© Randal Oulton
A Knife is an implement for cutting, chopping, scraping, spreading and smoothing. It is used both in the kitchen and at the table.
It consists of a blade attached to a handle. Most knives have the handle at the end, and that’s where your hand applies pressure and energy. A few kinds have the handle over the blade, so that your energy comes down right on top of the blade. Some people consider wooden handles less sanitary than metal, plastic handles or plastic impregnated wood, because they feel that the wooden handles can absorb bacteria (see however, the debate about wood in the entry on chopping boards.) Others dislike wooden handles because they feel that they have a shortened lifespan if the knives are regularly put through the dishwasher. Many people base their opinion of a knife on the handle alone.
A knife is something very personal that you have to feel comfortable with. Food authorities can hector people’s mothers all they want about how they should be using chef’s knives instead of paring knives, but won’t get them to switch to a knife that they distrust. Some regard a knife as something that has to last them a lifetime. Others regard it as a tool that they’ll replace when they’re no longer happy with it — if they get ten years out of it, they are the knife owes them no money, and they are ready for a change, anyway.
There are two types of cutting, push and pull:
- Pull cutting occurs when you slice something, or use a bread knife;
- Push cutting occurs when you chop something.
Some knives, such as a chef’s knife, can be used for both push and pull cutting; others are used for either pull or push.
Brands make different qualities of knives. Some are stamped, some are forged. Some are lighter, some have more heft. You don’t have to have a matched set of knives from only one brand, though many people base their purchase decisions on how much they trust a particular knife brand.
It’s hard to generalize about what metal is best for knife blades, as so many alloys are now possible. Carbon steel generally sharpens up well, but its appearance will eventually discolour so that the blade takes on the colour of gun metal. Acidic food in particular will discolour carbon steel blades. Some people, though, like the patina they take on.
Stainless blades will keep their appearance better, but when made as hard as carbon steel, they are harder to sharpen, and can chip. Some are carbon steel to provide a better knife edge, and covered in stainless for a better facing.
French style knives tend to be triangular with just a bit of a curve. German style knives are triangular, too, but have a more pronounced curve on the lower edge of the blade that allows for more rocking. Japanese-style knives ones have a sudden curve close to the tip. Japanese knife aficionados prefer carbon steel.
Rockwell Numbers are used to indicate how hard the metal in a knife is.
- 50 to 55: Relatively soft. Resists chipping, sharpens easily.
- 58 to 61: Getting hard. Hard to sharpen at home. Stainless can be brittle at this level, though carbon steel won’t be.
Knife Edges and Sharpening
Knives need to have two angles, referred to as “bevels.” The angles on each side are not necessarily the same. It may be 9 or 12 degrees on one side, 18 or 24 degrees on the other. The finer the bevel on the knife, the less long it will hold its edge. Harder steel holds its edge longer, but is harder to sharpen.
One kind of knife will hold an edge the best, but will also be the same kind that is the hardest to sharpen again, so there’s no perfect choice. Chisel-ground knives are sharpened on only one side — many Japanese knives are sharpened this way. Western knives tend to be sharpened on both sides.
Sharpening is both a science and an art. Some knife aficionados advise that you sharpen your knife after every single use. For these people, the science of sharpening becomes a hobby, and their knowledge of it part of their self-identity. They are appalled that some people consider knives mere “cutting tools.” Such traits seem for the most part to be found in men. Sharpening knives is a very “macho” thing: many men like to spar by bandying technical terms and Rockwell numbers at each other.
Most people, however, when buying knives are the exact opposite. The thought that the knife will one day need sharpening doesn’t cross their minds. Instead, they think about how much they want to spend on the knives overall at that moment, without allowing for a sharpening system. A sharpening system becomes an afterthought a few years later. Many people solve the sharpening problem by locating someone local to whom the knives can be taken to be sharpened. This is probably best because if you’re going to sharpen very expensive knives yourselves, you have to take time to learn what you are doing. Serrated knives particularly require special knowledge to sharpen them.
Some cynics feel that “never needs sharpening” means “can’t be sharpened.”
In storage, knives should be kept in a knife block or on a magnetic holder. If the knife blades bang together in a drawer, they can be damaged or dulled. Storing knives in a drawer is also dangerous for someone fishing around in the drawer.
Glass cutting boards are notorious for dulling knife edges.
The Dishwasher Debate
Those opposed to putting knives in a dishwasher say that knife edges will go dull in a dishwasher. Some reputable knife companies such as Henckels, though, say good ahead and put your knives in a dishwasher: just make sure that the blade edges won’t bang against things. Still, other problems may arise: wooden handles may look like worn over time, and if the handle is joined with bolts, they may come loose. Many say though, that they don’t regard a knife as an heirloom item, and are happy to put theirs through the dishwasher for the convenience and replace as necessary years down the road.
Henckel Knives: 2 men versus 1 man
The Henckel knives with 2 men on them are Henckel’s premium line, made in Solingen, Germany. The Henckel knives with 1 man on them are Henckel’s value line, made overseas in other countries such as Spain and China.
“[In nineteenth century London] ‘Knives to Grind’ men carried a grinder powered by a small foot-treadle in their carts. With this they sharpened scissors and knives for housewives (3s for a dozen able-knives, or carving knives at 4d each in 1827), honed cleavers at markets, and even whetted penknives for office workers in the days before steel-nibbed pens were common. Until the invention of stainless steel, knives could not be immersed in water, as the pin holding the blade to the handle rusted and the knife fell apart. By the 1850s, men walked the streets [of London] with patent knife-cleaning machines: the knives were inserted blade first into a box and when a handle was turned the blades were buffed by emery paper.” — Flanders, Judith. The Victorian City. London: Atlantic Books. 2012. Page 148.
Literature & Lore
Perhaps no other kitchen item has as much superstition attached to it as a knife:
- Giving a knife to someone will sever your relationship. To counter this, give a penny with the knife (usually taped to it). The person receiving the knife then gives the penny back to you. That way, the knife is being bought. It is no longer a gift, and the curse has been averted;
- Placing a knife under a bed in which a woman is giving birth will help cut the pain;
- Never cross two knives, or a quarrel will break out;
- If you drop a knife, never pick it up yourself, or you will fight with someone;
- Dropping a knife means a man will soon visit you;
- The only person who should close a pocket knife is the person who opened it;
- Never stir with a knife: “Stir with a knife, stir up strife”;
- A knife is never truly yours until it has bitten you and tasted your blood.
Parker Bowles, Tom. How to keep your edge: Twenty-five years in the making… The Stradivarius of kitchen knives. London: Daily Mail. 18 September 2010.