blades of forged knives are produced when steel is heated to a very high temperature, set into a die and hammered to form the blade. The metal is hardened after being exposed to an extremely high temperature and then cooled by ice or in a chemical bath that contracts the steel and makes it dense. This process produces a brittle blade, so another heating and cooling treatment, called tempering, relaxes the internal stress, making a more flexible blade. Coarse to fine grindings then create the taper and give the desired amount of flexibility. Finally, the knife is sharpened and honed to create the cutting edge. The greater attention given to developing a forged knife results in a heavier, front weighted blade that has a distinct bolster, a thick band of steel that lies against and perpendicular to the handle.
Long before metallurgy and knife making reached the current technology where high-carbon stainless steel blades became standard, low carbon or carbon steel blades were the best and sharpest available. Low carbon steel blades flourished for over 3000 years before stainless steel elements were added to the metal recipe.
Carbon Steel Blades
Carbon knives use metals that primarily contain iron, carbon and silicon with trace elements of tungsten, titanium, copper, manganese and others. Using a low proportion of carbon allows low carbon steel kitchen knives to be softer and more resilient than other cutlery steel. The edges of carbon steel knives can easily be made razor sharp and easily be re-sharpened when dulled.
Because the low carbon blade is relatively soft it can get dulled fairly easily. But if used and maintained properly it can keep its razor sharpness almost continuously as it can be so easily honed back to its original condition. Low carbon steel cutlery requires regular and careful handling and maintenance. If left wet, carbon steel cutlery will rust and corrode. After each use the knife should be rinsed and dried immediately. Darkening and discoloration is a normal reaction to the acidity of certain foods and will not degrade the blades performance. Keep a thin coat of mineral oil on the blade if not in use for an extended period of time.
Stainless Steel Blades
Following WWII cutlery manufacturers started to experiment with stainless steel blades in order to eliminate the rust and discoloration issues associated with carbon steel knives. Stainless steel elements include iron, carbon and silicon with the addition of chromium, nickel, molybdenum, vanadium and host of trace metals. What they found was that the stainless steel metal could not be easily sharpened and was a poor choice for fine quality professional cutlery. It seems that the addition of nickel to the recipe degraded the benefits of carbon, which allows for edge retention and re-sharpening capabilities. Most stainless steel knives in production today have serrated blades that do not require sharpening (i.e. Ginsu and Chef Tony).
High Carbon "Stainless" Steel Blades
By eliminating nickel from the stainless steel recipe and increasing the proportions of carbon, chromium, vanadium and molybdenum, the currently available cutlery steel is known as high-carbon "stainless" steel. This steel has high corrosion resistant qualities and the potential to have blades that can hold razor sharp edges for an extended period (compared to low-carbon steel) and be re-sharpened easily. Cutlery steel continues to evolve with new technology and enhanced sharpening techniques. The search for an even better blade continues as new trace elements are added, proportions are revised and the tempering process adjusted.
Handles are typically made from hardwood, polypropylene plastic composition, or a combination of wood with infused resins. Composition handles can be molded into an ergonomically designed grip and wooden handles can be equally well shaped.
When considering a specific knife, pay close attention to how the handle is fitted to the blade. This is one of the few areas in which you can really see the craftsmanship and hand finishing. It is the defining factor of a high quality knife. The handle should be securely attached to the blade, should provide a secure grip and should not slip when in use. Be sure that there are no separations between the handle, the tang and the rivets. Crevices are very hard to keep clean and may harbor bacteria.